Finding your mission
Can work become your mission? Is it worthy of your full engagement? Some thoughts and explorations...
What is work? Should it be a mission or should it be purely transactional? For some people work is “transactional”, a job they do for a living, so that they can earn money to support the family, buy a house, save up for retirement or do whatever else they like. For them the attitude would be like, let me do my job the best I can and then forget the rest. How the company operates, what is the company there for etc are nice to have discussions. As long as they aren’t expected to get involved and things look okay, they are fine with whatever the company wishes to do. In that case, their primary mission is not to do great work, but to earn money to support their family or build their assets. Work is just a means towards those ends.
At some level, this seems to be a perfectly good way of living. Why get into things that are hard to influence? Why invest your emotions in something you might leave a few months or years down the line? Your company is not your family, jobs are not permanent. The institution does not care for you, it only cares for its “mission” and you are an expendable “resource”. That can be extended to other things beyond our realm of influence (as we think it) as well, the society, the nation, the world. It is foolish to get romantic about these things.
These are all lessons that we have learnt the hard way. Human society works in a deeply hierarchical model. If you are not one of those chosen to dominate, you will be dominated. Power in institutions is held by a few and it is futile to talk sense to them. All our lives we have chosen to take the path of least resistance by not giving up our “soul” to these institutions whose only job is to accumulate power for its top layer. This is the nature of human society and being “transactional” is the only way to keep your sanity.
The power of these institutions seems all pervasive. Right from our neighbourhood to our nation, from our birth to our death, we can’t escape these “institutions” that are designed to keep us in our palace, even if for our own “well being” or safety. If you choose to exert your free will, you immediately risk being an “outcast”. Your existence itself will become a threat to the power of the institution. The path to “freedom” is pain and is it worth it?
My argument is that the pain is just an illusion to keep you in your place. We are very much like the elephant in the parable who tries in vain to break free of its chains when it was a child and later when it was older, it did not want to break free. Domesticated life in the “safety” of the master feels good and comfortable. In most cases, living a transactional life is living a domesticated one, because it is the path of least resistance, the path of least conflict. Let’s just accept that we are no match for the powers out there and continue with whatever we can.
I think it is also very hard to excel if the goal is only to minimise effort and conflict. The job of bringing out the best out in the person then falls in the hands of the “master”, whose job then becomes to keep inflicting pain on the person till they decide to excel because that seems to be the path of least resistance or quit the job. By choosing to be transactional, one inadvertently reinforces the hierarchy. Your freedom then is your freedom to quit. If you are pushed too hard, you will move to another organisation that will not push you so hard.
To be transactional or not is also an attitude that people get from people around them. If you have been taught since childhood to “follow instructions” and not ask questions, you will automatically lose interest in the “why” of your job. And after spending enough time following instructions, you might just accept that this is the way of life and lose your agency completely. So how do we get out of this state? How does one learn to care? How does one believe in the idea of romance once again?
I personally consider myself to be a mission oriented person. I will ask “why” 100 times to the frustration of people around me. “Why can’t you just follow instructions for a change” my partner keeps telling me. I have been fortunate to be a part of starting some great projects. All of them, Frappe, Learners' Collective and FOSS United are missions to me. They are not means to an end. My mission is not to create my personal wealth. The mission of Frappe is to build world class open source products, the mission of Learners’ Collective is to help children learn without fear and the goal of FOSS United is to help more people use and create free and open source software. Each of these missions are personally exciting to me in a way that I love Monday mornings. I love thinking about all these problems and my ability to contribute to these missions gives meaning to my life.
The idea of “mission” sometimes implies that you have to burn yourself out for it and go through tremendous emotional turmoil by being subject to rejections and betrayals. Some of it is true. Anything worth doing is hard. My journey has been emotionally involved at many levels and there is a history of rejections and a few betrayals, but there has been incredible learning as well. It has made me mature, wise and resilient. I make sure I give enough personal time to myself and my family and care for my own well being. Towards Frappe, being my primary source of income, I have the expectation of getting a fair return on my contributions and hence provide for my family. This is very different from thinking about Frappe as a means to provide for my family.
Some people will argue that I am “privileged” to be able to start things that I was passionate about. If I was not a part of something that I felt excited about, I would still have to live “transactionally”. I would still have to drag myself out of the bed on Monday mornings and look forward to weekends. Maybe I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone should be living that life unless they are really fighting for survival. If your job does not excite you then you are probably in the wrong job. As the recent blockbuster book Ikigai puts it, your job needs to be at the intersection of three things: what you like, what you are good at and what someone will pay you for.
And I think all of us must seek this balance. Doing a transactional job can only be a temporary one. While being transactional can make you less emotionally vulnerable in the short run, it can leave you empty and deflated in the long run. And if your mission is to minimise your exposure, then there is very little chance you will grow into your job or ever become a leader.
On the other hand, like mission oriented people, there are also mission oriented workplaces. There are certain institutions that don’t expect people to bring in their own “self”, they are very happy “extracting” labour from the individual because bringing mission oriented people also means giving up power. Mission oriented people will not work without freedom and this is anathema to strongly hierarchical organisations. The kind of people who will succeed in these organisations are those whose mission is to “seek” power for themselves and dominate others.
A workplace that seeks mission oriented people on the other hand will give extraordinary freedom to the people. I hope Frappe is one of those organisations. In such places, those who are looking for “transactional” work will probably be unhappy because they expect to be instructed and don’t want to take responsibilities beyond their own job profile. Mission oriented people find their own “missions” within these workplaces. For some people the mission could be to build amazing products, for others the mission could be to promote free software. For some the mission could be to build something impactful, for others it could be to help the team achieve its goals. There is no “one mission” and like someone said, you can “choose your mission”. The idea is to bring yourself to work for your mission, not earning the salary at the end of the day. The salary is an outcome of doing good work, not the reason to work!
Everyone must choose the kind of work and institution they want to be part of. A mission oriented person will be unhappy in a hierarchical setup and a transactional person will find it uncomfortable to be in an environment where you have to constantly figure out your work. In the end, my hope is that everyone should find mission oriented work because even if it could be emotionally draining in the short run, that is what I feel will lead to long term fulfilment.
As Socractes put it, “The unexamined life is not worth living”
Rushabh is a software developer and founder of ERPNext. He usually writes about the startup experience, open source and the technologies he is working on.