Given the large number of hours in our life that we spend at work, I think it’s important to assess the value of the work we do.

In my definition, there are two levels of work value:

  1. Essential work. This is work that pays the bills, feeds the family, keeps the lights on. It keeps the heater going in winter. Work that makes ends meet, ideally with enough left over for a good level of comfort and financial security. It’s work we do to support ourselves. It’s essential, and at times may even be enjoyable and fun, but it’s not enough.
  2. Work that matters. This is work that makes a lasting contribution to social progress. Work that makes the world better than how we found it, that over time we can point to as evidence that civilisation is making progress. Work that makes society safer, healthier, helps us use fewer resources or use resources more sustainably, reduces waste, gives people more time to be creative, or to spend with their family. This is work you’re proud to tell people about. It’s sustaining and deeply satisfying.

The boundary between the two levels is a personal definition. For me, the threshold for work that matters is when the work helps nudge civilisation forward, just a little.

Why is this important?

The evidence that civilisation is making steady improvement is overwhelming and undeniable. We are safer, healthier, better informed, and more secure than ever before. This happens because, over hundreds of years, people have done work that matters. The effect accumulates. We all benefit.

History is rich with advances achieved from the dedication of individuals. John Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker, solved the longitude problem in the mid-1700’s to prevent what until then was regular and large loss of life at sea when ship navigators miscalculated their position. Jonas Salk discovered a polio vaccine in 1952, and Albert Sabin an oral vaccine seven years later, to prevent generations of children being crippled by the insidious disease.

But it’s not just the big scale, high profile examples such as these that are important; such individuals are relatively rare. Smaller achievements from people like you and me add up too.

Some people are motivated by a philosophy, others by belief. For me, the motivation is simple. Because we benefit from those before us who dedicated their skills to do work that matters, the onus is on us to make a contribution as well, regardless how small it may seem, beyond our essential work.

Realistically, for most of us, our working hours must be balanced between essential work and work that matters. It’s serendipitous to do work that is essential and that matters simultaneously, but that opportunity is far from being available to everybody, all the time.

In a lifetime, we have a finite amount of time for productive work. We need to eat, sleep, socialise, relax, read, see movies, travel, and apply our skills to achieve something valuable, through our work. The number of hours in our lifetime seems large but is limited. How many of our working hours do we want to spend on essential work and how many on work that matters? Have you thought about your personal target?

The actual target percentage of work that matters is probably different for everybody, but if you agree it’s important to move humanity forward, it cannot be zero. It can’t be “One day I’ll do work that matters”. We need to do it each week, and do it consciously. It’s urgent.

How can we do more work that matters? Some examples:

  • Pitch an idea for worthwhile work to a receptive customer.
  • Create technology that makes someone’s life easier, safer, healthier, or better informed. Contribute it to open source so the technical community can build on it.
  • Start regular hack days and create something worthwhile at work.
  • Help your employer to see the shared commercial and social value of work that matters.
  • Dedicate some of your spare time to do worthwhile work for free.
  • Apply your skills at public hack events that solve social problems. My favourite is Random Hacks of Kindness (see rhokmelbourne.org and rhoksydney.org).

The important thing is to create your own definition for work that matters, and to deliberately lift the percentage of time you spend doing it.