The ingredients of our best work

This article, which features embedded clips from cord’s Best Work podcast, is aimed at software engineers looking for an introspective overview as to what factors they should consider when determining what sort of work they ought to do.

It can be read below, or at the original location here.


Identifying our place in the world through our work has stretched the minds of philosophers since ancient times – from Socrates and Confucius through to the likes of Marx, Kant and contemporary thinkers such as Alain de Botton. Deeply entangled with questions like “What is the meaning of life?” is that of “How should I spend my time?”

For most of us, answering this question will focus heavily on the work we do. To those of us fortunate enough to enjoy a degree of choice over our work, choosing correctly – identifying our best work – is a key component in living a fulfilling life.

The simplest way to categorise the “ingredients” that combine to produce our best work is generally to divide them into two categories: extrinsic, and intrinsic.

Extrinsic factors are those that come about as a result of doing work. These include money (and similar forms of non-salary benefits, in many modern companies), but also factors that, in one way or another, elevate our standing as individuals within our society, such as prestige, or power and influence.

Intrinsic factors are those that derive directly from the work itself. The sense of fulfilment we gain from performing work, the challenge it sets us, the personal growth we experience as a result of this, and the enjoyment we gain from doing the work in itself. Social impact is, here, included as an intrinsic factor, despite the fact that it implicitly relies on others beside the individual(s) doing the work.Find your best work with cord

Extrinsic factors

Money

It seems natural nowadays, but the idea of salaried work as a route to happiness and satisfaction is a relatively new one.

Aristotle felt that paid labour was incompatible with living a fulfilled life, as it would corrupt the body and stagnate the mind, while Christianity maintained that work was a punishment meted out to humanity in penance for Original Sin. Avarice – the desire for wealth – was considered one of the seven deadly sins by Christian thinkers.

Not until the second half of the 20th Century did (most of) Western society truly shake off this notion and come to view the desire for material remuneration as a positive end in itself; the incentive to productive labour that, in turn, powered economies and enriched societies. The economic policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the late 1970s and 1980s embraced the concept at the heart of consumer capitalism; that work could do more than satisfy people’s basic needs, and in fact cater to their ever-expanding wants.

Wherever individuals stand on the political, economic and moral ramifications of consumer capitalism, one thing is clear: salary in the early 21st century is a fundamental element of how people evaluate their current or desired work. It consistently ranks as the most influential factor in people’s decisions to change jobs, and invariably is among the chief rankles of labour unionists leading industrial action.

It is, therefore, entirely natural that financial remuneration is the first component of our best work. For most individuals, work will have to provide the means to meeting certain life criteria – covering, say, the costs associated with children or the pursuit of leisure activities – as a minimum before it can be considered a person’s “best work”.

Counter to this, however, is research suggesting that, beyond sufficiency to cover our basic needs, more money does not necessarily correlate with greater happiness (though some recent studies have pushed back against this view). Additionally, focusing too heavily on financial aspects can blind us to the innate satisfactions of voluntary work or, at the extreme end, ascetic forms of work such as monastic lifestyles.

Prestige

Not all the extrinsic rewards of work are material. Some forms of work are performed for the reputational advantages they confer.

For example, academia is in many respects a poorly-remunerated field of work (especially in relation to the training or educational inputs required). In this field, the principle extrinsic reward is the prestige of having one’s name appear on, say, the cover of Science magazine, or the moniker of a theorem.

For engineers, building an app that is well-regarded and used enthusiastically by our peers can have as strong an extrinsic pull as work that is financially rewarding, but less prestigious.

Power and influence

In the UK, a member of Parliament earns £84,144 per annum. In addition to this, a cabinet minister earns an extra £67,505, while the Prime Minister earns an additional £75,440 per annum, bringing the maximum salary that can be earned through British politics to just under £160,000 per annum.

This is by no means a small salary. However, many British politicians have net worths several times this amount, and former careers in fields like investment banking that pay substantially higher. The stresses and exertions of a political career clearly aren’t justified on purely financial grounds; it is the power and influence (as well as the prestige) that comes with shaping a country’s governance that attracts people to this field.

This is an extreme example of power and influence as an extrinsic factor in the work people choose. But there are abundant more everyday examples – police officers, teachers, journalists and, indeed, CEOs are all positions that people choose in part because of the power and influence they convey.

Intrinsic factors

Fulfilment

The idea that the kind of work we do completes us as humans (or prevents us doing so) dates back, again, to Aristotle, but has received greater attention in recent years.

Roman Krznaric defines fulfilling work as “work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.” He adds that “just as we seek to express our individuality in the clothes we wear or the music we listen to, so too we should search for work that enables us to express who we are, and who we want to be.”

There is, then, a school of thought with a long and proud pedigree suggesting that our work, and how we perform it, is an essential part of who we are, as a species and as individuals. Work that realises our fullest potential selves – through self-actualisation – positions us closer than any other kind to the top of the Maslow pyramid, and in this sense is the closest to what might universally be defined as a person’s Best Work.

Indeed, fulfilment is perhaps the ultimate intrinsic benefit of work: the following intrinsic factors are its contributory features.

Challenge

Lots of animals experience boredom. It’s tempting to add that humans are particularly susceptible to it, but this may just be anthropocentrism.

What is clear is that evolution appears to have equipped us with a psychological drive to action. Most people, if they remain inactive for extended periods of time, slip into deep states of boredom with potentially serious psychological consequences.

Work challenges us. At its best, work provides us with physical and/or mental stimulation that we depend on psychologically. For this reason, more challenging forms of work (such as playing professional tennis, or software development) are likely to be closer to our best work than more sedentary, repetitive jobs, provided that they are within the bounds of our ability – i.e. are not so challenging that they cause distress.

Learning and development

When our work challenges us, we learn from it. Physically challenging work (within reason) strengthens our bodies, and mentally challenging work broadens our minds. The physical and psychological benefits of work are ends in their own right, but their impact on us enable us to enjoy our time outside of work more, and perhaps even prolong our lives.

For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear people cite length of time in a role served and a flattening of the learning curve as reasons to begin searching for new work. A person’s best work is likely, therefore, to be in a field where as they learn and grow, their scope to take on new challenges, and learn still more, expands accordingly.

Enjoyment

Work can, and at its best should, be fun. James Suzman observes that part of the difficulty of even defining what “work” is lies in the fact that the distinction between work and leisure often depends on context: “to a commercial artist, drawing is work, but to millions of amateur artists it is a relaxing pleasure.”

Many software engineers are drawn to the field because of the innate enjoyment that can be taken from solving complex technical problems, and unpicking the inner workings of computers, smartphones and the apps they run. Our best work ought, therefore, to have a kernel of enjoyment at its core; a soft centre of genuine pleasure taken in the activity itself that alleviates the struggles and stresses that inherently emerge when we pour our hearts and souls into an endeavour.

Social impact

Alain de Botton posits that work feels meaningful ‘whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.’

Many forms of work have a positive impact on a specific person, groups of people, or society more broadly. Some forms of work – such as social care or charity work – are very directly socially beneficial, whereas others – such as writing code that powers restaurant PoS systems – are more commercially driven, whilst still deriving their commercial value from an improvement they make in people’s lives (in this instance, the working lives of restaurant staff and the dining experience of their customers.)

Some forms of work – such as credit card fraud or drug dealing – are generally regarded to have a negative social value and, as such, are outlawed. Such vocations both reduce delight and elevate suffering in their “customers.” Other forms of work are have their social value hotly contested; so, while industries like gambling are not banned outright, they are heavily regulated, and perceived by many workers as incompatible with their personal values (others, however, view the entertainment value provided to consenting adults as full social justification for the industry). This contested status of gambling perhaps stems from the fact that, while it frequently generates delight for its clientele, it can also greatly increase their suffering.

Whatever line of work you are in, it can help to reflect on the social value it provides, and to what extent this aligns with your own values. Or, in a more formulaic ‘do Bottonian” sense, the extent to which it either generates delight or reduces suffering.

It is, however, an observable phenomenon that work with high social impact tends to be poorly compensated, and that work which generates delight tends, on the whole, to pay better than work that reduces suffering. Film and sports stars are paid exponentially more than nurses and social workers. The creators of social networks, e-commerce giants and streaming platforms out-earn those of edtech or digital health services.

This alludes to one of the thorniest problems at the heart of theories of work itself: that over the course of the 20th Century, the “economic problem” posited by economist John Maynard Keynes (i.e., the scarcity of resources required for survival) has, as he predicted, been largely solved by Western capitalist economies, but that, contrary to his prediction, this hasn’t reduced the amount people in these economies work. If anything – given the greater participation in the workforce of women over the period, and a tendency towards longer working hours – the opposite has happened. Technology enables most of the West’s material requirements to be provided relatively cheaply, but we work harder than ever.

A balanced mix

The ingredients in the mixing pot that combine to create our best work fall into two categories: extrinsic factors such as money, prestige, and influence; and intrinsic factors that give us a sense of fulfilment, challenge, self-development, enjoyment, and of benefit to the society around us.

Balancing the precise mixture of these ingredients is a unique challenge for every individual. Some will be more motivated by money, others by power and influence. Some are disinterested in these entirely, and will gravitate towards work that has the greatest social impact over all other forms.

This essay is intended part as a checklist, but more as an invitation and guide to self-reflection; a sounding board against which feelings of disquiet and aspiration towards current and imagined lines of work can be compared, in the hope that more people the world over can find their own best work.Find personalised resources on cord

References and further reading

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