The Meaning of Work

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The TED Radio Hour podcast has an amazing episode entitled “The Meaning of Work”. It consists of four segments that cover various aspects of finding meaning and motivation at work. You should definitely listen to it, but I’ll provide a brief summary here of some points I found interesting.

The first segment features Margaret Heffernan who gave this TED talk about what makes high functioning teams.

At the beginning of the talk, she recounts a study by the biologist William Muir, emphasis mine.

Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he selected just an average flock, and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens – you could call them superchickens – and he put them together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding.

After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

Sound familiar? We’re often taught that great results come from solitary geniuses who bunker down to work hard and emerge some time later with some great work of genius to bestow upon the world, alongside a luxurious beard perhaps.

Jim Carrey in some movie

But it’s a myth. Great results come from deep collaborations among teams of people who trust each other. Heffernan goes on to cite an MIT study that noted what lead to high functioning teams.

Nor were the most successful groups the ones that had the highest aggregate I.Q. Instead, they had three characteristics, the really successful teams. First of all, they showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other. This is measured by something called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. It’s broadly considered a test for empathy, and the groups that scored highly on this did better. Secondly, the successful groups gave roughly equal time to each other, so that no one voice dominated, but neither were there any passengers. And thirdly, the more successful groups had more women in them.

People who are attuned to each other, who can talk to each other with trust, empathy, and candor, create an environment where ideas can really flow. It’s wonderful to work in such an environment.

Another thing that struck me in the Radio Hour interview is this exchange she describes she often has with businesses.

What’s the driving goal here? And they answer, $60 billion in revenue. And I’ll say, “you have got to be joking! What on earth makes you think that everybody is really going to give it their all to hit a revenue target. You know you have to talk to something much deeper inside people than that. You have to talk to people about something that makes a difference to them everyday if you want them to bring their best and do their best and feel that you’ve given them the opportunity to do the best work they’ve ever done.”

This resonates with me. Revenue and profit targets don’t put a spark in my step in the morning.

Rather, it’s the story of Anna and how my own kids reflect that story that get me motivated. I’m excited to work on a platform that the future makers of the world will use to build their next great ideas.

I don’t mind getting paid well, but it doesn’t produce a deep connection to my work. As Heffernan points out,

For decades, we’ve tried to motivate people with money, even though we’ve got a vast amount of research that shows that money erodes social connectedness.

That lesson is reiterated in Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us which I’ve linked to many times in the past.

What gets me up in the morning with a spring in my step is working on a platform that houses the code that helps send people into space or coordinates humanitarian efforts here on earth.

What motivates you?

Oh, by the way, many teams at GitHub including mine are hiring. Come do meaningful work with us!

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