224. Aristotle Project - Meaning

Financial security, building working relationships, having a positive impact on the people around you; which of these examples resonates with the way you find meaning in your work? It could be one of them, or all or them, or you may have completely different sources of meaning. In today’s episode, my guest, Sophie Creutz, and I, share how we personally find meaning in the work that we do, and why we believe this to be a very important topic. Google recently did some research on the subject too, so we also share some of those findings. Tune in today to hear it all!

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Findings from the research that Google has done around meaning.
  • Examples of different ways that people find meaning in their work.
  • A definition of phenomenology.
  • I share the ways I find meaning in my work.
  • The importance of having role models and mentors who look like you.
  • Sophie explains which elements of her work are meaningful to her, and why.
  • Value that comes from doing pair programming. 
  • How you can find meaning in your work if the area you are working in doesn’t inspire you.
  • An effective approach to improving engagement.
  • Benefits of positive feedback.
  • The difference between meaning and impact.


Transcript for Episode 224. Aristotle Project - Meaning

[00:00:01] MN: Hello, welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developers podcast, living large in New York. I'm your host, Michael Nunez, and the superfan today –

[00:00:10] SC: Sophie Creutz.

[00:00:11] MN: Today, we'll be talking about the Aristotle Project, specifically meaning. What is the meaning of our work?

[00:00:18] SC: Ooh, this is a big one, Bobby, talking about meaning.

[00:00:20] MN: You think so? Yeah. I mean, I think we wake up in the morning, and hopefully, you have meaning in the work that you do. The fact that this is one of the tenets of the findings that Google had when doing this research, it's very, very interesting, because I didn't think that it would be this important.

[00:00:44] SC: Meaning? Of course, meaning is important. I guess, that's my opinion. It's interesting that you bring up this idea of, you're waking up in the morning, because as you may know, we just had one of the High Holy Days, Jewish High Holy Days, it was Rosh Hashanah. A tenet of Judaism, for people who were perhaps, maybe quite observant, is that you actually say a prayer every morning, just thinking, expressing thankfulness for the fact that you have woken up. Just like that very simple, but profound idea that there is meaning in the fact that you are waking up, you're still alive, you're still conscious, and you're taking this moment to be aware of what that meaning is.

[00:01:34] MN: Taking in. Then, you're thankful that you have been woken up. You, I imagine, if it's not a holiday, or weekend, or your time off, it's time on, which means you would eventually have to get ready for work.

[00:01:50] SC: You get ready. Yeah. You have your moment of, “Thank goodness, I'm awake.” Then, maybe you slide right into, “Okay, now I'm thinking about work.” If your work isn't meaningful, and you don’t see the meaning in your work, then hopefully, it's easy to shift that gratitude from one subject to the other.

[00:02:10] MN: Right. I think I'm going to read the definition that is provided by the findings, the website we've been using, which is the rework guide that Google has provided. For meaning, it says, “Finding a sense of purpose, and either the work itself, or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary. Financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.”

[00:02:47] SC: Those are very different things.

[00:02:50] MN: Right. Yeah, there's one that's super personal, like to your own self, that affects you.

[00:02:58] SC: Self-expression. That's pretty personal. Yeah.

[00:03:00] MN: Right. Financial security, but helping the team succeed is the other end, or you find meaning in helping others at your job and in what you do.

[00:03:13] SC: Right. I mean, I guess by definition, it will be different for every person, where you find the most meaning. For example, for one person, it might be financial security that's the most meaningful for them in that moment. Or it might be building, working relationships with team members, that's the most meaningful, or it might be seeing some concrete impact on the world around you. I think that last one is a popular one.

[00:03:53] MN: Yeah. I think that’s a now growing thing that people are starting to look into. It’s like, is the work that I do affecting the world in a positive way?

[00:04:07] SC: Right. I think I have another definition here, too, which is that meaningful work is defined as a circumstance in which employees understand the value of the work they do, and the organization's shared mission. What do we think about that definition, does that clarify things?

[00:04:28] MN: Yeah. I mean, I think so. It sounds like you know upfront in the organization that you work in, how it brings meaning to you, or the world itself. I feel like the Google definition gives it a more self-reflecting approach to how one finds meaning to the work that someone may do.

[00:04:52] SC: A little bit of a tautological definition, meaning that it defines itself with its own definition. i.e. it says, defined as a circumstance in which employees understand the value, which is almost like saying, meaningful work is work that has meaning. Just to play devil's advocate here for a second. Maybe that's the point, is that meaning is hard to define, because it is so subjective.

[00:05:19] MN: Right. You can find meaning and work, as you mentioned. It can vary from one person to another very, very, very differently.

[00:05:30] SC: When talking about meaning, I think it's helpful to bring a little bit of a personal narrative in here. For example, Bobby, what would you say, forms the meaning for you? Maybe, in thinking about this question, you can think about this idea of what phenomenological means as well. Phenomenological, it's a really interesting concept from philosophy meaning the study of phenomena. Appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, note that those two things are different, or the ways we experience things. Thus, the meanings things have in our experience, which I think is important to note here, this distinction of the way things are and the way we perceive them. Because there could be something that is in the experience of multiple individuals, but is experienced subjectively differently, through those different eyes, that different brain, etc., etc. that different set of experiences.

[00:06:38] MN: I curated a list of just the things that I have in terms of meaning to me, as we were coming up with this topic. The number one is money. I'm not going to lie to you, there is a good amount of money that exists in software engineering. Definitely, what is it? More money, more problems? Yes, yes.

[00:06:59] SC: That’s what they say. I have heard this said. Yes.

[00:07:03] MN: I mean, problems can be solved with money that I have learned to deal with.

[00:07:10] SC: But it can't buy you love. Keep that in mind, too.

[00:07:12] MN: No, no, no. Of course not. It can't buy you love for sure. It buys you groceries, though. That's very, very important. Yeah, it does do that. Supporting family, obviously, it does that through the support, or receiving of the money.

[00:07:29] SC: Well, and that's a good point. Because remember, just to interject here, remember that we exist in a system. Yeah. We don't exist in abstraction. We don't exist in isolation. We have to take these elements of the system that we must work in, into where we find meaning, I think. Yeah.

[00:07:49] MN: Yeah. I mean, money is good. I use it to support my family.

[00:07:56] SC: Would you say, more money, more meaning?

[00:08:00] MN: No, not entirely. I think there's more – I think that I'd be lying if I say money wasn't part of the meaning that I have in my list.

[00:08:09] SC: Well, or, and or, let me ask you this, Bobby. Is it meaning? Or is it motivation?

[00:08:19] MN: Oh, that's a good question. Because I think it might be motivation and meaning. I'll use the next bullet that I have, because money, I think is very, very motivational, I would say.

[00:08:32] SC: It’s very motivating. Yeah, it's extremely motivating and incentivizing and all of those things.

[00:08:36] MN: Oh, yeah. I think the next one has to do with finding diversity within software engineering and technology. As a person, Latin X, or Latino, person of color, who is in the software engineering space, there's not a lot of people who look like me sometimes. Especially, it's really, really weird in New York City, there's a lot of people from Dominican Republic, but this is not reflected in a company that it is from New York City. That's something that to bring diversity within stride, and the fact that I have the ability to do that is pretty important.

[00:09:16] SC: That's a big deal.

[00:09:17] MN: Yeah. I think that one is more meaningful than motivational. I feel like that one definitely helps.

[00:09:23] SC: A lot of meaning in that. It ties into your identity, your culture, your community. You're so right, too. It's like, you don't even realize how much you're missing, not having role models that look like you, until you finally have it.

[00:09:40] MN: Yeah, exactly. That's one of the big things that I like about the work that I do. Also, I like the idea of mentorship. I think that that one is also probably more motivational. Me having the ability to be a mentor to individuals from different organizations, or even within Stride, allows me to share my experiences with other people who, in which I didn't have that much support from a person of color like myself when I went and reached out for mentorship. It's pretty cool that I have the ability to do that now. I think that one is more meaningful. Money is definitely – I'd be lying to you if I didn't say money wasn't on that list either. Sophie, what do you find meaning in the work that you do?

[00:10:31] SC: How do I find meaning in my work? Yeah. I think, one way that I find meaning is that if it ties into some other interest of mine, so then from a phenomenological perspective, if I find music meaningful, that could be because of my experience with music. I've played a lot of music. I've listened to a lot of music. I've had experiences of performing music. That's a lot of, I guess, mental memory, emotional memory, all sorts of layers there. That serves the purpose of creating a block of meaning, if you will, from which I can draw. Then if I'm working at a client, where perhaps there's some tie-in to music, for instance, Spotify, YouTube, etc., then that – it's almost as if there's this diffusion of meaning from one subject to another. The whole thing is then imbued with that meaning and context, which is nice.

I think also, peer-to-peer relationships have a lot of meaning for me. Having good, working relationships with my colleagues, so that we can really pair program together, problem solve together, collaborate, that's super meaningful for me. Why is that meaningful? I guess, because inherently, relationships are meaningful. I understand the value of having this collaboration. I've seen what dividends it can pay, and that kind of thing.

[00:12:06] MN: Right. There's a, what is it? What do they say? Humans are social creatures, right? We tend to do much better with working in groups and whatnot, the ability to – and pair programming can be very exhausting when you're working with someone and bouncing off ideas for eight hours out the day but it definitely increases the relationship that you may have with a person, so that you can continue to deliver a software.

I mean, it's such a bad analogy. It's like, you're in the trenches with another individual, who shares the same experiences as you for eight hours out the day. There's some after finishing a client engagement for six months pairing with this one person, y'all are –

[00:13:04] SC: That is a relationship.

[00:13:06] MN: Yeah. That’s like, “Yo, that's my guy. That’s my gal.” You get to learn more about that person, in and out, and in working, and in personal. It's pretty dope, to be able to communicate and foster –

[00:13:23] SC: Yes. The degree of depth and meaning that you're able to create with your colleagues in that situation is nothing to shake your head at. Yeah, that's pretty significant. I've noticed, I was talking to someone else the other day about the experience of pair programming. I mentioned the fact that the only thing that I've experienced that is similar is when I was a classroom teacher. Because when you're a classroom teacher, you're talking all day. That's the only other place where I've talked all day.

It's nice, because you get to do it in a variety of circumstances, thus creating an array of phenomenological context for any working relationship. That in turn, creates depth, which you can then draw on and iterate on and build on. Yeah, I guess the implied thing here is that in order for that phenomenological meaning to continue to accrue in a way that is positive and constructive, you do need to have some of these agile ceremonies, like a regular cadence of feedback, etc., etc.

[00:14:34] MN: Right. Those systems help find meaning in the work that one may do, so that that structure exists in continuation of the lifetime of this product that you're building, I would say.

[00:14:50] SC: Yeah. What if we're having trouble finding meaning in the work that we're doing? Are there ways around that?

[00:14:59] MN: I think so. Because there could be a different array of things that could be happening in a software engineering light, if you will. For example, I think what I wrote here was, “What if the work is boring, but the technology is intriguing?” Maybe, let's say, I don't want to do something extreme. I think that people will not find meaning in working, what's the term? In the military-industrial complex application, for example. People may say like, “Oh, no. I don't want to work in building software for the military, in weaponry,” for example.

[00:15:40] SC: I don't really have a connection to that. I'm sure other people can relate.

[00:15:45] MN: Right. What if it's something, I don't know, I'm trying to think of something stale. Let's say, you're building an app for – or you're part of an application that designs paychecks, like the way that a paycheck is laid out. Different countries have to file different taxes, and all sorts of stuff like that.

[00:16:04] SC: Taxes. That's a good one. I mean, look, shout out to all of the accountants out there.

[00:16:10] MN: Yeah. Right. Taxes could be one, where it's like, it’s a thing that has to be done, but the technology could be intriguing. You can find meaning in learning, “Hey, I want to learn new things and be good at my craft, so that I can continue on passing that information to other folks.”

[00:16:27] SC: Right. Might not be an intriguing area of study in and of itself. If you're using, I don't know, if you're really into NextJS or something, you get to use NextJS, then that could provide meaning for you. Or even vice versa, right? What if the meeting itself does have a lot of phenomenological meaning, but the technology doesn't, I guess, if you're really into ATM machines, then maybe you'd be okay with writing in COBOL.

[00:16:55] MN: Right. I mean, that would be much harder for me to do. I am all for people having access to money, because there's a lot of people who don't have bank accounts, because they're unable to get one. I wouldn't be able to do that all day if COBOL was the language of choice.

[00:17:14] SC: Yeah, I think it's good that you're pointing out this distinction. Because as you said, money is very meaningful. However, the mechanism of receiving money through an ATM machine is not.

[00:17:26] MN: I mean, and however you can get money, sure. Just don't make me write it in COBOL. That's what I do not want to do.

[00:17:34] SC: Well, look. If you're the programmer on this project, you can just write an Easter Egg function that only gets called when you input your particular information, so that you get two extra cents on every dollar that you withdraw.

[00:17:51] MN: Take half a penny from each person who withdraws money and put it onto an account that then grows over time.

[00:17:57] SC: Ooh. Wow. Oh, we’re getting dangerous.

[00:17:59] MN: What is that? Office Space, I think it was. I haven't seen that movie in forever, but that movie is great. Yeah. I mean, COBOL, don't make me write. That's a good point. You could find meaning in some aspect of the thing that you do. You don't try and reach out and see how that affects you and ensure that it's positive for you.

[00:18:24] SC: Yeah. Well, and I think this reflects some of the research that a couple of these companies did in terms of running these campaigns, where they demonstrate to their employees that they're involved in the community in some way, really demonstrate that by reaching out to folks in the community, talking to them, and then making these stories part of the narrative, that has shown in the research to improve engagement.

[00:18:51] MN: Yeah. I think the idea that you can find the meaning in your work, allows one to be able to continue doing that said work. There are some things that were mentioned in the article that I’d like to bring up. We talked about meaning of things that are to ourselves. One of the things that they mentioned, I think in the definition earlier, the Google definition talks about the success, helping the team succeed, which we mentioned that it's like, oh, that might be bigger than someone self-motivating, or self-meaning work.

One of the things that they mentioned that the team should foster to help increase the meaning of the work is to give team members positive feedback on something outstanding that they're doing, and offer help with something that they're struggling with. I think the idea also of supporting your fellow teammate, allows one to be able to find meaning in that, and then that starts creating meaning with them themselves to help the team succeed as well.

[00:20:04] SC: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I suspect that even if you haven't really had a lot of training or experience in delivering and receiving this feedback in a team, that once you're able to, it won't be difficult to see the meaning in that.

[00:20:23] MN: Right. Given that feedback, one can get better by practicing. Always, one thing that I used to do at the end of the week, in a team that I was on, I would try to give positive feedback on a behavior that someone did that week and tell them that it was great, and to continue doing that. I think that's probably a good way to practice with positive feedback.

It’s just like the idea of like, “Hey, Bobby. Great work this week. I think you did great facilitating that retro. I really liked the way you did A, B, and C. Continue doing that. We can talk more about it next week, when we're back from the weekend.” Just doing those little things of positivity is very, very helpful for the team. People like to hear when they're doing a good job. Definitely try and sneak some of those in there.

[00:21:17] SC: Validation is a big deal. Let's be real about that.

[00:21:21] MN: Yeah. Whatever meaning that you find in your workplace is good for you. Like we mentioned before, everyone's different in their experience of what is meaningful for them. We'll talk soon about the final item in the Aristotle Project, which is impact, how does the work impact you and the life and the world around you? Which I think is similar to meaning, but I feel meaning is self-reflective, then impact is outward reflective.

[00:21:59] SC: Yeah, awareness of how you affect the world around you.

[00:22:04] MN: Stay tuned as we get to the final –

[00:22:06] SC: Stay tuned. Go find that meaning.

[00:22:08] MN: Go find that meaning while you’re at it. Then we'll talk about the impact afterwards.


[00:22:12] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit, so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five-star review and help developers just like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole. Never miss an episode. Subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries, and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson, and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


Links and Resources:

Sophie Creutz on LinkedIn

The Rabbit Hole on Twitter


Michael Nunez on LinkedIn

Michael Nunez on Twitter

David Anderson on LinkedIn

David Anderson on Twitter

William Jeffries on LinkedIn

William Jeffries on Twitter