Complexity, Autonomy, and Proximity to Rewards

Most of the programmers I know spend their free time thinking about programming. How to code something more efficiently, when to use one algorithm versus another, and other topics are what interest them most.

Thinking about programming all the time is fine for most coders, but for me I want to get better at larger picture things. Because I often talk about focusing on important, big picture goals, I have to walk-the-walk, especially when it comes to daily habits.

One big picture area of interest is job satisfaction. Like many of the other topics in this blog, it is obvious when someone has or doesn’t have it, but it is difficult to quantify and analyze why. Everyone has hopefully had a job they greatly enjoy, and may unfortunately had one they despised.

Defining what differentiates a good job from a bad job is paramount to happiness. If someone goes to a place eight hours a day, five days a week that they find daft, then that will bleed over into their life outside of work. Similarly, one person being happy at work tends to radiate and make everyone around them happier.

For the two or three weeks I researched this topic, I found a lot of different takes on what makes a job satisfying. Being a programmer, I tried to find a pattern among the discrete responses. I wanted something simple, something memorable, something people could easily wrap their heads around, and something that spoke to my experiences in the professional world.

Out of everything I’ve found, this quote by Malcom Gladwell spoke to my heart as soon as I read it:

Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.

That quote perfectly summarizes everything I’ve ever read on how job satisfaction can be achieved. Within the first month of working with someone, they will have heard me say the quote so much that they’ve memorized it.

Everyone likes a certain level of freedom with their work. Everyone likes to overcome challenges with their work. Everyone likes to see people use what they’ve created to positively impact their lives.

I regularly challenge myself to think about those three aspects of my profession. If I find that one of them is lacking, I take immediate action to fix it. It may be as simple as finding something more interesting to work with on the side, or asking to be put on harder projects. My level of job satisfaction has increased four or five times its original level now that those three aspects are a priority.

If you find your job satisfaction lacking, figure out if one of those three qualities is lacking in your daily work. If one or more are lacking, take action and do something about it. It is one of the simplest, most positive changes a person can do that makes a noticeable difference in their work life, and ultimately the life they lead outside of nine to five.

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