Careers, Altruism and Getting By

Matt Mullenweg on designing open source software:

If you do anything for the money you end up selling out. Do what you love, what you can’t not do, and the money will follow.

I think the WordPress value to the community as a GPL extension of what came before is a million times more valuable than whatever pittance I would have gotten from doing a proprietary thing. The benefits I’ve gotten personally from focusing on what I love have been numerous, and go beyond the purely monetary.

This is a great thought, and I believe in it to the max. That said, it’s the sort of idea that only a young adult would say and only in an age of Internet awareness.  We need to differentiate between addressing a human need and addressing an economic need.  In the case of blogging, there was a need for a robust publishing system that was free, so it was a nice intersection. But many individuals engage in noneconomic behavior that is self-sustaining and altruistic, yet personally self-destructive. One example is the arts. It’s extremely difficult for artistic types to draw the line at making a sacrifice for their craft. One can write symphonies and paint pictures free for the world without  reaping any material benefit. People in many professions already accept that. But designing software is still a skill that translates into decent jobs.  On the other hand,   painting a picture or starting a charity center  doesn’t guarantee that.  Matt makes the assumption that the practice of developing software is an inherent good which can always be parlayed into some benefit or career. But frankly, there are thousands of other open source projects with similar ambitions that may succeed or fail, without the certainty  of a payoff. There may come no glory from involvement in these projects, although it may produce feelings of personal accomplishment.  Many goals and problems are out there waiting to be solved. When you are young you assume that every problem is being worked on. As I age, I observe that there are so many problem areas  which are on nobody’s radar except your own.  And yet, with age I find personally that I have less ability to pursue these kinds of projects; you have to compromise for the sake of living.  While watching the milestone documentary 49 Up (Part of the Up series), I was struck by how people in their forties had absolutely abandoned career goals and even personal goals. Their main goal was maintaining the status quo and taking care of their families and friends. At some point the obligation  to others supersede the yearning to create the next big thing. And nothing is wrong with that.

I think what Matt is trying to say here is that some kinds of work provide their  own reward, that you can’t assume that the path to attaining your goals is as direct as it seems. One person’s life ambition may be to be a millionaire, but another person may simply wish to be a doctor or improve the schools. And yet, the second person may end up becoming a millionaire by pursuing this goal to its logical conclusion. Often it happens as an unintended consequence  of those with tangible goals (and not simply “fame” or “wealth” or “respect”).

I have not personally  made progress towards any of these goals. Do I worry? Nah. I just try to have a little fun. And try not to go broke in the process. See also: Paul Graham’s What You wish you had known

Some people are always striving towards single attainable goals. Some are merely content to get by. We shouldn’t look down on that. Just getting by can be a deliberate life choice.  My dad once asked a friend at work for his definition of success. The friend thought a moment, then replied, “Making it through the week without getting fired.”  My dad’s friend was sort of a basket case, (and my dad relayed the anecdote in a mocking tone), but that answer seemed  logical and attainable. If this nerdish man could finish the week while feeling relatively happy with himself, who are we to tear him down?






One response to “Careers, Altruism and Getting By”

  1. Haythem Dawlett Avatar

    I couldn’t agree more, what a refreshing take on life and the courses we all take to get there. Being happy with yourself at the end of the week is really all it should come down to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.