What motivates me

“What motivates you?”

My friend Hannah asked me this question recently. I frequently refer to “impact” as my motivation, but I hadn’t thought more deeply about it until she asked for an explanation.

So here’s a longer answer: I’m motivated by technology that makes a meaningful impact in people’s lives. Let me explain some of these terms in more detail.

While my work has mostly been in software engineering, I get excited by all kinds of “technology”. Software, hardware, web, or mobile. Dishwashers, lawnmowers, trucks, or airplanes. It’s all technology to me.

“Impact” is a change in the way people see or do things. It makes a difference by changing the course of a person’s life in some way. It makes a person more productive or transforms what they thought was possible.

Impact has breadth and depth. Breadth represents the number of people impacted, while depth captures to what extent. I’m motivated by a wide region in that “breadth x depth” coordinate space– affecting one hundred people 1% is up there with affecting one person 100%. If some technology affects one hundred people 100%, then that’s even more exciting.

Impact is often measurable. For software, it might be the volume of sales, number of GitHub stars, or quality of user testimonials. For one’s writing, it might be the number of readers or reactions expressed in readers’ comments. While these indicators reflect impact, they don’t necessarily define it. In many instances, people feel impact but don’t express it in a visible way.

“Meaningful” is harder to define. Yes, something meaningful is “positive”, “does good”, and concerns issues that people “care about”. But beyond that, I’ll defer to Hannah, who says: “It’s like a unicorn”. (I too was puzzled, at first.) Even if you’ve never seen it before, you would know it’s a unicorn. You’re absolutely sure it’s not a rhino– you can feel it.

Meaningful is distinct from depth of impact. The latter can be made in a positive or negative way. It can also be made in an area that people don’t care about. On the other hand, qualifying impact with “meaningful” captures things that are positive and people care about.

I mentioned “people’s lives” and want to emphasize that point. To me, technology is always about people because they’re the ultimate beneficiary of whatever we develop.

It’s helpful to think about sources of motivation because they often define what makes us happy. Only by being aware of our underlying goals can we be satisfied with what we do. At the moment, this explanation approximates the motivation for most of my work. Through my future jobs, responsibilities, and side projects, I think this will last for some time.

Now if only I can find the motivation to finish my homework, I’ll feel just a little better.

Thanks to Charlie Marsh for reading an earlier draft of this post and Hannah Park for asking the “motivating question”.

January 2015