Living with the work you do - a few thoughts

Mon, 18 Aug 2014

When you work at for-profit companies like I do, you often get questioned by friends with strong moral compasses: “How can you live with yourself doing the work that you do?”.

I suppose I could get offended, or dismiss their questions as ignorant.  Instead, as I’ve learned just how easy it is to end up doing work that I would ultimately regret (or at very least should regret), I’ve learned to value the question.  I’d rather get questioned, and be forced to think about it, than have my friends stop caring what I did.

I’m going to take as a starting point that I aspire to respect the world and make it a better place (and to not make it a worse place).  I think that is an ambition that many people could relate to, and is neither reliant on nor at odds with most religious beliefs.

I’m not saying that I always do this - as with any aspiration, it is very easy to fall short.  And I don’t assume that everyone will act in this way - perhaps because they’ve tried and failed, or perhaps they’re driven by other motivations (though, as I discussed in my last post, there are plenty of good reasons to expect that they're positively motivated).

Saying that it is my aspiration to respect the world and make it a better place is relatively easy.  Knowing how to do it, in an uncertain world, is a lot more difficult.  There are times when holding back from action is appropriate given the uncertainty, but other times when it is better to try.

It is difficult to know if the work I do creates a better world, a worse world, or doesn’t really make much difference.  If I thought there was a good chance it would make a worse world, I’d like to think I would stop doing it.  This gives appears to give an option: if I don’t look for any evidence of bad outcomes, I can honestly say I didn’t see any problem.  This is actually more easily done than you’d think - our brains are wired to look for evidence that confirms what we want to see and ignore what would be uncomfortable.  But given a genuine goal of wanting to make the world better, and not regret my actions, I should fight this tendency and actively look for evidence that my work is causing harm.

One useful trick to avoid convincing yourself that something is alright is to imagine justifying it to a friend, your grandchildren, or the public (for example, how would this action look in the tabloids).  If you know that you’d sound like you were on thin ice, you probably are.

Finally, when thinking about whether our work is making the world better or worse, it is easy to think only in terms of dramatic possibilities, and to  ignore the many smaller ways in which we all make a difference.  While it is great to work for something truly incredible, and we should avoid being part of anything destructive, I believe that most of the impact we have is through smaller acts - for example how we treat people we work with, whether we respect our customers, or how we treat our family and friends when we leave the office.  I don’t believe that working for a charity justifies you treating your colleagues inhumanely.  And anyone can choose to make the world better in even the most insignificant job.