The period 2008–11, while I was working at Google on Wave, was the high point of my satisfaction in my work to date. I was working hard, but never needed to think about whether the huge effort was “worth it”. At the time it didn’t occur to me to question why I was so content, but I have since reflected on that time a lot. I think there were two equal large contributors to my contentment: I was working with a high-functioning, committed and capable team, and we were working towards something many of us deeply valued. We weren’t building Wave for money—there were financial incentives attached to success, but it was not lucrative during the project. We weren’t doing it for professional advancement—if anything, the project harmed promotion prospects for many on the team. We were building Wave because we were creating something that needed to be created, and that aspirational outlook pervaded the team.
I’ve not quite reached that level of satisfaction since. For the first year or so after leaving Google I was happy to be getting my hands dirty at a start-up, building a great engineering team and nurturing an environment and culture to give us the greatest chance of success. It was a challenge, and the challenge was stimulating, and continually improving tools, product and culture for my peers was highly rewarding. But eventually my work came to feel hollow, and my impact marginal. I couldn’t figure out why for a while, but the pep talks and vision weren’t working for me any more. And slowly I came to realise the problem.
I wasn’t working towards something I valued.
I’d never thought explicitly about what I valued, what ends I held worthy above others, what aspects of a product, process or culture should serve as motivation for pursuing it. I couldn’t articulate what my personal values were, but I could tell that I wasn’t putting the bulk of my effort toward them. So, pained by abandoning my colleagues, I left to take time to figure them out.
I can’t recommend highly enough the taking of several months time out to think about what you value, about the shape of the impact you want to have. I am lucky to have been in a position where I didn’t need to work to live, but there is no way I could have reached the relative clarity I now have had I been distracted by the day to day of employment. Instead, I explicitly allowed myself three months of almost complete non-productivity, so that I might direct the years of productivity to follow toward something I truly valued.
By the end of three months I had settled on the values below. It’s far from a complete list of valuable ends, but I’m pretty sure they’re my top three.
I value learning, in all forms, by everyone. Our minds are unique (as far as we know) in their capability for abstract symbolic thought, thanks to the evolution of language. It is an essentially human act to come to understand some phenomena, either directly by experience or indirectly by education, and with that knowledge synthesise new thoughts, new ideas, new learnings. Learning about our universe, learning about our societies, and learning about ourselves enable people now and in the future to better realise whatever other ends we value.
We are special, possibly unique, in our ability to conceptually model the universe we live in. Scientific endeavour towards understanding the very big and the very small helps us to understand our place in the universe, and learning about the very complex, human scale in which we live helps us to make that meaningful. The quest for knowledge is a great adventure, a grand challenge, both in academia and everyday life as we navigate the complexities of living together. Learning makes us human. Advancing learning both pushes the limits of what it means to be human, and is as human as we can be.
People can do more together. Together, we can take on challenges and produce feats that no one could accomplish alone. Effective collaboration on some problem almost always produces better results than solo effort, and so, like building knowledge through learning, improving collaboration yields huge impact by helping many others achieve ever greater goals. Our great body of human knowledge, simultaneously a great triumph and a work in progress, is the product of social learning, the intersection of learning and collaboration to exchange knowledge, ideas, and practises.
Collaboration is also good for social cohesion. Likely for evolutionary reasons, people demonstrate increased affinity for each other after collaborating. You like the people you’ve achieved something with. And as the stresses of a growing population overreaching limited resources inevitably increase, achieving things together, empathising with, and liking each other will be critical avoiding catastrophic consequences.
I value happiness, mine and others’. I know it seems weird to state it, but I think happiness is an end that needs no justification. I won’t attempt a definition of happiness, but I’m talking about both long-term contentment and the more transient moments of joy. A life with happiness seems just… better. More lived. We find unhappy lives sad and incomplete. In love, we find joy and contentment bound in shared experience with another (collaboration), and in satisfying work we find happiness from personal growth (learning). Without happiness, we are not living into our human potential.
Acting to create happiness in others needs no further justification and I have ever-growing admiration for those who do so continually or at scale: writers, composers, artists, filmmakers, comedians, and many others who include delivering happiness in their every day.
Having identified these things I value I’m determined to have them inform both what I put my efforts toward and how I do undertake that work. It has been enlightening to realise how much else I think good can be traced back to these values. For example, my management style tends towards the empowering rather than authoritarian, and I can see this emerging from my values. Now-common best practises for technology product teams like code review, continual integration, releasing early and iterating are all motivated by learning early and often, and collaborating with not just each other but with customers and users. Taking risks, accepting failures and innovating are all necessary for learning. My desire to work with and produce only high quality products, code and peers might stem from the moments of happiness that each can bring. And it’s clear why I was content working on Wave, where I was building a collaboration tool and learning a lot.
I’m looking forward, now, to motivating my future work with these values and to making decisions by them. They’re not a complete set of values for a team: since I value collaboration, that must include the values of my future peers. I’m definitely missing something about ambition, reaching far, thinking big, acting fast. But I’m confident that working toward these values will put me, and a team that share compatible values, in a position to achieve sustained positive impact, and enjoy doing it.