If I pursue work that I truly love and enjoy, will the money follow? Is it more important to focus on projects that we find meaningful than what may be more lucrative or more likely to lead to promotions and better compensation? I have had a somewhat complicated relationship with these questions. So I'd like to explore them, share how they have guided my own career and provide a new perspective I have settled on that is partially inspired by or reminiscent of quantum physics.
First a quick plug for some blogging I have been doing lately but have not been publishing here. Especially if you found my last post on course correction of interest, you may also find some of my medium posts fall into your field of interest. I have not been including them here because they are completely removed from the software topics of this blog and I feel it would be distracting to the bulk of this audience. Likewise if you enjoy this post, you may enjoy the medium posts, but I think this topic is super relevant to work in the technology industry (or any industry for that matter) and that's why I am publishing here.
Throughout the first 10 years of my career as a software developer and manager, I really didn't give the concept of meaning vs. wealth much thought. I was extremely fortunate that I almost accidentally fell into work I found very enjoyable and just so happened to be very lucrative. Certainly leaps and bounds more so than the low paying jobs in my 20s. After 7 years of solid coding, I gradually started managing more and eventually became VP of technology over a small 20 engineer department. The money was very very good. In fact for the first time in my life I didn't worry much about money. I wasn't "rich" but I had no credit card Dept and could afford occasional modest vacations. However I found that I did not enjoy management nearly as much as hands on development.
I was working for a startup at the time and had quite a few stock options that promised a potentially significant exit reward if I stuck things out. After a few years I decided that I was ready to move on and do more hands on work. It seemed like every year we were poised to sell or go public the following year and so I figured I'd stick things out. Eventually, and rather suddenly, it just hit me that life is too precious to waste time doing work one finds unrewarding.
While moving from management back to individual contributor work was a no brainier, the salary difference was hard to swallow. Even though I was starting as a Sr. Software Development Engineer at a large technology company I was taking a 40% cut in pay. It was a solid and competitive salary, but I was certainly hoping to eventually return to the salary level I was at as a manager. So I clung to the conviction that if I applied my efforts to work I was passionate about, eventually finances would take care of themselves and I would again have a matching salary to what I had before. I knew this was very possible and I came close at one point to nearly achieving that managerial salary before again changing positions because I was much more passionate about the work than what I was developing at a higher salary job.
Honestly, the road to financial progress proved bumpier than I anticipated. Also, my passion and hard work were taking a rather significant toll on my quality of life. I began to wonder if I was barking up the wrong tree. Maybe I was wrong about the financial potential of my programming talent. While I could make up for talent with hard work, I was not sure how much longer I could sustain the hours I was putting in on the combined work and non-work related projects I was involved in. I really wanted to believe that I was a "gifted" developer destined for financial independence but this thought seemed to become more unraveled as time went on.
There were a couple times where my focus on pursuing what I believed in technically was directly conflicting with my ability to follow my employer's promotion track. When I made the switch to hands on development, for about six months I just wanted to write software and it did not matter so much what the software did as long as I was challenged. However eventually it became more and more important to me to work on software I believed in. I didn't just want to pump out "widgets" but code something meaningful. If my employer's work became uninteresting, I'd often find something in open source that could cultivate my interests. However, this was work (sometimes a lot of work) done on my own time for free and often (but not always) not seen or appreciated by my employer. On the one hand that was fine. I did not expect to be appreciated for work that was not contributing to the revenue of the one signing my paycheck. On the other hand I knew for a fact that if I dove 100% into the work that I was employed to do (like what I did before I discovered open source), I'd be much better positioned for promotions and raises.
I really felt like somewhere something went wrong with my "master plan." What happened? I did not feel on track to a growing career and even felt like my self-perceived talent was overrated. Looking around at the talent that surrounded me, I was no 10x developer for sure. I don't believe in the 10x developer but long ago I thought maybe I was one. Further, I did not want to acknowledge the fallacy of my myth. My entire self-image had become so comingled with my image of the uber developer and I really wanted to believe my talent held the key to riches. I thought that to admit that I was average or even worse would be throwing away the hope of the good life.
After these thoughts and doubts came to a crescendo over a year ago, I took a sabbatical from my pursuit to achieve developer greatness. I literally just stopped. I'm still committed to my work as a developer, but I took several steps back and removed this drive from the alter of my constant attention. I knew I needed to reflect and "chew" on a larger problem. I clearly needed to become more skillful in simply living my life. I knew I was missing something important and that I needed to adjust my lens that helped me to define what greatness and success were and the path to achieving them. I still believed that path existed, but knew I had strayed.
It seems like I'm continuing to learn more every day and I plan to do so indefinitely but here are some key takeaways I have taken after a year of pondering.
First, I did the right thing when I left my VP position for individual contributor development work. I needed to pursue my desire to grow my coding skills. While it did not put me on the jetway to wealth, it has led to many great opportunities and experiences. I do think I have had a rich career that is far from over. It's also somewhat comforting to know that had I stayed in that previous VP role, I would have "sunk with the ship." The prosperous exit never happened for anyone in that startup.
Next, while the above pivot was the right thing to do, I clung to the wrong target. I erected a false image of myself as the romanticized developer genius. I believed that by conforming to that image, I would realize my material goals. This image was not who I am. It's not at all that I'm a bad developer or in fact have not done some pretty great technical things throughout my career, but this image is totally artificial and I allowed myself to be seduced by it. It became my measuring stick for greatness and any failure to reflect its shallow qualities was a threat to my ability to obtain the future I hoped for. The passion to change the type of work I was doing was a voice worth listening to and following but I misinterpreted where it was leading me and prematurely created a vision that was not grounded in my reality.
Losing the path does not mean I wasted my time. Oddly, many of us have to learn how to be ourselves by making several failed attempts to be someone who we are not. It's perhaps the only route to understand ourselves.
The path to success is not a straight line from where we currently are to an unmoving goal that we imagine to be our destiny and calling perfectly matched with our ultimate potential. For me this was a huge realization. I have long unconsciously fostered this notion that one has a calling or a singular future that one is meant to fulfill. We make decisions and choose opportunities that either align ourselves with that calling or throw us off "the path" and threaten to lead us to a possible future where we squander that perfect image of what we were meant to become.
Every moment brings with it a multitude of possible outcomes. This is why I call this a quantum perspective because it reminds me of the Many Worlds Theory of quantum physics. These outcomes can be very different. Some will be wonderful and others very undesirable. There is no ONE correct outcome but many. There is no single perfect career, place to live, spouse, or any achievement destined for each individual. There is a constant myriad of possibilities. By fashioning an unmovable vision of who we think we are meant to become we blind ourselves to these possibilities and limit the direction we follow.
It's also not terrible to have chosen a "bad" possibility. Doing so is not an irrevocable act that steers us away from our fully realized potential. The opportunity for redemption lies in each moment. Because there is no single perfect future that we must aim for, there is an infinite number of possibilities to realize ourselves. There is no straight line to fall from but a field of potentials that we constantly gravitate among. Just because we miss a perceived opportunity that would have led us to our perceived destiny does not mean the next moment will not bring new opportunity for a completely and utterly different outcome but perhaps just as "perfect."
It is crucial that we recognize this. By limiting ourselves to a vision that we march toward come hell or high water is a great way to build a prison for ourselves cut off from a vast number of experiences better aligned with who we are in this particular moment. Just because one moment we find ourselves drawn to do heads down coding does not mean that is the ultimate definition of who we are and what we are to become even if it may mean it is a great path to take in that moment.
We are all truly dynamic beings and we constantly defy any solidified definition of who we are that predicts what we are meant to become. We are a collection of decisions and interactions with other elements of our reality that are always redefining who we are and redirecting the trajectory of our future. Perhaps by coming to terms with this idea that each moment presents multiple equally valid potential directions we can see a new beauty in what is right in front of us. If what we see is not reflective of the reality we have chosen to embrace for our future, maybe we don't need to change the reality of what we see but rather the image of the future we are projecting on to that reality.
While the above ideas ring true for me, they can be difficult to totally embrace. I'm trying to let go of the images I cling to that color the future I think that I want so that I can be more open to the possibilities that lie in front of me, but that's hard. We live our entire lives cultivating these visions - trying to become an embodiment of ourselves that is not the embodiment we reside inside of. I find that these images can give us not only fear and a sense of lack but also comfort and solace. They provide us with an identity that solidifies our sense of self. We tend to like that. We want to know who we are and feel like we control who we are to become. That security is hard to drop and without it, there is a feeling of impending emptiness and groundless weightlessness. Perhaps we need to fall into that emptiness and embrace the weightless vertigo if just for a moment to find our wings and fly.