What is my Work Ethic?

In response to this post about getting a job after graduating.

I think the core of finding a job and being motivated to do it is: How are you going to serve the people around you? At the end of the day society isn’t about what you can get out of it, but what possible super-power do you have which could effect the people around you in a positive way. Is that art? Is that cleaning? Thinking? Programming? I find that in the modern society too much emphasis is put on person gain, noble voluntarism or doing what’s enjoyable. The problem with these perspectives is that the focus is never on the individuals being served by the work and this blog post is a defence of direct service to others needs and having that be a mark of a successful career.

Doing a Thing

Sometimes something just needs doing. I think if you are in a strong community, you can sense when there’s pent up demand. I ran a campaign to raise funds to get aluminium computer case badges printed and this was before Kickstarter existed. I handled $4k and 20k case badges and they were sent around the world and I had an enormously positive experience serving the people who really wanted Ubuntu case badges. I was transparent about the money. I put the leg work into my relationship with the manufacturer and published news as soon as I had it. I published the designs so everyone knew what they were getting and in the end I had a thousand positive recipients and one negative one because they had been mangled in the post (sorry!) and I used my basic talents using a graphics package to put together something acceptable for users. Anyone could have done this, but to act is to be bold sometimes.

The side effects were more interesting. I asked people for ‘at cost’ payments which despite being based on estimates and the shipping costs wasn’t certain. People were generous and they almost always sent more than asked or needed, often with a note saying “keep the rest”. I didn’t feel bad about this, I think because I was honest with the costs and they were being served genuinely. The other effect was that we introduced the manufacturer to the idea of “open source” by licensing the designs under CC-BY-SA. I encouraged other groups or companies to use the designs to make their own. There are now many, many different aluminium case badges for different Linux distribution and I see them at conferences all the time. I feel good about this. Because imagine all the Fedora, Debian and Mint users who get something cool and the organisers who got a pattern to follow and a manufacturer to talk to. In a way I didn’t just serve people directly with the pre-sales, but also incidentally people through positive open source licensing and I can feel good about both.

Validity of Competence

But then, don’t I just feel good about it because I got praise for it? Well that’s true, I feel good when I get praise. But I think praise is more than just the warm fuzzies. It’s an important reminder to us that our work matters, that we’re still good at it and of the kinds of people who we have served.

One Harvard school gives awards to people who do good work in the anti-alarm professions. You know, those jobs where if the work is done well then no one even notices. But if something goes wrong the alarm bells ring loud. The facilities team, the system admins, the people who order those weird coffee machine cartridges. And that’s a really good thing to do, because it reminds those workers that their job is important and effects probably everyone else in some small way as well as for everyone to thank them once in a while. That feedback from server to served and served to server is the validity of competent altruism. I say it’s altruistic because only thinking about one’s self will not make you great at serving others.

There is a cross-walk near where I live where the snow had been repeatedly ploughed into the pavement one and a half meters high and had frozen solid with thaw. People walking to the train station would have to climb this mountain of snow to cross a very busy road. What if they had kids, or groceries or a bad leg? The night I thought about those people I got the ice breaking tools and shovel and cleared the whole corner. The next day as people shuffled to work, they probably didn’t notice their commute was a little better than before and had no way of knowing if it was the city or not. But I certainly reminded myself of all these slightly less miserable faces as I pounded away at the ice with the sweat pouring off me and the echoes of each thwack, crunch late at night for two hours.

Ethic

I hear about “work ethic” a lot, and it’s usually about “working hard to get on in life”. But anyone successful knows that there’s more to a good work ethic and I believe the largest missing piece is that is “one must work hard for other people, for them and not what one may want to do for them“.

There are communities in the Free and Open Source world who have chosen to work hard at imposing what’s good on their users. That’s a risky service ethic, a sort of pre-emptive competent guess. If your community has set up no way for your guess to fail or you mishandle the push back from your users then you can’t claim to have a good service ethic or to have actually served well. So how can these workers and their work be tied to the people they serve so that it heads in the right direction for the served rather than for the server?

I know that people will pay for good service. there’s no reason to slave away as a volunteer if your work is genuinely in service to others. Caveat, except for people who have nothing, but then grants, government programs, charities can help fill that hole. For my fellow Free Software developers, they do good work and yet many are failing to make the link between the work they do and the people they serve. Thus making it harder for them than it needs to be to earn a living from writing Free Software.

Being Good at what you Like

One part I’ve not talked about is getting a job that you like doing. This is a tricky one because being good at something makes you more likely to enjoy doing it. And Enjoying doing something makes you more likely to do it and thus overcome failures faster and become good at it. I say do what you are good at and like doing that gives the most benefit to others. It’s not as pithy a personal moto though.

A friend of mine who works in mental health once turned a job down for more money. Not just because it would mean serving people who really didn’t need the help, but mainly because being good at helping a certain kind of person with certain kinds of harsh needs is important work. Being good at this job wouldn’t mean there would be lots of recognition from patience, but it would mean truly serving and making a difference to those individuals. And it’s better to have the job one is good at making a difference than the job that could make a difference if only you were good at it or the job that makes no damn difference at all.

And serving individuals I think offers the best perspective on one’s own work. It motivates better than saving the world and feels more accomplished than earning stacks of cash. When one can see the good work well done and be validated for it there is no reason not to go to work every day and earn a living doing it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from me after a year of no blog post. Please leave your comments below as I love hearing from people.

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4 Responses to “What is my Work Ethic?”

  1. Vinipsmaker says:

    Okay, let me say that I enjoyed very much your work at the Ubunchu publication.

  2. daedalJS says:

    my parents would be served if i could pay them rent.
    though aside from that things aren’t all that clear to me.

    i’ve never really been all that interested in traditional success and i certainly don’t want to deal with all the BS involved in climbing a corporate ladder. i don’t like large corporations or big businesses ’cause they’re just concerned with a better bottom line and their images. i’m pretty sure we’d all be better off if they had never killed off all the little mom and pop stores and shops.
    after all, those are the places that actually care about the community they’re in and their employees.

    that said there are some places that aren’t so “mom and pop” that aren’t bad either. my degree was an associates for CADD (leaning towards manufacturing uses). i learned from some older students who were there from a program their company does that the company they work for takes measures and does some things so they don’t have to lay people off in the off season even if those employees mostly just end up cleaning the place up a bit during that time.

  3. Bernie says:

    Interesting post Martin, certainly raises some interesting points and I applaud your service to community (both at a local level, and global with the FOSS stuff).
    One thing you didn’t really touch on though is the emotional rewards that YOU receive by doing these things. On a personal note, I tend to train people so they can get a good base of skills to go forth and … do whatever it is they want to do. Sometimes this is in a computing fields, marketing fields, photography fields, etc

    The outcomes I’ve seen from doing this have been some rewarding new and lasting friendships, lives turned around and validated, failing businesses succeed etc – and this stuff makes me very happy – and this is a great reward for the effort :)

    @daedalJS: that’s an interesting stereotype of small business. I’ve seen (and even worked at some) equally as many uncaring, rip their staff off, rip their customers off and have no regard for the community Mom and Pop stores as bigger businesses.

    These days I work for a business that I know cares – it cares about me, my community, and it shows. It needs to be successful in order to continue this support and that’s a good motivation for me to be a good employee.

    I would suggest focussing less on stereotypes based on size, and look instead at the actions of the business to determine their motives.

  4. doctormo says:

    @Bernie – The only addition I would say about size, is that size effects the sync of a company. They call it phase transition these days, but the way groups interact goes through really interesting shifts between close knit, well sync’ed companies to loose knit corporate morality. Larger sizes just make it harder for the company to stay within a phase where people’s morality can positively accumulate instead of their lack of concern detracting from it.