“Why Are You Doing What You’re Doing?”

For nearly a decade, I’ve had a plaque bearing that question on my desk.

I think the question is valuable because it goes directly to motive. It’s also a deliciously contextual question — it means something different every minute, depending on what you’re up to. Here are a few scattered examples:

  • "Why am I doing this job?" Is it because someone, or society, told me that this was "success" (see last week’s Friday Thought)? Because it’s a way to make ends meet? Because I really enjoy it? Because this is a fun and cohesive team? Because I’m too tired to look for another job? Because I don’t think I could make it at a job I’d actually like to do?
  • "Why am I writing the code this way?" Is it because someone told me to, even though I don’t completely understand the reason? Because it’s the right way? Because I’m under time pressure and plan to fix it later? Because it’s a short cut and I don’t care about this product? Because I haven’t looked in Knuth’s classic The Art of Computer Programming to see if there’s already a known better structure or algorithm? Because I’m tired or distracted? Or because of something else?
  • "Why did I fail to show appreciation for a friend’s help?" Is it because I failed to realize how much they helped me, and at what cost to themselves? Because I was too absorbed/tired/stressed/distracted with just my own troubles? Because I care, but repeatedly failed to show it when it mattered? Because perhaps I actually do need to care more about other people and actively take an interest in them? Because of some combination of the above, and/or possibly more reasons?
  • "Why am I driving to the store?" Is it because that’s what everyone does? Because it’s what I’ve always done? Because I don’t have time to walk or bike (and if so, why not)? Because the groceries are too heavy/bulky to carry back? Because I haven’t thought of riding a bike in years?
  • Etc.

Nobody’s perfect. I’ve wrestled with these and other questions, as I’m sure you do too, and try to improve a little every day and every year.

Being intentional is more than just about programming. We can get there if we keep trying.