Tim O'Reilly Work that matters: basic principles
Work on Stuff that Matters: First Principles
published January 11, 2009
I spent a lot of time last year convincing people to do work that matters . This caused a lot of questions, what kind of work can it be. I didn’t really want to answer these questions, because each person will have his own answer. I decided that it would be nice to start the new year with formulating several principles that help you to understand this problem for yourself personally.
But first of all, I want to make it clear that “work that matters” does not mean only non-profit projects, charity, or another form of “good deeds.” Nonprofit projects often mean good business, and people with technical skills can make an important contribution., but it’s very important to get beyond this framework. I am absolutely convinced of the social value of a business that is conducted correctly. We need to create an economic system in which socially significant projects are automatically and guaranteed to receive remuneration, and not based on charitable organizations funded by heart-kindness.
I have several “litmus test papers”, intuitive tests, which I constantly apply in life at a subconscious level. I will try to formulate them and I hope that you will help me with your comments.
1. Work on what's more important to you than money.
I touched on this issue, speaking to SIMS students a couple of years ago, I think that I can simply quote myself from that speech.
Some of you may find work in a prestigious company. Some may succeed, while others may fail. I want to remind you that financial success is not the only goal or the only measure of success. It is very easy to plunge headlong into the reckless bustle of making money. But you must perceive money as fuel for what you really want to do, and not as an end in itself. Money is like gas in a car, you need to watch it, otherwise you will be on the sidelines, but normal life is not a trip to gas stations!
Whatever you do, think about your true values. If you are an entrepreneur, then time for such thoughts will help you create the best company. If you are going to work for someone else, then such thoughts will help you find the right company or organization for employment, and when you find it, you can do your job better.
Do not be afraid to think big. Jim Collins, the author of business books, says good companies always have big, dangerous, and daring goals . Google’s motto “access to all the information in the world” is an example of such a goal. I want to think that the mission of my company to “change the world, spreading the knowledge of innovators” is also such a goal.
Do not be afraid to fail. Rilke has a wonderful poem in which the biblical Jacob fights with an angel, fails, but becomes stronger from this battle. It ends like this:
He will not seek victories.
He expects the higher principle to conquer
Him more and more in order to grow in return.
One of the tests for inflating a bubble is how many entrepreneurs are fixated on their future income, and not on those big goals that they hope to achieve. Clone products are almost always fixated on monetary goals. Entrepreneurs who are the first to enter the market are usually much less likely to expect easy success and, like Jacob, are struggling with an angel with a difficult problem that they expect to solve or even split a little.
It’s also obvious that if you think more about competition than about users and the values that you are going to create for them, then you are on the wrong track. As Katie Sierra once remarked , "in many cases, the more you try to compete, the less competitive you actually become."
The most successful companies perceive success as a by-product on the way to achieving their main goal, which is always more and more important than their own project.
2 . Bring more benefits than you get yourself.
It's pretty easy to see that Bernie Madoff did not follow this rule, like the other Wall Street titans who got to the point of giving out billions of dollars in bonuses, destroying our economy along the way. It is difficult to evaluate small business representatives from this point of view, but it is quite clear that most companies actually benefit their community and their clients, as well as themselves, and the most successful companies create a self-expanding cycle of mutually beneficial exchange of values with their customers.
For example, a bank lends to small businesses, sees their success, possibly lends them even more money, builds up turnover, hires new employees, accepts more deposits and helps even more entrepreneurs. The energy of this cycle is able to pull people out of poverty, which is clearly seen in microfinance organizations such as Gremin Bank . This bank is clearly focused on doing more good than it gets, unlike Fanny May, Freddie Mack or Washington Mutual, or many other bankrupt financial institutions involved in the current financial crash. They may have started with the right principles, but at some point they obviously became more concerned about their own gain.
If you follow this principle, you may suddenly find that others have earned more from your ideas than you yourself. This is normal. I have seen more than one billionaire (and a huge number of startups trying to follow their path) who admitted that their business began with several O'Reilly books. I had businessmen who, according to them, found an idea for a business in something that I said or wrote. It's good! I recall how at the dawn of the Internet, after my performance at the Borders store, one of the buyers said: “You know, you just gave your competitors a one-year-ahead publication program.” If my goal is to “change the world, spreading the knowledge of innovators”, then I am simply delighted that my competitors help me in this mission!
Look around. How many people have you employed for a good job? How many customers use your products to earn a living? How many competitors have you spawned? How many people have you helped without getting anything in return?
In Les Miserables there is a wonderful passage about the benefits that Jean Valjean brought as a businessman (working under the pseudonym Uncle Madeline). Thanks to the successes of his industry, he made his entire region prosperous, so that “there was not a single decrepit pocket where there was not even a little money; there wasn’t such a poor dwelling, wherever there would be at least a little joy. ” And the key point:
He himself was rich, but, strangely enough, this was for a simple businessman, apparently, he did not consider profit as his main concern. He seemed to think more about others than about himself.
Focusing on significant goals, not on making money, and also bringing more benefits than you get yourself - these are closely related principles. The first is a test for those who are starting something new, and the second is a more difficult test that you must pass to create something viable.
Take Microsoft. They started with a big goal: “a computer on every table and in every house” and for many years without a doubt have brought more benefits than they received. They helped the whole PC industry to be born; they built a platform for the prosperity of many small software vendors. But over time, they began to take more values than they give away: when the cost of PCs fell, iron producers had to survive on a tiny margin, while Microsoft was collecting monopoly superprofits. Bit by bit, Microsoft has devoured its own ecosystem of developers, integrating the achievements of successful startups into its own products, and using its operating system to ruin innovators. As I wrote all over the place, I am convinced that Microsoft should switch to big goals beyond its own profitability., and do more good than she gets if she wants to succeed (just last week, Danny Sullivan wrote an excellent article about the strategic advantage of this idea).
Or grab Google. Again, a gigantic goal: "organize all the information in the world." And like Microsoft in the early years, they allow others to thrive at their own expense, while making a lot of money themselves. Any company that is present on the Internet can simply look at its logs to see who brings more benefits to whom. How much traffic do you get from Google? But again, as I wrote, this test still looms in the future of Google. Will they continue to do more good than receive, or will they start looking for more profit for themselves ?
This is a matter of balance. Each business should monitor the minimum level of profitability, each person should take care of the roof over his head and provide a livelihood for his loved ones. But look carefully: how much do you think about yourself and what you can get, compared with thoughts about how much you can benefit others?
It is quite difficult to maintain attention on large tasks in the face of an economic downturn, because the main task is to maintain earnings. I recall some of the decisions that I made after the collapse of the dotcoms in 2001, when I began to care much more about the survival of my business than about creating value for society. We published several clone books that I really regret; and things that had nothing to do with keeping the business afloat became the foundation of our future.
But the two above tests are not enough, because it becomes clear that we also need a long-term environmental perspective. Therefore, I would add a third principle.
3. Take a faraway sight.
Brian Eno talks about a wonderful eventfrom his life, after which he came up with the idea of creating The Long Now Foundation .
In 1978, I was in New York. A rich acquaintance invited me to a housewarming celebration, but when the taxi driver drove me along the increasingly dirty and broken streets, I began to worry if I had told him the address correctly. Finally he stopped at the door of a gloomy, inhospitable industrial building. On the steps lay two oblivious tramps in oblivion. No more signs of life all over the street.
“I think you were mistaken,” I timidly turned to the taxi driver.
But he was not mistaken. My friend’s voice said: “Upper floor!” When I pressed the doorbell and I thought, knowing her sense of humor, that this was some kind of a hoax. I was ready to laugh as I climbed up. The elevator creaked and drove slowly. I got out of it - and ended up in a multi-million dollar palace. It is impossible to describe the contrast with the rest of the building and with the street.
I just could not understand. Why did someone decide to spend a ton of money and build such a palace in such a ruined place? Later, I asked the hostess: “Do you like living here?” And she replied that this is the best place she has ever lived. “But listen, in this area, after all, is it like a real hole?” “Ah, district? Well ... so it's outside! ”She laughed merrily.
In a conversation many years ago, when I heard this story from Brian, he described the apartment of his friend, the space that she controls as “small here”, and the space outside, full of tramps and homeless people, as “big here”. From there, he came up with a similar concept of Long Now.
It’s very easy to make local optimizations, but in the end they will overwhelm you. Our economy is much like a financial pyramid . We borrow from other countries to finance our own consumption , we borrow from our children, driving them into debt and using non-renewable energy sources.
It’s hard to look beyond the “small here” and the “short now,” especially if you live in a beautiful place at a pleasant time. That is why so many truly important projects find refuge under the wing of only non-profit organizations.
That is why a time like today, when the bubble begins to burst, is a great moment to think about the importance of the big picture, that which is important not only for us, but for creating a sustainable economy in a sustainable world.