A Seaman's Quest

One man's search for truth

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Meaningful Work

At the very heart of meaningful work is the urge to create. This can take on many forms. Creativity may be expressed in writing, software design, teaching techniques or just plain old problem solving. A day without creativity is like a day without sunshine.

Motivation

There are several core attributes of meaning in work life. If any of these is missing it will be impossible to have a sense of fulfillment related to work. It is worth spending time regularly thinking about each of the factors provides the motivation that you need.

Aspect of motivation

Autonomy

Each of us have a need to be free to choose what we work on as well as how and where we work. That is what makes micromanagement so devastating to motivation. As control over our decisions tightens our autonomy disappears. We must regain autonomy over our work in order to have productive interaction with others.

Each person is accountable for results. Constraints on how the work is done should be expressed as objectives, rather than directives. This amplifies the personal accountability that each person feels for the goals of each project.

Every project has a boss of some kind (client, customer, manager). The primary role of the boss is to define what success looks like. They set the constraints for a good outcome. The worker on the other hand must be responsible for the planning and execution that works within those constraints.

This involves a lot of problem solving that should be done by the worker, not the boss. If the boss is trying to solve the interesting problems then the workers will quickly lose motivation because it is clear that they are not being trusted to make any important decisions.

Another important aspect of autonomy for me is the ability to choose the projects that I work on and who I work with. This allows me to pursue my interests while meeting the goals of the project. It encourages me to develop creative ideas and solve problems

Mastery

Everyone has a deep desire to be an expert at something. This is an innate need for every human. That is what explains why people would devote their free time to learning to play a musical instrument or learning to speak a foreign language.

I desire to build my expertise and develop best practices that go far beyond the minimum requirements for the task at hand. Pride in accomplishments is developed along with skill and knowledge. Refinement and optimization come as new skills are practiced.

Skills take a great deal of practice to hit higher levels of proficiency. I've developed the following scale to quantify the practice time required for different levels of skill.

Quantified Skill

Creativity is another important aspect of mastery. All people are creative but some have an insatiable desire to express their creativity. If this desire cannot be expressed as part of the work role then the work will lose the potential benefit.

The creative process has a rhythm to it. There is a workflow and a lifecycle that affects how ideas are capture, nurtured, and developed. If the work environment does not respect that natural rhythm then the creativity of the workers will be completely lost.

Few creative people will tolerate being treated a cog in a machine to do menial task that do not require creativity. If you want people that are masters then the environment must encourage it.

Purpose

Purpose is an essential part of happiness. Without knowing that you are fulfilling the purpose of your life you will be facing with a constant gnawing sense of discouragement, disillusion, and anger.

Abraham Maslow in 1943 highlighted five levels of essential human needs. These must be addressed in order of priority, from the basic physical needs to the thing that he identified as "Self-actualization".

In my thinking this highest level is about understanding your life purpose. What is the thing that you are ideally suited to do that few others can even come close to? What uniqueness must you express to be all that you can be?

When you can answer this question you are on track for describing your life purpose. If you cannot succinctly describe your purpose then you are very unlikely to live it out.

I recommend that you attempt to write your purpose using no more than seven words. This forces you to truly capture the essence and let go of the supporting clarifications.

Once you get to your seven-word motto, you can write a one page description that explains how this works out in practice. This is your filter. Everything that exists in your life should be there to help you fulfill your purpose. If not then prune it.

Once you know your purpose this becomes your destiny as you move toward it. I believe that destiny is not about the actions that we take but the person that we become. We become a certain kind of person that is able to fulfill our life purpose.

The actions that we take are merely a bi-product of who we are becoming. Living out our destiny is realizing the full potential of all the resources we have been giving and living with a true purpose.

Your purpose must involve helping others and not just stroking your own ego. You need a larger vision that lets you see how the world around you can be improved. Creating value for others and influencing them to live a better life are both key ingredients that will lead you toward fulfillment.

Connection

Marcus Buckingham is one of the world leaders in the area of what make humans perform at exceptional levels. In his research for the Gallup organization he discovered that the most important question that signified happiness at work was, "Do you have a best friend at work?"

People that have meaningful connections at work are smarter, more content, and work more productively than others. A sense of teamwork and interdependence is indispensable to high performance.

Mutual respect, trust, and appreciation must be present to create a sense of mutual commitment that is required to accomplish the work. A team must be able to learn and teach and work through conflict. Without great teamwork a group will produce a small fraction of its true potential.

As teams jell a sense of community develops. This is fertile ground for collaboration and interdependence. This creates a positive environment where everyone can flourish.

Key Roles

Now that we understand the four factor of motivation we can start to look at the specific roles that we perform. We play many roles in our public and private life. For this discussion we will focus on the work roles that you fill.

Each role ideally derives from you purpose. If not there will be an internal battle for motivation and constant friction between your goals and the needs of others.

If you find yourself in this spot get creative. Either find a way to bend your existing role into something that fits or detach completely and start again. You will never be happy doing a role that is a poor fit for who you want to be.

I've done many types of jobs over the years. Often the roles that I find myself in were defined by others and not that great a fit. The times I have enjoyed the most are always tied to the perfect role that is well aligned with my destiny.

Now I can look at an opportunity and tell within a few minutes if I will be able to thrive. This is usually determined by how well suited I am to the role that I will play.

There are three roles that are aligned to my destiny. One I have known from childhood, and one took me fifty years to discover. I need to perform all three of these roles in order to be fulfilled. Others may be happy with a single role that fits well.

Invent

As a child I was an inventor. I would disassemble my toys and attempt to reassemble them with my improvements. In high school I got interested in electronics and computers. I could not wait to study electrical engineering so that I could invent things for a living.

I never agonized about my career since I always knew that I wanted to be an inventor. My heroes growing up were Einstein, Telsa, and Edison, and later Jobs and Gates.

Creative Problem Solving is the hallmark of invention. To motivate me you simply need to tell me that know one has ever solved this problem and that you don't think it is possible.

Over the years I have developed a process for incubating ideas and turning problems into solutions. I love building systems and get great joy in optimizing them.

Write

As an engineer writing has been one of the most useful skills. I found early on that I loved the process of writing. There is something very satisfying about putting ideas on paper.

I live in a world filled with ideas. Writing is a means of expressing ideas. Because I am an introvert conversations with others are accompanied by a fair amount of social anxiety. Writing therefore gives me an exhilarating way to express my ideas and avoid the awkwardness of social interaction.

I find writing very therapeutic. The act of writing helps to clarify things in my own mind. I am a voracious reader and constantly seeking to learn new things. Writing about what I am learning is a great way to make the learning concrete.

Influence is also an important goal for me. I think that there is a shortage of common sense in the world right now and I intend to help fill that gap. Most of what I write about is some form of best practice.

Much of what I write is not really intended for a specific audience. I write for the joy of it and sometimes I make it available to others. For me the thrill is in the writing act itself and it matters little if what I write is read by others.

Teach

I taught my first college class when I was 57. Within the semester I was hooked. I discovered a passion that I didn't know I had. Looking backward I recognized all of the teaching that was a key part of every job I ever had. In fact, there were times when I got in trouble for trying to turn my engineering job into an opportunity for training others.

Influencing people that are just at the start of their careers is a great joy. Helping them sort out all of the demands and pressures of life can be quite daunting for some and I love aiding them in the needed decisions.

I also love writing course material. I have developed a process that allows me to convert knowledge into a reliable course to instruct others. I find that most students are eager to learn if the material can be presented to them in a logical fashion.

I teach web development skills by having students do a series of projects that force them to master the desired skills in order to be successful. Even though the teaching role has been discovered late in life, it has given me the greatest level of overall satisfaction.

Aspects of Meaningful Work

There are four dimensions to finding meaning in life.  Each of these is important but it is the combination of these factors that brings a sense of fulfillment and completion.

Create

I create things. It's what I do.  Whether as a software developer, author, or teacher I have a primal urge to create something new, something beautiful, and something that has never been done before. This thirst for innovation is my greatest joy in life.

Contribute

What I create must be useful and valuable to someone.  Part of the joy I get from creating things is knowing that I have solved a real problem for someone else.  Seeing the impact of my work makes me want to solve other problems and increase the benefits delivered.

Connect

I need to connect with others at a deep level. I crave significant conversations with people.  I am easily frustrated by shallow relationships and find it difficult to meet new people.  I want to surround myself with people I trust and devote my energy into those relationships.  I limit the time I spend with casual acquaintances.

Challenge

Every day should produce a variety of stimulating situations that force me to grow.   I am easily bored by old projects, old ideas, and old skills.   I need variety in activity, experiences, and ways of thinking.  I must be challenged to operate on the edge of my competency.