The programming trade recently lost one of its great contributors, Dennis Ritchie. As many of the emerging eulogies to Dennis attest, he was a quiet, focused man. I never saw him seek recognition or glory. His work spoke for itself, and earned him honors such as the Turing Award and the National Medal of Technology, awarded personally by U.S. President Clinton. Steve Jobs’ departure is another recent landmark loss.
It is these peoples’ outstanding influence that begs us to compare them to others and to ourselves. The Maslow hierarchy, a common model of human motivation, is a mirror of contemporary Western values. Maslow says that respect by others trumps even the love found in friendship and family. Even deeper lie our basic needs for safety, security, and survival (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs).
What is the place of career in being our whole selves? Do careers give meaning to life, or move us up the Maslow hierarchy? Reflect on others who have left their mark across human history. We can invoke several archetypes:
- Mother Theresa, whom we remember for selfless contributions to thousands of individuals, but her example inspired yet many more. She is perhaps best remembered for two characteristics from near the apex of the Maslow hierarchy: morality and lack of prejudice.
- Albert Einstein, who created a new body of knowledge, and set challenges that inspired many scientists and engineers in the human quest for knowledge.
- Bill Gates, who transformed an industry and became one of the world’s richest men. Even whether he changed it for the better is controversial, depending on the technology affiliation of the people you ask, he is probably better known for the extent of his influence rather than its vector — similar to Attilla the Hun who, in spite of his reputation, in fact spread many positive aspects of culture across Asia.
If there is any universal across these three archetypes, it isn’t that they were all in it for the money, power, or fame. I don’t think we can say that they were seeking comfort. Why are we so intrigued by all three? They were all high on the Maslow scale. They stand out as human archetypes — so much so that they are held up as the definitive saint, genius, and mogul, respectively.
Which archetype do you aspire to — Gates? Einstein? or Mother Theresa? There is no right answer. It’s easy to stand outside these great lives as we evaluate and emulate them. Society’s values call us to that perspective. Yet it’s crucial that we turn these evaluations inward. Our externally visible career self is not our whole self. Nor was it for these celebrities. Gates’ philanthropy stands beside his career, attesting to another Maslow level. A quick web search turns up a cornucopia of quotes that unveil Einstein’s humanistic side.
What is their universal common attribute? Perhaps it is passion. Perhaps passion correlates to one’s Maslov level. Dennis Ritchie had a passion for detail and precision. History rewards those with passion for such excellence, or for people, or even control. When considering which of these should guide your career, carefully attend to your intrinsic values rather than those of society. Modern research by Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead, 2011) shows that our sense of accomplishment is itself our highest reward — also high on the Maslow scale — independent of influence.
You don’t have to aspire to be a saint, or a mogul, or a genius in your career. Just go back to the Cub Scout motto: Do your best. Somehow, I think that’s what drove Dennis.