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De-Grading the Workplace

If You Do Not Work On Important Problems, You Will Not Do Important Work

Big_question Why do you go to work in the morning? More importantly, what makes you WANT to go to work in the morning?

Yes, it might be that pesky thing called a paycheck, but I'm guessing that those of us who bound out of bed, ready to hit the day, do so because we believe that the work we're doing has meaning, that we're contributing to something important. A lot of us, though, have lost that meaning and that sense of doing something important and I wonder if it isn't because we've lost track of working on important problems.

I thought about this while reading Brad Neuberg's little gem of a blog post on Creating a Personal Research Agenda. In it, he quotes a speech by Richard Hamming in which Hamming observes:

"If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely that you'll do important work."

That bears repeating:

"If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely that you'll do important work."

For many of us, feeling like our work has lost its meaning is a result of working on unimportant problems. We've become lost in the minutia of life and have lost sight of the big picture.  We can wait for our companies or organizations to do something for us (enjoy that) or we can do something about it for ourselves. That's where constructing a personal research agenda--a series of important questions, problems and issues we want to explore--can re-ignite our passion for work and our desire to continue learning.

Asking Important Questions
Brad comes from a coding/scientific background, so he uses the term "personal research agenda." In a broader sense,though, a personal research agenda is really just a list of the "big issues" that you think deserve your attention and towards which you want to direct your learning and experimentation. But how do you identify these questions? A few things to think about:

  • What makes you passionate? Not long ago, I went on a tangent about homophily, born of my ongoing interest in the digital divide and my observations of parallel activities going on in online communities with similar interests who are largely disconnected from each other. As a theme in my life, issues of inclusion/exclusion and creating community have loomed large, so it's no surprise that some of the big questions I tend to explore always come back to those themes.

To find your "big questions," think about the themes that make you passionate on a regular basis. What issues seem to always draw your attention and how do they signify a larger theme or problem?

  • What are the anomalies in your world? What things don't make sense?    Last night I watched the HBO documentary, Resolved (HIGHLY recommended!) It's about the world of high school debate, which has evolved from our traditional notion of a discussion of two sides of an issue, to a complicated and bizarre place where the winners of a debate are those who can marshal the largest set of facts presented at a level of speed auctioneers would envy.

Two young African-American men, disciples of Paulo Freire, see a major problem with this, noting that the new framework for debate excludes large swaths of the community from discussing real-life issues. How does this relate to you finding your "big question?" These kids are a tremendous example of looking at the assumptions and issues within an existing system and beginning to ask important questions about why things are the way the are. They saw things that didn't make sense and then tried to explore why and how they could be changed.

  • What things bother you about your profession or your sector? Think big here--what seem to be systemic issues with no easy answers? What have you observed in your personal experiences or through reading, research, etc.? What do you see as being the "big issues" your profession or sector needs to grapple with in order to be successful? Defining and addressing work literacy is one of the things I'm seeing. What about you?

Working with Your Important Questions
Once you have your important questions identified, this opens up a variety of learning opportunities for you:

  • What research can you conduct to get a handle on the question?

Use these important questions to drive a learning agenda for yourself. They can keep you fresh and excited about your work. They can remind you of why you do what you do and give purpose to your on and off-line learning activities.

Remember: "If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely that you'll do important work." So how can you find your "Big Questions"? What can you do to work on them?

Flickr photo via wok.


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Important to whom? This is why I keep a sticky next to my computer that simply says, "Why?". Interesting you used the question mark photo.

I think it's "what's important to you?" But in a broader sense.

I think that we can get caught up in thinking that small things are "important" when they aren't--we stop asking bigger questions, like "Why do we do this?" or "How could this be different?" or "What assumptions am I working with?" I love that you keep "Why" next to you, Janet, and somehow I'm not surprised. It seems like part of your personality is to always be asking "why?" :-)

Though Friday afternoon fogginess is trying to take over my brain, I wanted to compliment you on an excellent post and great idea :)
I've never thought of it quite like this, but I realize that almost every time I've gotten very frustrated at a job, its because I've lost any sense of how my actions are important or have any impact at all. At the risk of sounding trite, I started working in nonprofits to help people and make a difference and when you lose that, you've got to wonder: why do I bother?
Somehow, you always manage to distill these complicated issues into a concise blog post-thanks!

I love this idea. I am a fan of Personal Research Agenda (blogged about it a while ago). Here are a few of mine.

1. How can we make learning fun and engaging?
2. How can we improve improvement(one of those Doug Engelbart's questions I am fascinated about)
3. How can we take what we love and enjoy and make it part of our both work/personal life?


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