Finding work that adds meaning to your life.

Lean Into Failure

If you're an actor, the majority of your work isn't performing, it's auditioning. And since most auditions don't lead to a job, this means actors are people who fail professionally in order to hone their craft.

The first time rocket engineers launch a new vehicle into space, they often expect it to explode long before it reaches orbit. This isn't because all rocket engineers are bad at their jobs. It's because they're solving really hard problems and have to expect some failures along the way.

Sometimes, they have to blow up multiple rockets before they can get a design to work reliably.

People in the space industry like to refer to these test explosions as โ€œrapid, unscheduled disassemblies.โ€ Surely, this is mostly tongue in cheek, but many explosions are actually considered a success in the early phase of a rocketโ€™s development.

The easiest way to avoid blowing up a rocket is to leave it on the launch pad, but thatโ€™s not what rockets are for.

In the same way that actors work towards landing that dream role and, knowing the odds, must expect frequent rejection, rocket engineers must also embrace public failure as a core element of their work.

Most people donโ€™t have to face this kind of public failure on a regular basis in order to simply do their job. Rather, we can tiptoe around the risks we encounter, choosing the path well-traveled while sacrificing the potentially much greater upside of the unknown.

But we do ourselves a disservice when we approach our work this way. We should instead aim for the stars, expect to blow up a few rockets along the way while mitigating the danger, and learn as much as we can from the explosions.

You might go much farther that way.

On Finding a Reason for Being

It's a question so many people struggle with: How can you make your life feel more meaningful?

One technique for considering this lies in a popular Venn diagram that illustrates the Japanese concept of ikigai, or "reason for being." It's comprised of overlapping circles that depict four elements that contribute to a sense of fulfillment:

  1. What you love
  2. What the world needs
  3. What you can be paid for
  4. What you are good at

Though the idea is focused broadly on finding meaning in your life, ikigai often comes up during conversations around choosing what to do for work.

This makes sense, because work is such a major contributor to our overall sense of purpose. Many wealthy people continue working long after they could comfortably retire. Why? Because without work, it's easy for feelings of listlessness and lack of direction to creep in.

But is finding employment with all four of the elements in the above diagram a realistic goal for most people?

And are we putting too much pressure on our jobs to give our lives meaning?

Simone Stolzoff argues that we should stop trying to put all of our eggs in one basket and remember to look elsewhere for our purpose in life.

In the same way a romantic partner shouldn't be expected to meet every single one of your emotional and social needs, relying on one's work for all of your life's meaning can lead to a brittle sense of fulfillment.

Tie too much of your identity up in your work, and you risk neglecting other areas of your life.

The solution? According to Stolzoff, you should cultivate a portfolio of meaning. By drawing from a wide range of sources โ€” friendships, hobbies, sprititual practices, and other activities โ€” you can weave together a web of sources of fulfillment.

We live in a culture that tends to push people to find work that they find meaningful. However, if work is simply what enables you to foster other sources of meaning, isn't that enough?

I feel lucky to have work that I find fulfilling. But I wonder if that's really what our culture should set as the goal. After all, passions are created, not simply discovered, and meaning can be found in so many places.

Perhaps a better message for people looking for a reason for being would be this:

Never stop exploring, cultivate strong relationships, work hard, get lost in the right direction, follow your curiosity, stay hungry, and open doors for others along the way.

The Most Important Problems

Mathematician Richard Hamming made a habit of asking scientists from other disciplines, "What are the most important problems in your field?"

The question was mostly a setup for the follow up:

"Why aren't you working on them?"

Of course, there are many reasons to not be working on the most important problems in your industry. For one, your skills might be a better fit for a problem of lesser consequence. Or, you may simply enjoy working on something else.

But the two-part question is a good way to step back and examine the broader picture.

What would the opportunity to tackle the most important problems in your field look like? And how could you apply your unique combination of skills to them?

Via Paul Graham and Jacob Falkovich.

Working On Vs. In

Working on an organization consists of building out the systems for getting things done.

Working in an organization means carrying out those processes.

This might seem like an arbitrary distinction at first, but itโ€™s a useful way of identifying the potential impact of your efforts.

An engineer choosing which potato slicing machine to install in the chips factory is working on the business. But the person inspecting the chips for quality as they're bagged is working in the business.

There are enormous downstream effects when you're working on the business. Choose a bad slicer, and you might end up with thousands of bags of poorly cut chips. But you're also in a position to dramatically improve the factory's operations.

On the other hand, if you're the quality control person, you have deep insight into how well the business is operating, since you're on the front lines of it. And if you make a mistake, the downside is capped, since you're not equipped to change things at the process level.

So if youโ€™re evaluating a new job or set of responsibilities, ask yourself: Will I mostly be working on this organization or in it? And on which end of that spectrum will I feel most fulfilled?


Reflections on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
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