I find myself having an existential crisis at work about every six months.
“What am I doing with my life?”
“Am I wasting my time?”
“Does what I’m doing right now matter?”
These questions have continually resurfaced for me over the last decade regardless of what company I’m working for, what project I’m working on, or what my job title is. And my answers to these questions have fluctuated from month to month and year to year.
What I’ve found is that my motivations at work have changed over time. I’m not sure if they are evolving toward a higher purpose or simply changing without an obvious end goal, but they are in fact changing.
Sometimes I’m motivated by the work itself. Is the work technically challenging? Does it push me to learn and grow? Am I interested in the tools and programming languages that I get to work with? Am I solving complex problems? Sometimes just having work that you can get lost in is enough. Learning for the sake of learning can be fun.
Maybe it’s all just a distraction.
Other times I’ve focused more on the company’s mission. As a company, are we working toward a goal that contributes to the world in some meaningful way beyond making money for our shareholders? Do I believe in what the company is doing? Am I excited about the impact we’re having and the product we’re building?
Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Most recently I’ve become more interested in people. Do I have opportunities to impact other people’s lives in a positive way? This could be through management or leadership opportunities, or it could be a mentoring relationship, either formal or informal.
Or am I impacting our customers’ lives in a positive way? Maybe the company’s mission or product isn’t world-changing, but does it at least help make someone’s life better or their job easier in some small way?
I’m undecided if any of these purposes are better than the others or if they’re simply different. Maybe they don’t follow a natural progression and it’s normal to cycle through them.
Many people don’t find meaning at work at all and instead find purpose in other pursuits in life. That’s ok too. Family, friends, hobbies, religion, sports, and volunteer work all give meaning to our lives.
Your job shouldn’t define who you are. As software engineers though we should count ourselves lucky that we’re even in a position to consider our work meaningful.