1. 67

There was a change in management at my work which means I may be looking for a job sooner rather than later. I’m okay with that, however - I never felt like I was doing anything meaningful for humanity.

Which leads me to ask: do you feel like you’re doing something meaningful at work? To whatever your definition of meaningful is. If so and you don’t mind saying, what do you (or what does your company) do?

  1.  

  2. 57

    Meaningful is…overrated, perhaps.

    A survey of last four jobs (not counting contracting and consulting gigs, because I think the mindset is very different)

    • Engineer at small CAD software startup, 50K/yr, working on AEC design and project management software comfortably 10 years ahead of whatever Autodesk and others were offering at the time. Was exciting and felt very important, turned out not to matter.
    • Cofounder at productivity startup, no income, felt tremendously important and exciting. We bootstrapped and ran out of cash, and even though the problems were exciting they weren’t super important. Felt meaningful because it was our baby, and because we’d used shitty tools before. We imploded after running out of runway, very bad time in life, stress and burnout.
    • Engineering lead at medical startup, 60K/yr, working on health tech comfortably 20 years ahead of the curve of Epic, Cerner, Allscripts, a bunch of other folks. Literally saving babies, saving lives. I found the work very interesting and meaningful, but the internal and external politics of the company and marketplace soured me and burned me out after two years.
    • Senior engineer at a packaging company, 120K/yr, working on better packaging. The importance of our product is not large, but hey, everybody needs it. Probably the best job I’ve ever had after DJing in highschool. Great team, fun tech, straightforward problem space.

    The “meaningful” stuff that happened in the rest of life:

    • 3 relationships with wonderful partners, lots of other dating with great folks
    • rather broken family starting to knit together slowly, first of a new generation of socks has been brought into the world
    • exciting and fun contracting gigs with friends
    • two papers coauthored in robotics with some pals in academia on a whim
    • some successful hackathons
    • interesting reflections on online communities and myself
    • weddings of close friends
    • a lot of really rewarding personal technical growth through side projects
    • a decent amount of teaching, mentoring, and community involvement in technology and entrepreneurship
    • various other things

    I’m a bit counter-culture in this, but I think that trying to do things “meaningful for humanity” is the wrong mindset. Look after your tribe, whatever and whoever they are, the more local the better. Help your family, help your friends, help the community in which you live.

    Work–at least in our field!–is almost certainly not going to help humanity. The majority of devs are helping run arbitrage on efficiencies of scale (myself included). The work, though, can free up resources for you to go and do things locally to help. Meaningful things, like:

    • Paying for friend’s healthcare
    • Buying extra tech gear and donating the balance to friends’ siblings or local teaching organizations
    • Giving extra food or meals to local homeless
    • Patronizing local shops and artisans to help them stay in business
    • Supporting local artists by going to their shows or buying their art
    • Paying taxes

    Those are the things I find meaningful…my job is just a way of giving me fuckaround money while I pursue them.

    1. 14

      I’m a bit counter-culture in this, but I think that trying to do things “meaningful for humanity” is the wrong mindset. Look after your tribe, whatever and whoever they are, the more local the better. Help your family, help your friends, help the community in which you live.

      Same (in the sense that I have the same mindset as you, but I’m not sure there is anything right or wrong about it). I sometimes think it is counter-culture to say this out loud. But as far as I can tell, despite what anyone says, most peoples’ actions seem to be consistent with this mindset.

      There was an interesting House episode on this phenomenon. A patient seemingly believed and acted as if locality wasn’t significant. He valued his own child about the same as any other child (for example).

      1. 9

        I pretty much agree with this. Very few people have the privilege of making their living doing something “meaningful” because we live within a system where financial gains do not correspond to “meaningful” productivity. That’s not to say you shouldn’t seek out jobs that are more helpful to the world at large, but not having one of those rare jobs shouldn’t be too discouraging.

        1. 4

          Meaningful is…overrated, perhaps.

          I think specifically the reason I asked is because I find it so thoroughly dissatisfying to be doing truly meaningless work. It would be nice to be in a situation where I wake up and don’t wonder if the work I spend 1/3rd of my life on is contributing to people’s well-being in the world or actively harming them.

          Even ignoring “the world,” it would be nice to optimize for the kind of fulfillment I get out of automating the worst parts of my wife’s job, mentoring people in tech, or the foundational tech that @cflewis talks about here.

          Work–at least in our field!–is almost certainly not going to help humanity. The majority of devs are helping run arbitrage on efficiencies of scale (myself included).

          I think about this a lot.

          1. 10

            In general I find capitalism and being trapped inside of capitalism to generally be antithetical to meaningful work in the sense that you’ll rarely win at capitalism if you want to do good for the world, no matter what portion of the world you’re interested in helping.

            A solution I found for this is to attain a point where financially I don’t have to work anymore to maintain my standard of living. It’s a project in the making, but essentially, passive income needs to surpass recurring costs and you’re pretty much good to go. To achieve that, you can increase the passive income, diminish the recurring costs, or both (which you probably want to be doing. Which i want to be doing, anyway.

            As your passive income increases, you (potentially) get to diminish your working hours until you don’t have to do it anymore (or you use all the extra money to make that happen faster). Freedom is far away. Between now and then, there won’t be a lot of “meaningful” work going on, at least, not software related.

            [Edit: whoever marked me as incorrect, would you mind telling me where? I’m genuinely interested in this; I thought I was careful in exposing this in a very “this is an opinion” voice, but if my judgement is fundamentally flawed somehow, knowing how and why will help me correct it. Thanks.]

            1. 8

              Agree re. ‘get out of capitalism any way you can’, but I don’t agree with passive income. One aspect of capitalism is maximum extraction for minimum effort, and this is what passive income is. If you plan to consciously bleed the old system dry whole you do something which is better and compensates, passive income would be reasonable; if you want to create social structures that are as healthy as possible for as many people as possible, passive income is a hypocrisy.

              I prefer getting as much resource (social capital, extreme low cost of living) as fast as possible so you can exit capitalism as quickly as possible.

              1. 1

                Are you talking about the difference between, say, rental income (passive income) and owning equities (stockpile)? Or do you mean just having a lot of cash?

                1. 1

                  Yes, if you want to live outside capitalism you need assets that are as far as possible conceptually and with least dependencies on capitalism whilst supporting your wellbeing. Cash is good. Social capital, access to land and resource to sustain yourself without needing cash would be lovely, but that’s pretty hard right now while the nation state and capitalism are hard to separate.

                  1. 1

                    Do you ever worry about 70’s (or worse) style inflation eroding the value of cash? In this day and age, you can’t even live off the land without money for property taxes.

          2. 3

            Work–at least in our field!–is almost certainly not going to help humanity. The majority of devs are helping run arbitrage on efficiencies of scale (myself included).

            This 100%. A for-profit company can’t make decisions that benefit humanity as their entire goal is to take more than they give (AKA profit).

            1. 2

              Sure they can. They just have to charge for a beneficial produce at a rate higher than the cost. Food, utilities, housing, entertainment products, safety products… these come to mind.

              From there, a for-profit company selling a wasteful or damaging product might still invest profits into good products/services or just charity. So, they can be beneficial as well just more selectively.

            2. 2

              I think you’re hitting at a similar truth that I was poking at in my response, but from perhaps a different angle. I would bet my bottom dollar that you found meaning in the jobs you cited you most enjoyed, but perhaps not “for humanity” as the OP indicated.

              1. 1

                What is the exact meaning of “run arbitrage on efficiencies of scale”? I like the phrase and want to make sure I understand it correctly.

                1. 5

                  So, arbitrage is “taking advantage of the price difference in two or more markets”.

                  As technologists, we’re in the business of efficiency, and more importantly, efficiency of scale. Given how annoying it is to write software, and how software is duplicated effortlessly (mostly, sorta, if your ansible scripts are good or if you can pay the Dread Pirate Bezos for AWS), we find that our talents yield the best result when applied to large-scale problems.

                  That being the case, our work naturally tends towards creating things that are used to help create vast price differences by way of reducing the costs of operating at scale. The difference between, for example, having a loose federation of call centers and taxis versus having a phone app that contractors use. Or, the difference between having to place classified ads in multiple papers with a phone call and a mailed check versus having a site where people just put up ads in the appropriate section and email servers with autogenerated forwarding rules handle most of the rest.

                  The systems we build, almost by definition, are required to:

                  • remove as many humans from the equation as possible (along with their jobs)
                  • encode specialist knowledge into expert systems and self-tuning intelligences, none of which are humans
                  • reduce variety and special-cases in economic and creative transactions
                  • recast human labor, where it still exists, into a simple unskilled transactional model with interchangeable parties (every laborer is interchangeable, every task is as simple as possible because expertise are in the systems)
                  • pass on the savings at scale to the people who pay us (not even the shareholding public, as companies are staying private longer)

                  It is almost unthinkable that anything we do is going to benefit humanity as a whole on a long-enough timescale–at least, given the last requirement.

                2. 1

                  Care about your tribe, but also care about other tribes. Don’t get so into this small scope thinking that you can’t see outside of it. Otherwise your tribe will lack the social connections to survive.

                  Edit: it’s likely my mental frame is tainted by being angry at LibertarianLlama, so please take this comment as generously as possible :).

                  1. 1

                    Speaking of that, is there any democratic process that we could go through such that someone gets banned from the community? Also what are the limits of discussion in this community?

                3. 25

                  The more I learn about the world, the less meaningful my work becomes. A narrow view is much easier to live with, in a sense.

                  For example, I currently help software developers learn via my books and courses. I’d like to think that it’s useful to some people, but I also know that the way we teach things is really ineffective, the technologies themselves are needlessly complicated and much too short-lived, and computing generally falls short of what I think is its true goal: augmenting human intellect. I do find it hard to see the point of it all sometimes.

                  Even more broadly, is it really meaningful for anyone to learn yet another framework or language du jour, however nice it is, when there are so many urgent environmental problems, for instance?

                  I realise it’s an issue of perspective. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone to drop what they’re doing and instead attack climate change or plastic pollution. It’s also perfectly valid and useful to contribute to society in the area of your skills and expertise. It’s just that I personally find it hard to ignore the broader context once I’m aware of it.

                  1. 30

                    How do I phrase this without sounding like a horrible show-off? I’ll try to make my job sound not meaningful and meaningful and you’ll find some truth in both and have to judge for yourself.

                    Modern, JavaScript-capable Web Browsers: An experiment to download untrusted code from the web and run it on your computer, without allowing the code to take over your computer. Still trying.

                    Most, if not all other relevant web browsers exist purely to support a business model, strengthen vendor lock-in, get user data beyond search orgenerate revenue for shareholders. I’m working for the alternative web browser, which answers to no one but its users. We’re competing with the biggest and most valuable corporations in the world and I think we’re doing rather OK. I help this product being a secure choice for hundreds of millions of people.

                    1. 11

                      I just want to pipe in and say thanks for working on the development of Firefox. I have been a long time advocate and never really jumped onto the Chrome (or Chromium) bandwagon. As a web developer, FF has always been a much better platform to debug in (starting with Firebug and then its integration into the default FF inspector and dev tools), and new HTML/CSS/JS features always seemed to hit Aurora instantly. That statement always seems to start interesting debates with Chrome-jockeys where they tend to show me things I already have in FF.

                      I see by your hat you’re on the security team, but I thank you nonetheless.

                      1. 2

                        Ditto. I get tired of watching people take pot shots at Firefox because it’s a big target. From where I sit it is the last best hope for a truly open web browser that has anything like mass market penetration, and that’s important in all caps, bold and with flames erupting from every letter.

                      2. 9

                        I tried to answer the “is your work meaningful” question.

                        What I’d find more interesting: Do you find your own work meaningful (personal view in contrast to assuming objectivity) and what aspect makes it meaningful to you.

                        1. 1

                          I think that’s a fair update to the question!

                      3. 16

                        Nope. That’s why I quit tech. What to do next, I don’t know.

                        I worked at a popular streaming service for the past 7 years.

                        1. 5

                          Have you considered working a tech position for a successful non-profit like a hospital? Probably face plenty of BS like anywhere else in tech but at least doing net good with range of pay available. If you feel you need out, though, then good luck on next move whatever it is. :)

                          1. 8

                            First of all I’m leaving the US and moving back to the Nordic (Iceland.) I had a really hard time in the Bay Area, such incredible wealth distributed so unevenly. I’d step over homeless people who might not even be alive, on my walk to work, and feel less human every day. The treatment of my own mental health issues was also appalling, and I knew I’d be one of those people if it got bad enough (or more realistically, I’d be deported.) Once I’m back in a place that’s got the basics right (IMO) my quality of life won’t be tied to my salary/work benefits so much, so that will make it easier to find something that feels meaningful, I think.

                            1. 5

                              Yeah, they do seem to take care of their own much better in the Nordic countries. I’ve enviously noticed that. Well, if they have good place to live that’s cheap and reliable Internet, then you should be able to find good remoting opportunities. Maybe a mix of local and remote, too, if trying to balance something that will definitely keep paying you vs something fulfilling that’s uncertain over time.

                            2. 7

                              I second this. Get into non-profits.

                              For example libraries are facing an incredible challenge – to aggregate knowledge and make it widely accessible. Right now, when you research a topic, you evaluate scattered pieces of information from all over the web or maybe fire up an outdated library search engine to find some papers that never made it to the Google-verse.

                              Can’t we do any better?

                          2. 16

                            I took a job at a hospital a number of years ago building applications for internal clinical use. I get to talk to physicians, see how they’re using my applications, and how they improve outcomes for the patients. Knowing that the apps I work on directly affect patient care makes the work feel a lot more meaningful than any other job I’ve done previously.

                            1. 5

                              Been thinking about OP’s question and people who work close to the medical field for some time. Glad to know it’s fulfilling.

                              1. 7

                                I just left a small startup in the Rochester, NY area called Bryx (https://bryx.com), and we’ve gotten some incredible feedback from people saying how much easier their lives are that they don’t have to sit, blocked, waiting for pagers and faxes to be able to get routed to fires and EMS calls.

                                It’s incredibly fulfilling.

                                1. 3

                                  Awesome. The feedbacks help a ton.

                                  1. 3

                                    That sounds amazing. Would you mind going into a bit more detail about Bryx? If you’re allowed to say, what sort of technology/languages/stack does it use?

                                    1. 1

                                      Just saw this reply. The API is entirely implemented in Kotlin, the backend receiving jobs from departments and putting them into our (for better or worse) MongoDB instance is all Python. The Android app is a mix of Kotlin and Java, and the iOS app is entirely Swift. We have a desktop Electron app and a management site that are written in TypeScript. We’re really big fans of the new developments in programming languages and we’re huge fans of type safety. Specifically, we like type safety because our old PHP API caused so, so many bugs in production from accidentally misspelling variables and a lack of enforced structure.

                                      1. 2

                                        Thank you, that’s really interesting.

                                2. 3

                                  Please could you describe the applications a bit more? In particular, what sort of languages/software stack/environment do you use? I have occasionally thought about doing something similar - mostly when I get depressed about working for morally dubious people - but my skills and experience never seem to be a good fit.

                                  1. 2

                                    I actually did an interview about my work recently here.

                                    1. 2

                                      Cool, thank you.

                                3. 11

                                  Oh god, no. My work is 99% dealing with complete nonsense, 1% doing something mildly interesting. They have this catch phrase here: “change banking for good,” but I’ve never seen anyone do anything to that end or even mention it beyond the ra-ra corporate meetings.

                                  I actually am in the middle of getting a new manager right now. I love my old manager and am really unimpressed with the new guy. Realistically, I’m looking at finishing my year out here and moving on.

                                  1. 5

                                    “change banking for good,” but I’ve never seen anyone do anything to that end or even mention it beyond the ra-ra corporate meetings

                                    If you’re working for a run of the mill, state-enforced cartel member bank, then yeah, they’re not interested in changing anything.

                                    1. 1

                                      Hmm, I’m not sure which banks you’re referring to. I work at Capital One for what it’s worth.

                                    2. 1

                                      Oh god, no.

                                      🤣

                                    3. 10

                                      I have found meaning by:

                                      1. Letting go of thinking that I, at 34, will do something that will meaningfully change the world. I am too late in my life to realistically expect me to have one of those Big Ideas, and I came too late to the party of realizing I found meaning in making the planet better (I am really ambivalent about humanity, whereas when I grew up I felt like technology would improve everything for everyone, which is not a belief I hold anymore). I think you and I have had very similar feelings, I felt very much like the world wasn’t benefitting from what I did, so why bother?
                                      2. Assuming I won’t have that impact I think I should make, my best bet is to act as an enabler for someone who can. So I work on foundational products like cloud systems, backend APIs, that sort of thing. The cheaper and more accessible foundational systems get, the more likely I can enable someone that will do something amazing. That way I don’t have to buy into the vision of a consumer product in order to get meaning. Consumer products come and go and very few are ever going to make the world a better place (maybe the last one was Facebook or even as far back as Google Maps). Two years ago I took a position to try and optimize for the day-to-day (working on smaller systems after burning out on a big one) that caused the enabling dimension to suffer, and I lost my sense of purpose and meaning. That has affected my excitement about my work much more negatively than the issues of what I left.

                                      I think of projects like Mozilla, cloud, even something like Tensorflow or Kubenetes, as being these kind of enablers.

                                      Sure, the most meaningful thing in my life is my family. The most meaningful things in your life are almost certainly going to be outside of work. I’m trying to do more meaningful things like Hour of Code and encourage girls and minorities into STEM (again following the enabling track). But it is important, I think, to find some sort of thing you can extract from the day-to-day as worth it to you, otherwise you’re just going to stop getting out of bed.

                                      1. 3

                                        I think when I posed the question, your second bullet point is what I secretly wanted to hear the most.

                                        1. 3

                                          Last night, I saw that @cflewis and @freddyb as two sides of same coin in terms of doing meaningful work in IT. One is making sure it’s easy to create things that benefit humanity using technology. One is making sure it’s easy to consume them. In each case, you want what you make to be designed for high uptake for one. Usability, marketing/branding, and cost trumps internal tech on either of these almost every time. Then, if dollars and/or code contributions are rolling in, you can use your influence to make sure whatever it is goes in public-benefiting rather than predatory directions.

                                          Firefox is actually a good example where they make money off ad-driven search but let you do private search easily. Always having an affordable, private version of anything ad driven is another example. On organizational side, you might charter or contract in basic protections/benefits for everyone from employees to users. On the technology stack, you might build on better foundations to shift more money or effort into quality tech that deserves it. Quick example from my field would be things like routers most half-ass with shoddy tech instead using OpenBSD, secure admin interface, and automatic updates. On web side, it might be those using tech like Erlang to be efficient and highly-reliable with big, success stories getting more people investing in its tooling.

                                          There’s a lot of possibilities that involve doing something that people want to use or buy that’s just more effective and/or less evil than the norm. Sadly, the norm has so much of those two that there’s plenty of ways to differentiate on those. The relief being that there’s plenty of ways to differentiate on those. :)

                                      2. 8

                                        I’ve wrestled with this question during my career too. Recently I’ve joined a technology cooperative and I’m finding a lot of meaning and satisfaction in supporting my colleagues and helping other coops to form and do the same. Although the work I do hasn’t changed too fundamentally (working with Rails and doing some data analysis) it feels more meaningful to me.

                                        1. 5

                                          technology cooperative

                                          Would you mind elaborating on this concept?

                                          1. 10

                                            We’re structured as a Worker Cooperative which means in practice that we all own the business equally and there are no external share holders. In addition we’ve commited to following the “7 principles” - although exactly how we do that is one of the most interesting parts for me of running an organisation like ours. There’s a growing network of worker-owned cooperatives in the technology sector in the UK called CoTech which is very interesting to be a part of. There’s some really interesting things happening around how we cooperate between companies.

                                            Does that help? I’d be happy to answer any questions!

                                            1. 5

                                              Here are three I saw on HN a while back: Loomio, IO Cooperative, and Feeltrain.

                                          2. 8

                                            When it comes to programming, I’ve found that meaningful work is orthogonal to getting paid for it. At this point, the only way to make money through programming is either by doing some boring, menial task nobody else wants to do, or by controlling and manipulating others in some form.

                                            So, to answer your question, no.

                                            1. 8

                                              I find my work meaningful. I make web apps for independent magazines and book publishers, and my work helps keep them in business. I like our clients and I think THIER work is important, so that’s very rewarding.

                                              Besides the actual software development/billable client work, my company is very small and worker-run, so I do a lot of business-y sort of work. I find that work meaningful too because we’re trying to create a very different sort of tech company with values and practices that we believe in.

                                              1. 7

                                                Meaningful work to me means something that lets me challenge my skills, interact with good people, and do overall more good than harm to the world (human and natural).

                                                My current and previous jobs have been deeply meaningful.

                                                I currently work on autonomous vehicle software. I work with great people, am constantly challenged to deepen and expand my skills and knowledge, and I personally believe this is a place technology will improve and save human lives and decrease our stress on the environment. It is only “overall” improvement, because there will be a generation of displaced workers who will suffer, as there has been with most large economic shifts. We as a society, and I as an engineer, still don’t have an answer for them.

                                                Previously I worked in a “personal robotics” research lab, where the goal was primarily assistive care robots and robotic arms for the people with disabilities. I found that work deeply meaningful on all counts as well.

                                                Earlier jobs were much less meaningful. The companies were uninspiring and sometimes monopolistic, the work quickly became humdrum, and many coworkers would sooner throw you under a bus than help you, or simply did not care about the work they were doing. Like you, I realized I wasn’t satisfied.

                                                I was able to move to more meaningful work because of three things:

                                                • I asked myself what the hardest, more interesting problem I could work on was (my answer was non-military robotics)
                                                • I was able to take a biiiiig pay cut and still feed my son because my wife also works and was very supportive
                                                • Most things with impact are hard, and you’ll find lots of good folks to work with at the intersection of hard and impactful.
                                                1. 6

                                                  I’m the guy on the backstage who indirectly makes the mobile telephony work. Kinda, I guess?

                                                  1. 6

                                                    We design and produce rugged VoIP phones used on industrial and roadside installations. They run 24/7; some are out in the field for over a decade with uptimes measured in years. I know they were used a few times by people caught in tunnel fires and accidents. Nothing really on the scale of what paramedics of firefighters do, but it is satisfying anyway.

                                                    1. 1

                                                      This is cool. May I ask you what I’ve asked a couple of other people in this thread: what does the software stack look like for these devices? I’d love to know what technologies (programming languages, software stacks, etc.) are used in tech jobs that don’t suck.

                                                      1. 4

                                                        Sure, it’s nothing unusual. Heavily patched Linux, busybox, userspace code is in C99 for the most part. A bit of Verilog on the side for FPGA-based peripherials controller. Java for the operator’s mass provisioning application. Plenty of work went into device drivers, especially audio codec driver to get the best performance: we have highest possible Speech Transmission Index score. Status reporting and management via Modbus and SNMP, and a special subsystem dedicated to self-diagnostics and failure reporting.

                                                        1. 1

                                                          Thanks, that sounds fun.

                                                    2. 6

                                                      As the years go by, I am lowering my expectations from my work. There is only so much stuff you can accomplish and only so many spoons to move during a day. So yes, since it puts food on the table it is meaningful. No I am not working to save lives in general and my work by extension cannot be used in such a context (I mean a programming language designer may end up developing a language that could be useful to biologists; my work is not even that).

                                                      My worry is that other people always do more interesting work. But the thing is when you get the chance to go to the place that does interesting work, you see that in the general case it is not as exciting as when you were observing from the outside.

                                                      What makes me happily worried is that certain people look at me and have directly told me they consider me as a kind of mentor. So if I live up to their standards they may fly off and do some more meaningful work than mine.

                                                      1. 6

                                                        Super thankful that I finally can get to do what I love: bridging the gap between academia (namely programming language and type theory research) and the real world. Also working for a great boss who shares my common interest in finding the balance between correctness and shipping on time seems to have done wonders to my mental health.

                                                        1. 5

                                                          Work directly in humanitarian field. Can honestly say it would be hard for me to go back to working for a for-profit organisation or project. But then, it’s not easy working in the humanitarian space at all. Yeah it’s a great feeling to have some kind of positive impact on the world, but at the same time, your failures can be a hell of a lot more disastrous and emotionally, physically and psychologically damaging than they normally would be.

                                                          I’m split between my desk and being in the field in pretty remote locations, so I’ve seen locally the effects of what I build and I interact with every single one of our admin users on a daily basis. Every morning I wake up, turn on my computer and am immediately bombarded with things like the number of children under 5 who have died from cholera last night. If you aren’t able to tuck these things away it will emotionally ruin you.

                                                          There is no such thing as 9 to 5, you probably won’t have benefits of any kind, you’ll forever be a consultant contractor despite what you do being a critical part of the solution to things and you’ll find yourself fighting to get the funds you need and the commitments you need in order to even do what you need to do at a base line level never mind trying to expand and support more.

                                                          I’ve been on the brink of financial ruin multiple times because of contract delays, bureaucratic delays, lack of funding and more. For years I couldn’t get additional funds to pay for the infrastructure to actually power our systems and paid for it out of my own contracted pay, with an ever-increasing cost, my own income was dropping steadily month after month. Being faced with the decision to choose between feeding your family and shutting down critical systems is not a position you ever want to be in.

                                                          Do I feel like what I do is meaningful? Oh most definitely, is it challenging? Constantly. Does it impact peoples lives indirectly or directly? Certainly. Am I content or happy in my work? Absolutely not.

                                                          I think it’s too easy to conflate being happy/contented with doing something meaningful. Meaning has a different definition to everyone, for instance for me, the people that actively develop the tech that underpins ours are doing immensely valuable and meaningful work, without the work that they do, our systems wouldn’t exist. And that doesn’t just mean the people that build the solutions, but the people that enable it, the people that market it or evangelise it, the people that finance it. All these people have roles that they do that contribute to the meaning that their output has in equal ways. The truth is for most things out there, you can’t really know 100% all the things that what you’ve built are going to be used for. Some projects ask for users of their solutions to tell them what they used it for, but most of us don’t. Even if you develop something small and you think it’s trivial, nowadays it could end up anywhere being used for anything.

                                                          Being happy is a completely different thing though, my happiness isn’t conditioned upon the work that I do being meaningful, my work definitely has meaning, but it doesn’t make me happy or content, on the contrary it’s the single most stressful, utterly absorbing thing in my life. The things that make me happy are completely external to it, spending time with my kids and wife, building things with my daughter, watching her learn to read and understand the world around her. My work is challenging, at it’s worst, it’s all-consuming and stressful and involves me flailing about to try and find solutions to complicated problems on my own. That may sound “fun” or “exciting” but it’s psychologically damaging when it’s constant and unabating while you’re dealing with all the additional stresses.

                                                          It’s all a bit more complicated than it just being if you do definitively immediately meaningful work you are automatically content and happy or feel like you have purpose. There are so many environmental factors around you that influence how content and happy you are that prescribing “meaningful work” as the solution to unhappiness isn’t really going to make a massive change in your life. If you’re young, you still may not have found things that actually make you properly content or happy in the doing. I can easily list off a number of things that make me content and I enjoy doing that are completely external to what I do for a living. For some people all they might need is a minor pay bump so they have a little more disposable income to do some things they really want to do, or a bit more vacation time to travel to somewhere you really want to go every year, some extra personal time at work to work on ideas and things that actively contribute to the org you work for or expand its vision, being part of a team that has influence within the organisation, being given control over a project, etc… increased responsibility will give more meaning to your work.

                                                          A simple example, is becoming the manager of a team. The moment you become a manager, you are responsible for those people under you, you are responsible for leading them to success in what they’re doing, and their success will in most cases directly equate to increased standards of living for them and their families, potentially prestige, increased sense of self-worth, career advancement, etc… even with a small team of just 2 people, being responsible for the future success of those people is definitely meaningful even if they may not look at it the way that you do as a manager.

                                                          1. 1

                                                            I think it’s too easy to conflate being happy/contented with doing something meaningful.

                                                            Then you’ve never done something meaningful. Keep looking.

                                                            Meaningful work (see other post about pointlessness of this conv without definition), that breaks the artificial barrier between ‘leisure’ and ‘work’ and is mostly connected to things that are about wellbeing of you and your social groups is directly related to you and your community being happy and contented. (Also obv. being ‘happy’ needs definition).

                                                            If you’re interested in useful ways to think about meaning or happiness, start here: http://neweconomics.org/2018/01/wellbeing-what-works/?_sft_latest=campaigns

                                                          2. 5

                                                            It really depends. I don’t think en mass my work is benefiting society as a whole, but I do believe the work I have done, and collaborated on, has benefited our business, and our IT team individually. I’m sure the product that’s produced from our software fits the needs of the customers very well and benefits their lives. I just happen to not be the target market for the product whatsoever.

                                                            Will anyone on lobste.rs benefit from what I do? Doubtful. Does that bother me? Not at all.

                                                            1. 5

                                                              If a job provides me enough money to buy books, help people that need it, and splurge on a few gadgets here and there I guess I’m content enough. Is what I do meaningful? Not in anyway. Perhaps on a very micro level. No, probably. I just turned 30 so…maybe I’m just a bit sad nowadays.

                                                              1. 5

                                                                I am able to provide for my significant other and family, so in that sense it is meaningful, in the sense that my relationships with these people create meaning in my life.

                                                                Inherently, is work meaningful? No. Is anything inherently meaningful? No.

                                                                1. 4

                                                                  Very. The turn of phrase you used “meaningful for humanity” is interesting. You should definitely pursue a line of work that makes you feel good about what you do.

                                                                  I’ve had the opportunity to work with the human genome project, a company that did fundraising for the Barack Obama campaign, It Gets Better, and innumerable other fantastic causes. Those were without a doubt meaningful jobs.

                                                                  However, meaning can be found in all kinds of ways. For the last couple of years I’ve worked with Amazon Web Services in the EFS group. I find this job every bit as meaningful as those others, but in a different way. I get to come in every day and contribute to a service that breaks the CAP theorem, working with incredibly smart talented people the likes of which I’ve not seen elsewhere. I am constantly facing tough challenges and growing both in terms of skill set and as a human being.

                                                                  Is that as “meaningful to humanity” as when I worked with the human genome project and my office mate was a scientist who was working on a cure for dengue bonebreak fever that kills thousands in the third world every dady? Absolutely not. But this job is every bit as meaningful to me personally and in many ways more so.

                                                                  Good luck with whatever path you take. We’re very lucky to work in an incredible industry with all kinds of amazing opportunities!

                                                                  1. 4

                                                                    I find it to be. But I suspect my employer would be a bit nervous about me explaining my full thought process to the general public, so you get the abbreviated version.

                                                                    The company serves ads to people. My job involves, in part, thinking through the ethical questions about how that should be done.

                                                                    I do take the point other people have made that work doesn’t have to feel meaningful for humanity - it’s strictly optional. At the very least, it’s allowing you to live your life, and that’s a form of meaning. And perhaps it generates funds that you can put towards supporting other people’s work which you find more meaningful than your own, and that’s valid too.

                                                                    Everybody’s job satisfaction functions are different, and it’s very personal what goes into that. Also, it’s okay to work a job that doesn’t satisfy you, if that’s the best decision for your life.

                                                                    1. 4

                                                                      I manage a team of seven at Flipp, where we basically serve ads to grocery shoppers. I do not find this work ethically objectionable, and I derive satisfaction from seeing how my team is growing in skills and experience, and how we can make the work lives of other people better.

                                                                      Is what I do broadly societally meaningful? No. If I want that sort of satisfaction, I need to seek it out elsewhere. But it is ever thus; the idea that our paid work should be the primary source of supra individual meaning seems really, really wrong to me.

                                                                      1. 4

                                                                        I find that grateful customers (internal or external) are what makes my work meaningful. Right now I’m working in a large financial institution, on what’s broadly speaking risk analysis; the value of this stuff is diffuse and non-obvious, but I believe the people I’m helping are ultimately doing good for humanity, and certainly they appreciate me improving the tools they use to do their work. Previously I’ve had satisfying jobs in adtech, insurance, and telecoms. The job where I had the most direct belief in the company mission was last.fm, but I found that the least satisfying place to work in practice.

                                                                        1. 4

                                                                          I find my work meaningful insomuch as it allows me to work with people I get along with, gives me opportunities to learn and improve the lives of my co-workers, and it enables other more meaningful things in my life. Things like spending time with family, not having to worry about paying the bills, being able to work on side-projects, and not having to rush every moment.

                                                                          For me, I’ve noticed that meaningfulness of work gets removed most when I’m isolated from being able to interact with my co-workers on a meaningful level.

                                                                          I work at a tax and payroll software company, where the mission is, among other things, to reduce the amount of paperwork in play for organizations. There’s a little bit of meaning there, I suppose, but by far the better aspect of is that I get to work with competent co-workers who care about the health of the team on multiple fronts.

                                                                          1. 1

                                                                            For me, I’ve noticed that meaningfulness of work gets removed most when I’m isolated from being able to interact with my co-workers on a meaningful level.

                                                                            This happens for me, too. I’m very much a social coder.

                                                                          2. 4

                                                                            Keeping my children fed is something I find meaningful.

                                                                            (That said, my company assists in financing wind projects, so there’s that too.)

                                                                            1. 4

                                                                              I wrote about the feeling of being trapped in a cube years ago:

                                                                              http://khanism.org/perspective/trapped-in-the-cubical/

                                                                              I ended up getting a holiday work visa for Australia and New Zealand, so I could do the same boring shit I did in America, but in a new exotic country. I then learned to take a year off at a time doing my own stuff:

                                                                              http://penguindreams.org/blog/leaving-full-time-jobs/

                                                                              http://penguindreams.org/videos/taking-a-sabbatical/

                                                                              And here’s some stuff documenting my car trip around the US and my backpacking trip through Asia/Europe:

                                                                              http://khanism.org/perspective/a-tale-of-two-journeys/

                                                                              http://khanism.org/perspective/minimalism/

                                                                              Now I’m trying to find a job again and it is .. difficult. I think if I was out on the west coast it’d be easier. It’s more acceptable in startup capitals (Seattle and the Valley) to take off and do your own thing every once in a while, have a failed startup idea or two. In Chicago, not so much. I’m planning a blog post on different IT cultures by city.

                                                                              If you’re under 30, see if your country has holiday work visa agreements and get one. They’re usually cheap (like $300) and let you live and work in other countries for a year (typically).

                                                                              Honestly I am currently just trying to get a job and save up. I don’t ever want to take off again without a place to jump to. I’ve done that twice and getting off the road can be nerve racking. If I quit my job again, it will either be if I get accepted in a PhD program or if I get another Australian visa and move back to Melbourne (my favourite city in the world so far).

                                                                              1. 2

                                                                                “ In Chicago, not so much. I’m planning a blog post on different IT cultures by city.”

                                                                                Id like to see a lot of writeups like that. At least one per city but preferrably a bunch in case report is too biases by one author’s experiences. Might be an outlier, you know.

                                                                              2. 3

                                                                                The work I do that pays the bills is meaningless. It contributes little to humanity if not actively harming it in some way, but it does, as previously mentioned, pay the bills. It doesn’t enrich my life or the lives of my friends and family, it does not improve the welfare of agriculturalists, nor does it result in the improvement of the housing or transportation of my local community.

                                                                                The work I do on the side contributes to those things, however, and also sometimes to the amount of beer I am able to possess. I feel that this is a net positive for the world.

                                                                                1. 3

                                                                                  Yes, my work enables me to achieve my non-work life goals (or that’s what I tell myself when doing boring tasks). I work at one of the humongous tech companies sometime the work is interesting and sometimes it frustrating to deal with the politics but this is my first full time job.

                                                                                  I used to be a very regular contributor to OSS and my day-job isn’t nowhere close to that rewarding.

                                                                                  1. 3

                                                                                    I’ve got a pretty unreal work-life balance for someone in the tech industry, so while I don’t think my work is making the world at large a better (or worse, really) place, it certainly makes my world a better place. I’m not sure there’s any lifestyle change I could make (aside from retiring if financially possible) that would improve my life. So while I don’t wake up thinking “I am going to help society by doing my job today,” I do wake up happy nearly every day.

                                                                                    1. 1

                                                                                      I think I’d have a significantly improved chance of career happiness if I were in your shoes, contributing to humanity aside 🙂 congrats!

                                                                                    2. 3

                                                                                      Have you looked into opportunities to do meaningful work for free?

                                                                                      My day job for a for-profit company probably has only a marginal effect on their bottom line and a negligible positive effect on the world. To me the meaning is in the tech I learn to use (really happy with this aspect!) and the less-experienced colleagues I help grow and learn.

                                                                                      A friend works at the local food bank office. They have a database full of visitor and food depot location data and a lot of questions, but they don’t employ developers or even full time DBAs. I go in for a couple of hours every week or so, hear about the decisions they need to make, run some SQL and get the information they need to make those decisions. Now they know the impact of temporary closures or location changes, where they need more baby food, where they should concentrate volunteers, growth of demand, family sizes etc. The tech is boring, but in terms of impact on the community it feels significant.

                                                                                      I’d like a more socially helpful job, but I’m lucky that my employer lets me shift my schedule to fit some meaningful work in as well as profitable work. Ideally I’d get both in one job but in the meantime this feels like a workable compromise. Then I sigh and read this again.

                                                                                      1. 3

                                                                                        My work is very meaningful. I develop software for a state agency that helps low and middle income homebuyers, as well as rental rehabilitation so that people don’t lose the homes they have.

                                                                                        The downside is sometimes I work in VB, some of our inherited code is trash, and the pay isn’t as competitive (but it’s not bad either). c’est la vie.

                                                                                        1. 0

                                                                                          If you are doing something somebody will pay for, then that means that whatever you are doing is good for that somebody, otherwise why would he pay for it. So the more money you make, the more meaningful your activity is.

                                                                                          So the more money you make, the more meaningful your life is. Don’t trust your brain internal measure of meaningfulness, it was evolved when we were hunter-gatherers and it is incapable of correctly measuring meaningfulness of your activities in the modern world. Trust your bank accounts or crypto-wallets.

                                                                                          Some people think that giving food to random starving children around the world is ‘meaningful’, but it’s not. You are just doing genetic socialism and propping up bad reproductive strategies that are proven to not work. In continuing to propagate the information embedded in the DNA of those starving children, you are actually allowing the bad strategy to be more widely implemented, and thus making the problem you are trying to solve worse. And what does your bank account say? It says you have less money. Brain: 0, Bank account: 1

                                                                                          But that’s just one way of defining ‘meaningful’.

                                                                                          In reality life in inherently meaningless. You have been lucky (or unlucky) to be born into a time and place of plenty that allows you to ask yourself a question with no answer. If you had been born in a pre-industrial farming community, then you only care about surviving the next winter. You have no time for such pointless thought processes as asking yourself what is a ‘meaningful’ life.

                                                                                          You can try reading philosophies but those are just the rambling non-answers of those who came before you who asked the same question.

                                                                                          You are just a robot who was built to replicate information embedded in DNA. You by accident was given a nervous system capable of asking questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “How do I live a meaningful life?”. Those questions are just syntactically correct enough to convince you that they are meaningful questions, but they are not.

                                                                                          Don’t worry though, sooner or later your children will come home from school and your neural “let’s make sure the children are well so they will propagate my genes” system will fire and you will forget about all these silly questions.

                                                                                          Life is without meaning, and any attempt to find one is just your mind incapable of accepting the fact that you are mortal and small, and wanting to be large and forever.

                                                                                          1. 10

                                                                                            This perspective is vulgar:

                                                                                            Some people think that giving food to random starving children around the world is ‘meaningful’, but it’s not. You are just doing genetic socialism and propping up bad reproductive strategies that are proven to not work.

                                                                                            Social Darwinism is a sickness.

                                                                                            1. -3

                                                                                              Social Darwinism is a sickness.

                                                                                              That is strange, when it is essentially impossible for natural selection to not apply to humans. If an all pervasive and always applicable by definition effect is a sickness, then the word sickness has such weak boundaries on its definition as to render it pointless as a word.

                                                                                              1. 3

                                                                                                What you might call a “sickness” is the tendency to over-simplify important and complex issues in the real world into a few convenient logical predicates and them arrive at serious conclusions, which if taken seriously, would result in actual people actually suffering.

                                                                                                I also once were a robot like you, but then I realized that the real world is many orders of magnitude orders of magnitude more complicated than I could ever hope to analyze or even observe, so I’ve learned to trust my hard-evolved feelings to take care of the complexity, and I only use my logic to choose between the alternatives that feel right relying on the predicates that feel right. As a matter of fact, anything that involves people suffering has a very little chance of feeling right.

                                                                                                1. 0

                                                                                                  Does it feel right to chase away a predator in order to save a cute prey?

                                                                                                  1. 1

                                                                                                    If I witnessed a wolf chasing a cute rabbit, I’d probably save the rabbit if I had the means. But if I had the means to save all rabbits from being eaten by all predators, I’d definitely not do it since it’d have a terrible impact on the environment. But then, if you came to me and convinced me, through logical arguments, that saving that one rabbit from that wolf will have a significant negative impact on anything I care about, my feelings about the former issue could change and I could let the wolf eat the rabbit.

                                                                                                    Now, hypotheticals aside, there’s no universe in which I could be convinced that children dying from starvation could be the solution to anything. Even if you made very good arguments about why them not dying from starvation would cause something very bad, I’d still try infinitely many ways to find other means of avoiding that very bad thing. But children dying from starvation is off the table. In general, convincing me to support the suffering of people would take far more that some juvenile arguments coming from an extremely simplified and naive interpretation of the very complex phenomenon that is evolution.

                                                                                                    1. 1

                                                                                                      Why is the wolf starving to death preferable to the rabbit being killed by the wolf?

                                                                                                      1. 2

                                                                                                        You don’t get the point, I’m not pushing that wolf to starvation by stopping it from eating that rabbit. It has a whole forest to hunt. If the circumstances were such that me saving that rabbit means certain starvation for that wolf, I’d feel differently about the issue. To save you the trouble, you really should stop wasting your energy trying to come up with simplified dilemmas to draw logical arguments about complicated situations. And that’s actually my whole point. Logic is an illusion, it’s a tool our pathetic brains use to overcome our inability to conceive even a tiny fraction of the world around us.

                                                                                                        1. 1

                                                                                                          Logic is an illusion,

                                                                                                          well if you reject logic, then what tool do I have to argue against you? My feelings?

                                                                                                    2. 1

                                                                                                      Since we’re really talking in metaphor, I wouldn’t just chase it away, I’d kill it. You have failed to understand the role and nature of social interaction. You will be discarded, just as you have discarded others unless you change.

                                                                                                      1. -1

                                                                                                        So it’s okay for predator to starve to death because they are not cute?

                                                                                                        1. 2

                                                                                                          Survival of the cutest my friend.

                                                                                                  2. 2

                                                                                                    It’s funny given your ideas on genetics if you were right you’d be the defective one because failing to realize social implications is a pretty obviously material defect. Thank goodness you’re wrong because you’re totally uninformed about modern science. You can improve!

                                                                                                2. 9

                                                                                                  I used to engage in this sort of nihilism and it was a sad and depressing way to live, so I sympathise, fellow robot. That’s the trouble with too much logic and not enough context (indeed, how robotic!). Once I learned that my conclusions hinged on blatantly false unexamined assumptions, I was able to shift my views to something more constructive.

                                                                                                  Having children doesn’t stop questions about meaning, by the way.

                                                                                                  1. 1

                                                                                                    Once I learned that my conclusions hinged on blatantly false unexamined assumptions,

                                                                                                    Now if only you would be so kind as to state those false assumptions and why they are false, I would be enlightened.

                                                                                                    But you chose not to.

                                                                                                    1. 6

                                                                                                      I thought it rather unlikely that you would be enlightened by a stranger on the internet. It was far more likely to result in a pointless argument.

                                                                                                      Anyway, for me there were two primary false assumptions:

                                                                                                      • That it’s all about me - my individual fulfilment, freedom etc. This is plainly against where the human evolutionary path led us - we’re a social animal, not a solitary one. Caring about others is essential to us.
                                                                                                      • That the meaning is to be found somehow. Clearly, the universe just is, as you also point out, so there’s nothing to be found, but that’s beside the point because we have the capacity to make up the meaning. When we have this capacity and the alternatives are so depressing, what’s the point of refusing to make something up?

                                                                                                      Once I got rid of these assumptions, it turned out that contributing to the sustainable future of the human race or ensuring that I personally see a continuation of my family is actually pretty meaningful if I let it be meaningful. Even better, it aligns well with what it means to be a human robot, as you suggested regarding DNA propagation.

                                                                                                  2. 4

                                                                                                    You are just doing genetic socialism and propping up bad reproductive strategies that are proven to not work.

                                                                                                    There’s something odd about someone calling themselves libertarian but espousing racial collectivism. Or is your username meant to be ironic or something?

                                                                                                    Life is without meaning, and any attempt to find one is just your mind incapable of accepting the fact that you are mortal and small, and wanting to be large and forever.

                                                                                                    This may be true.

                                                                                                    Don’t worry though, sooner or later your children will come home from school and your neural “let’s make sure the children are well so they will propagate my genes” system will fire and you will forget about all these silly questions.

                                                                                                    This is completely false.

                                                                                                    1. 2

                                                                                                      They aren’t a libertarian just like the nazis weren’t national socialists. It’s just a way for them to spout bullshit and hope naive libertarians will buy in to it without questioning the line of reasoning. While I do have reservations about libertarian ideology, this person is just a classist racist bigot and frankly has no place on lobsters. I’ve yet to see anything they’ve spouted to actually be libertarian anyway.

                                                                                                      1. -1

                                                                                                        There’s something odd about someone calling themselves libertarian but espousing racial collectivism.

                                                                                                        You are clearly projecting here because there’s nothing racial about my comments.

                                                                                                        1. 4

                                                                                                          You claim that starving children are starving because they are genetically inferior.

                                                                                                          1. 6

                                                                                                            This user probably isn’t worth replying to. Expect to be sealioned to hell.

                                                                                                            1. -3

                                                                                                              I never said they are inferior, but that the reproductive strategy embedded within their DNA has proven to fail by the very fact that they are starving.

                                                                                                              You really are projecting.

                                                                                                              1. 10

                                                                                                                I intended to stay out of this but there’s nothing genetic about any of:

                                                                                                                • being born into an unstable, grossly unfair, or failed nation-state.
                                                                                                                • experiencing a famine or a natural disaster.
                                                                                                                • being surrounded by a civil war.
                                                                                                                • having your ethnic group despised and persecuted.
                                                                                                                • not acquiring a useful education when basic needs are unmet.
                                                                                                                • having children when birth control is unavailable or proscribed.
                                                                                                                • being unable to emigrate or prevented from emigrating.

                                                                                                                These are exactly the sorts of situations that produce the kind of human suffering that people respond to with generosity. You might argue that in some cases aid perversely subsidizes and supports corrupt regimes and allows the situations to fester that prevent these people from having a reasonable life longer than if there were no aid and the society/state collapsed (with an even greater degree of short-term misery) but it’s not “embedded within their DNA”.

                                                                                                                Restating OP’s argument, “Fuck them, they’re unlucky. Let them die out of my sight and don’t you help them because they’re undeserving by virtue of being unlucky. Now go tend to your lucky off-spring.”

                                                                                                            2. 2

                                                                                                              Said the horrible racist. Get banned already please.

                                                                                                          2. 2

                                                                                                            Your ideas around genetics are outdated and wrong.

                                                                                                          3. 1

                                                                                                            No. I just sit at home and do a lot of activisim and try to push people in the right direction. I haven’t really programmed yet so I can’t really help people much. And so I feel like I’m accomplishing nothing.

                                                                                                            1. -4

                                                                                                              Anyone working on Wall Street is doing “meaningful” work in contributing to the destruction of our economies, people’s savings, jobs and livelihoods!

                                                                                                              1. 2

                                                                                                                Yep, this whole thread kinda pointless without a deep examination of meaning for the lobster.rs community

                                                                                                                1. -2

                                                                                                                  a deep examination of meaning for the lobster.rs community

                                                                                                                  That would be a waste of time. Almost everyone here is a psychopath, and will do whatever happens to be in their perceived self-interest anyway.

                                                                                                                  For example, some are working in “infosec”, happily getting paid lots of other people’s money for helping budding police states monitor their subjects. That work is not “meaningful” in the (virtue-signalling) sense (presumably) meant by the OP, but it sure does affect all our lives.

                                                                                                                  1. 1

                                                                                                                    Almost everyone here is a psychopath, and will do whatever happens to be in their perceived self-interest anyway.

                                                                                                                    Why not try to wrap that up in a way that is palatable for this community, since you’re posting in it?

                                                                                                                    1. -1

                                                                                                                      Why not try to wrap that up in a way that is palatable for this community, since you’re posting in it?

                                                                                                                      Because I don’t want to waste any effort in making the truth somehow more “palatable”?

                                                                                                                      Did you take that personally for some reason? ;)

                                                                                                                      1. 2

                                                                                                                        No, my response was neutral / supportive, you’re just expecting everyone here to reply to you angrily as they’re all psychopaths and don’t understand why you’re angry.