The majority of folks I have met are perfectly happy doing a regular job—and dealing with all the bullshit it entails—as long as it allows them to follow their own pursuits outside their work hours. For them, life’s enjoyment comes from different experiences outside their work life. They value comfort and security a full-time job provides and regard it as a means to an end. I am not criticizing this worldview, but I have found it to be incompatible with mine. I started most jobs with a fair amount of enthusiasm but it wasn’t long before they became frustrating and soul-crushing and I had to muster every ounce of motivation to do even simple tasks. Regardless of how many enjoyable things I was doing in my regular life, my work started to have a negative effect on my mood and outlook.
To my dismay, I have found my perspective terribly hard to communicate. Mostly because it doesn’t make sense. Tech jobs pay well and often have a good work-life balance. Why did I have to take work so personally? What was so hard about earning a comfortable amount of money, and spending it on enjoyable experiences?
The critical difference, I have realized, is in the conception of “work.” When you see work as an agent to do everything else in life, you don’t mind the bullshit parts—the pointless meetings, inefficiency, inept management. But, my conception of work is broad. I see it as a medium to express my creative self. I feel the spirit of a creative individual flourishes when the work is good, and dies bit by bit when it isn’t.
Consider a painter who is used to getting inspired and painting in long sessions. Imagine that they find themselves in a corporate setting where they can’t follow their intuitions and have to follow the laid-out process. They need to be in meetings to defend silly things like, choice of colors and shapes. They need to incorporate pointless alterations from higher-ups. A project that should have taken a week, ends up taking a month.
Not sure about you, but I can sympathize deeply with the artist’s feelings at the end of the project. Their creative energy would be sapped and they would be severely demotivated to continue. Give a few more similar projects and they will burn out. Soon, they’ll start questioning if they even like painting. Contrary to popular belief, burnout isn’t caused by a lack of work-life balance. It’s driven more by the lack of ability to do meaningful work.
This is exactly what I see happening in the software world. Meetings upon meetings over inconsequential decisions like what’s the correct HTTP status code for an endpoint. Being forced to follow a documented process to the letter. Having to justify obvious choices. Having to work on anti-user product decisions because someone in the marketing/product team thinks that it will bump the revenue. Dedicating a good portion of your focus and time to keeping everyone updated. Having so many roadblocks to shipping obvious improvements that you rather not do them at all.
The consequence of such an environment is a feeling of being useless. You know you have the skills to create so many good things, but that’s not getting translated into reality.
Companies love to talk about creativity and innovation, but they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the creative process. It’s a bit abstract and takes place at its own pace. It demands ownership over decisions and being entrusted to follow instincts. It requires that the work is worthwhile and a meaningful addition to the world. Installing processes and committees simply kills it.
I have tried hard to toe the line and accept the reality of the corporate world, but I have failed. I find it impossible to continue when the work becomes more about dealing with people, processes, and politics than actually shipping useful stuff. It just becomes intolerable.
I have loved creating ever since I was a kid and I believe most creative individuals have. When I started programming, I went wild with it. I wanted nothing more than to come back from school to create scripts, tools, and websites; stupid and pointless as they were. Accepting bullshit work feels a little like letting that inner child die slowly. Repeat this for several years, you won’t feel inspired to create anymore. Maybe someday I would need to come to terms with that reality. But right now, I am not ready to.