Stories, and Meaning [at work]

Tl; Dr: All people are motivated by meaning of their work. The ability to shape the “stories” that we tell ourselves gives meaning and thus is an essential motivational tool. This meaning is also key for personal satisfaction.

Let’s consider a standard engineer. There are a lot of “outlooks” this engineer might have. I’ll go over 5 out of thousands of possibilities just to illustrate some variety:

  • I’m the star engineer here, and I’ll turn this place around. Others might not quite see it yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
  • I’m a great engineer but nobody appreciates my work. How come that other engineer got promoted, I don’t think their work is as good as mine. I should run the company, the CEO is only CEO because he has blue-blood 1% investor friends. The world is rigged against me.
  • I’m so excited to be an engineer. I earn multiple times the median household income and I get perks too, while my other friends are still paying off their college debt.
  • Work’s good. It’s just a job though.
  • Why am I always the one under pressure? Nobody ever thanks me no matter how hard I work. Why do I get mistreated? I’m such a victim. It’s not right.

What I’m proposing is that the same engineer having the same experiences could retell that same experience in any of the ways I listed above.

In fact, you’ll find that a lot of people gravitate towards common narratives. I have a friend, let’s call him Fry who always sees the same story: The big guy is mistreating the little guy. One thing I learned quickly was that he liked and actively chooses (if not entirely consciously) to see the world in these terms. And if I want his help, I can motivate him by giving him a rebel story he can play a part in.

For example, if I’m trying to create a new tool, I could tell it in a way that plays up the opposition, especially if it’s an entrenched “senior” group that’s cautious about new ideas, and it’ll make him want to help.

Everybody has a narrative or two that resonates with them. I have another coworker, Bender, who always promotes the story: People are stupid. I know not to try to change his story, because it’s a choice and likely inspired by some very frustrating life experience (I imagine those frustrations are valid, albeit rather long-lived). If I need him on a PR I can ask it in a way that implies I need his expertise. That way he act can out his fantasy of undoing the damage of incompetent/indifferent through the act of improving my code. A win/win.

Sometimes these narratives are just plain counterproductive. I can think of experiences when teammates were annoyed that some “undeserving” party “stole credit.” In these situations you can try to rewrite the narrative, though it takes a certain skill. One way to accomplish this is to bring up an opposing narrative like, “Yeah so his name was mentioned in a meeting big deal… I don’t do great work so some manager can mention my name, I do it because there are literally millions of users who are experiencing what I make and I think I’m lucky to be able to be in a position to help so many people. That’s something I can be proud of.” [And as an aside their is no duplicity in this. It is our choice whether to aim to “do good” or to accrue material. Each philosophy has its upsides.]

And the fact that people are choosing to live these stories is an important fact. For a long time, I would have thought doing this type of thing was “manipulative” or “tricking” people into work when I could instead explain to them why their underlying narrative was too black&white. But knowing that these narratives are choices, with symbolic importance, that give meaning to the individual who holds them, I see now that people choose to live these stories hoping to “play them out.”

And most importantly, we all have narratives. Mastering other peoples narratives is a great tool, but mastering your own is probably more important.


Part 2.

If you’re a leader in an organization, you need to be aware of the stories that occupy the minds you oversee. Do people see themselves as battling each other for recognition? Do they see themselves as allies against a great evil? Do they see themselves as victims of your rule?

People within the company all have their narratives, and those attitudes are contagious. Your actions will have a great role in deciding which attitude wins out.

I’ve seen organizations torn apart by leaders who were out-of-touch with the effects of their actions. The cultural effects you have are of supreme importance. Actions like requiring engineers start an hour earlier, for example, are incredibly dangerous, because they give room for the narrative “We are seen as code monkeys” to thrive.

To win this battle you must understand the narratives that you are battling against. You must truly understand them, you must know and appreciate the day-to-day of your workers. For example, you must know that your Office Manager Lela is frustrated, sleep-deprived, is wondering where her life is going, and is starting to feel like the “manager” in her title is meaningless. When you know the people you work with you’ll know what stories are compelling to them. When you understand, you will be capable of offering the service of arming them with a better story, a brighter story, a more compelling story. Because as bad as Lela’s life is, it’s better for everyone if she feels like her work matters at the end of the day.

This is your value.

The “Hello” World

Have you ever been searching for a song on your favorite music service and scrolled through all the songs that matched your search. All of them?

For example, top of the pop billboards at the time of this writing is Adele’s “Hello.” I scrolled for a while and got to at least 1,962 songs named “Hello,” before I stopped scrolling.

It feels like looking into the grand canyon.

A few things are immediately apparent-

  1. All comes to pass. To illustrate, Madonna too is in the Hello list, but her Hello didn’t last; I can’t see why Adele’s would.
  2. The top dog takes it all. Adele’s variant has 250 million spotify listens. Most of the Hellos have < 2,000 listens. Adele’s Hello very well may have more (spotify) listens than all of the other 2 thousand combined.
  3. It’s  harder than it seems. When all the songs you know of are big hits, it can be hard to realize just how many unpopular songs are out there.
  4. This goes deeper than “Hello.” I just picked the top song on the billboard at the moment, but it could have been any songs. Or any poem, or book, blog, or famous person.

And a few things are less obvious-

  1. Why does the top dog take it all? Why do 99% of songs never reach the radio? Are most of these songs just bad? Is it simply that it’s ten times easier to write a bad song than a good one? Or is it that the music industry builds pop celebrities for profit, and radios buy in? Or is it that audiences don’t want so much choice, that we only like a song the 3rd time we hear it so we focus on a few new ones?
  2. So two thousand people chose the same word for their title. Is unique art only a fantasy? From the pool of a million english words, two thousand artists all picked the same one as the title of their song. I know this because I searched by title. How many of these songs share the same key chords? How many of these songs are about the same thing? Artists, like the rest of us, like to think they are doing the unique, but maybe the pool of possibilities split among all of humanity isn’t big enough to allow us each a distinctly unique idea, song title, or life story.
  3. So where do they all end up? There must be at least 80 hours of “Hello,” on spotify. Which makes me think there must be enough music on spotify that I couldn’t listen to it all if I dedicated the rest of my waking life to it. And people are still writing music. Is it just a never-ending cycle of new genres with a small fraction surviving into each new generation with the vast musical history resting in peace at the bottom of our searches? Or do we someday exhaust the unique musical possibilities?


Making it work

Ed Weissman posted a retelling of a scenario where his boss asked him for “10 minutes” to solve a problems. He reluctantly agrees but ultimately spends 3 hours working on this fix, and for most of the time he’s browsing Hacker News while his boss and a coworker named Sue repeatedly fumble with software while trying to convey the bug to him.

Of course everybody has opinions on the internet, but what struck me was when one commentor by the id Michael suggests that our protagonist Ed could have tried to be more helpful there was roughly a 10-1 disproportionate rebuke of Michael’s thought, mostly along the lines of: It’s not the narrator’s fault or job description to help others who are incompetent with software.

I want to look at the larger theme here. Off the top of my head, I can come up with several ways to handle that situation better (e.g. mulitask with something work-related, help out your co-workers, have bug reports get CC’d directly to you, come up with a better meeting strategy) but the root problem here is either attitude or a naive idealism that business should function mechanically..

The attitude portrayed is: I want to do my piece, and only my piece, and if you aren’t able to interface with me in a rigid predefined way, then I’ll silently resent you / the system. To look at it as a naive contractual system (programmer only does programming, manager only does meta-optimization, etc) is to miss the chance to improve things.

How would you feel if you got bounced around accounting over an issue with your check because several people said “It’s not my job” ?  This is the same situation with the roles reversed.

And moreover, how can you expect to go anywhere if you take no ownership of outcomes and can’t be liked by coworkers?