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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4 responses

  1. Avatar for frax
    frax October 22nd, 2015

    How has Github changed in the past year to address the toxic situations brought to light by Ms Horvath?

  2. Avatar for Brad Westness
    Brad Westness October 22nd, 2015

    The bit about the group of chickens that has the alphas removed actually doing better is pretty awesome in that it's exactly what Atlas Shrugged is about, only it's real-world proof that the collective is actually better off without the hyper-competitive alphas in the pack.

  3. Avatar for afriend
    afriend October 22nd, 2015

    I, respectfully, disagree with some of this. I agree that good teams are built on respect, empathy, and diversity. I also agree that too many "superstars" (or just one egotistical one) can be fatally toxic to a team and collaboration. You've done well to point that out in this post.

    However, I don't think it's accurate to claim that it's a myth that great results come from solitary people. History contains a number of counter-examples to that claim. Personally, I think a team can take ideas and expand them and grow them in many ways, but often the spark of creation lies initially in just one mind.

    Time alone to think and ponder and tinker is incredibly valuable. I think there is this developing myth that everyone must be doing all their work in the open, that everyone must be best friends with their work partners, that everyone must be in ceaseless communication. Supposedly half the world is introverted, which means that half the population feels energy drain by too much outward interaction. I think it's unreasonable to say that those introverted people haven't contributed and can't contribute in ways that work well for them, too.

    There is a balance to be had between the team and the individual.

    In conclusion, while perhaps too extreme:

    "Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man." ~ John Steinbeck in East of Eden.

  4. Avatar for Jay Turpin
    Jay Turpin October 26th, 2015

    The chicken experiment doesn't answer one important question: could the remaining three chickens move society forward like Steve Jobs or Henry Ford?

    I really enjoyed the segment about Steve Shirley though - what an incredible story!