Work Like It Matters

Written By Jason Lowenthal

Some of you reading this probably have a deadline looming. Some of you probably started reading this on your work computer—or on your phone or some other device—but regardless, you’re sitting in an office while you read, and you might not even be the owner of that office.

Hopefully, if you have decided to use a few of your minutes on the clock to read what I write, you don’t have to hide it when you hear the boss coming. If you do, quick—hit the X button, he’s right behind you! (Kidding. I hope.)

I have the blessing of a workplace that trusts me implicitly with full autonomy to focus my attention on the most important things that need my attention. I really feel like the leadership understands this (most days):

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” – Steve Jobs

The science of motivation inspires doctoral research, high-priced executive MBAs, and a whole plethora of other fields. Getting humans to do work, whether cooperating on a team or flying solo, certainly gets lots of attention from those concerned with values-based leadership. Work that matters doesn’t come easily – otherwise we’d all love our jobs every moment of every day. Raise your hand if that’s you. (My hand isn’t raised. And I do love my job.)

At the end of the day, it all comes down to a binary concept: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

While I make it sound like the definition is axiomatic—either work matters or it doesn’t—there’s so much more to it than that. The line between intrinsic motivation vs extrinsic motivation has so many factors that weigh into it that, if I wanted to research and write an article extrapolating all of them, I’d still be writing until the end of time.

So, What’s the Difference?

The two kinds of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—have pretty straightforward definitions, but it’s pretty difficult to apply delineations.

For the purposes of this article, here are my simple definitions:

  • Intrinsic Motivation: Something that you decide to do because you feel compelled to do so by your own drive. These are things that we want to do, and nobody needs to ask us to do them. We would do them anyway. We are INternally motivated.
  • Extrinsic Motivation: Something that you decide to do because someone else (or something else) compels you to do so. These are the things that we complain about that we have to do. We are EXternally motivated.

The simple essence of work that matters is work that we’re intrinsically motivated to do. We don’t do it because we get paid for it (though it sure is a darned nice side-effect), or because there’s really nothing else we’d choose to do. That’s work that matters.


However, sometimes differentiating intrinsic motivation from extrinsic motivation gets tricky. That’s why so many people study it. Here’s what I mean, in the form of a few scenarios:

  1. The fire alarm at your office starts going off loudly, blinking a bright emergency light and wailing as loud as it can that danger is imminent. You exit the building and wait for the fire department to give the all clear signal. Intrinsic or extrinsic?
    • While your motivation comes from the desire not to die of severe burns or smoke inhalation, this kind of motivation is still extrinsic. More than likely, you didn’t want to deal with the interruption of a fire alarm, but you had to (at least if you have survival instincts and a company policy that dictates it).
  2. Somebody hands you a $100 bill and asks you to pull a dead tree-rat (see: squirrel) out of their driveway, because they just ran it over but can’t bear the thought of dealing with the grossness themselves.
    • You have been extrinsically motivated. While I’m sure at least one or two people get an undeniable joy cleaning up road-kill from people’s driveways, I have yet to meet anyone that does. However, the person that handed you $100 was intrinsically motivated to do so. They value keeping their lunch in their stomachs more than the $100 they just handed you. Nobody forced them to give up $100 to get a tree-rat1 removed from their driveway.
  3. You’re staring at a blank page in front of you, trying to decide what to write as a guest author at Simple Programmer. You’ve read all of John Sonmez’s advice about how to market yourself as a programmer, create a blog, and know that a regular stream of content makes a huge difference in your ability to get people’s attention. You love to write, but you have so many other things that you’d have fun doing, too. Still, you hunker down and get the article written.
    • I still call this intrinsically motivated. While you’re doing this to respond to the external forces of the workplace and employment market, in the end your drive comes from the desire to connect with people and make a difference. You feel like writing matters—so you write. However, some may think that writing just for the sake of having routine content provided isn’t really motivated by your own desires at all. I’d love to have a discourse about this with all of you lovely readers in the comments section below!

Make It Matter

That third example is what makes it so hard to define work that matters.

For many programmers, just sitting down and writing code matters enough that they don’t feel internally motivated to seek new avenues of gain or enrichment. Coding just for the sake of writing code meets their needs.

But I also know many programmers who aspire to something more elevated. We aspire to the tenets of clean code, continuous delivery, and many other things where it’s not enough to just write good algorithms. We want to write good code. Great code, in fact. Which is so much more than just algorithm design.

Connecting with the work you do every day matters. It gives us reasons to get out of the bed in the morning or stay up late into the night learning new things.

But we’re not always so lucky on the job. Sometimes we get dealt a hand where the extrinsic factor greatly outweighs the intrinsic one, and we aren’t as excited about what we have to do. What then?

Earning Your Autonomy

Don’t forget, You Have to Master the Rules Before You Can Break the Rules. So, what follows is some practical advice for mastering the rules of the workplace that we find most common in our careers.

Please note: this is not a suggestion to “sit down, shut up, and just take what they dish out.” They wouldn’t let me write on this blog if it were.

Talk About Money

Talk about money, because money talks. If you can find a way to prove your suggestion costs less or earns more than the current assignment, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

Nothing speaks to business owners more than their bottom line. Find a way to prove that your work on something can change that bottom line in the best way possible. I promise you, if you can prove that your work has an obvious financial return on investment, nobody will take it away from you.

Unfortunately, the work we do as programmers doesn’t always fit into the easy box of “this obviously impacts the bottom line.” So, keep reading!

Find Your Tribe

This concept makes labor unions and strikes work. Note: I don't particularly support forcing people into a tribe like most unionization does. However, the idea that you can lean on several people who share the same internal compass and ideas as you will empower your words, possibly leading to management taking action towards positive change.

Bosses have a harder time ignoring two people than they do one, and they have an even harder time ignoring four. Unify your team in the pursuit of a process or assignment change, and you can all work together on bringing management about to your way of thinking, too.

Do It in Your Free Time

I'm not encouraging you to work for free or become a workaholic. Maintaining a healthy balance keeps us all sane.

However, if for some reason you work in a place that really refuses to acknowledge your ability to contribute in a way that matters, not all hope is lost. But as you work on the side projects, it's probably a good idea to start looking for a new primary source of income.

Personally, I contribute to this blog. I've also recently started contributing to open source projects. Both avenues for contributing give me access to a larger professional network and a tribe external to my current employer.

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Most Importantly, Know Yourself

Though paraphrased with slight variations, this synopsis of a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland proves a great point:

“If you don't know where you are going, any road will lead you there.”

If for no other reason than understanding the direction of your own career, you really need to craft something like a mission statement specific to your goals so you know what you want to do with yourself. You have to know your niche and your purpose so that you can help other people make sure your mission gets met.

My mission statement is:

Through servant leadership, I will elevate all professionals I engage with to a higher standard of quality and productivity.

While it’s not unchanging, it does provide a foundation for which all of my other initiatives start. It’s short and specific, which makes it powerful. Here’s how it carries weight with me every time I read it to myself:

Through servant leadership, I will elevate

  • I firmly believe that any team only has as much strength as its weakest member. Therefore, in order to raise the team to new heights, everyone has to grow stronger. The whole “a rising tide raises all ships” idea.

All professionals I Engage With

  • Everyone I interact with matters to the company. I don’t care if that person cleans toilets for their paycheck, or runs multiple companies in a portfolio and could buy a small island. All of our colleagues deserve professional respect at work. Here’s a good example.


  • Automated testing reigns supreme in my world. However, quality doesn’t just mean code. It means user stories. It means processes. Quality belongs everywhere in a company, and I take pride in helping everyone define it.


  • This parallels well with quality. How do we deliver the most value (highest quality) features as efficiently as possible?

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It’s a Matter of Mattering

We all have value to add to our teams. Young programmers bring innovative perspectives to the conversation, while experienced programmers bring grounded and mature perspectives.

At the end of the day, when it comes to writing code, we all need to have a voice in the end result. Our code solves problems. These problems have to matter because there’s more code to write than there are people to write it.

So, work like it matters. Our code depends on it.

1 No actual squirrels were harmed in the writing of this article. But every year they make fun of me and throw walnuts at me. Stupid tree-rats. Squirrels are jerks. At least where I live anyway.