Knowledge Work & Motivation


I’ve blogged about how I’ve struggled with motivation both professionally and in my endeavours. I’ve had quite a few sessions with my team lead where we’ve touched on this, and I also chatted with a friend who made quite a bold statement:

When asked what I do for a living, I’ve always responded, “I am a software engineer”. I’m then left feeling like software engineering is defining who/what I am. When asked what I do for a living now, I respond with, “I do software engineering”. Software engineering is now no longer the only thing that defines me, and I have many other things that I feel are important in my life.

I’ve had to reword the statement a little, which might mean I’m missing some of the nuances of our original discussion, but it’s made me think more about this and the impact this mentality has on my own life. I’m also not sure where I’m heading with this post, but I’ve wanted to reflect a little on the differences in this mentality. I’m especially intrigued by the impact of doing knowledge work has on someone’s psyche compared to manual work.

What is Knowledge Work & Manual Work

People might perceive my perspective as inflammatory in the way I’m comparing these two concepts, but the intent isn’t to make one seem superior to the other. What is important to me is that there’s a level of self-reflection and investment requirement when comparing one to the other.

The critical distinction I’m trying to make is the impact of upfront studying for a career and how that impacts the way you view yourself. I know that how I perceive others based on “publicly” available information on Facebook isn’t a good measure of true happiness. Still, there’s a trend where people who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had seem content and happy with the way their lives have played out.

Someone once told me in passing that “the smarter you are, the more likely to be depressed you’ll be”. The reasoning is essentially that ignorance is bliss. Not knowing what could’ve been won’t leave you anxious and frees your mind to appreciate what you do have. I’d like to have a more in-depth discussion on the topic with friends who might find themselves in a position like this, but it’s likely a sensitive topic and will take a small amount of effort to broach the subject. I think it’s very telling that I’ve often seen other software engineering colleagues and friends joke about living a simpler life that doesn’t involve dealing with ambiguous requirements and technical issues.

Back My Work Motivation

I’ve had many discussions with one of my team leads on this, and we’ve had many conversations over the last few months where we’ve edged towards better understanding what makes me tick and how to flip that bit that allows me to feel the joy of proper motivation. When I offered the statement above about being a software engineer vs doing software engineering, he took a relatively solid stance that he disagrees that it would be a good change in mindset.

He did make clear that it is essential not to have the idea of “being a software engineer” as your sole defining factor, but he argued that it was just this trait that distinguished an average worker from a great worker. Our discussion also highlighted that I was feeling very overwhelmed by the work environment I found myself in. My experience is now working overtime and highlighting the areas that “could be better” and in an environment where the company has only recently put a more significant effort into establishing a more substantial digital presence. The organisation is still busy setting processes that better supports its development goals, and fortunately, we get to go along for the ride.

I get overwhelmed from identifying these “problems”, and it can quickly start feeling like I’m in a helpless situation where no amount of effort will make any progress. I’ve also struggled to identify the various things that end up causing me stress, which leaves me clutching at straws to solve this issue. It’s the main reason why I initially latched on to the idea of rather doing software engineering.

I Honestly Do Not Know

Now, in all honesty, I’m still not 100% convinced of either side of the argument, but it’s had me trying to shift my perspective a little. I can’t just assume a simpler life would be a more fulfilling life, but I need to recognise what is fulfilling. My sim racing hobby has done a lot to provide some enjoyment in life, and I’m working on a few hobby projects that tickle something in my brain and leave me feeling fulfilled.