As mentioned on my About page, I’m also a Judo player and instructor. Recently a member of the Judo community died and in an email with the announcement of his passing, someone included a copy of “The Dash” by Linda Ellis. I must admit that I’ve never read this poem before. The gist of it is: on your tombstone (sorry if this is too far away for anyone to worry about, just work with me here) there will be a date of birth and date of death with a dash in between. The poem asks the simple question, “What will you do with your dash.”
I must admit that at times during my career (it ain’t over yet, either), I’ve had thoughts like this. Why am I doing this? What does it matter? Sure, some of it has been great fun, I’ve made many friends, I’ve been able to make a good living, and should be able to retire one day in relative comfort. But, is there any real value to the world in what I’m doing? Sorry, yes, this will be a philosophical entry.
I wonder about this occasionally with other people in mind, too. What about my mechanic? What about the folks who work at my local grocery store, at Target, or the gas station. What do they contribute to society? What I’ve come up with so far is simple. Everyone contributes in a small way. The software that I’ve written hasn’t solved global warming, ended hunger, or stopped genocide in Darfur. But, it has helped people build things (I’ve written mostly mechanical CAD software, but other kinds as well.) The users of my software have built machines, buildings, and who knows what else with it. Those things have probably helped house people, built equipment to help people earn their living, or may have been used to design hospitals, schools, medical equipment, etc. The people that I’ve worked with were happy to work with me (well, I assume that most of the time they were. Everyone’s a pain in the butt now and then). However, my enthusiasm, energy, creativity, and sense of humor made the workplace enjoyable. In turn, my former colleagues made my life at work more enjoyable. Even those who were sticklers for process or coding practices helped me do my job better. As for my mechanic, how would I get to work, visit my family or go on vacation without him? My trip to the grocery store is alway more entertaining and enjoyable because my favorite checkout woman has such a wonderful disposition and a sunny smile.
I’m afraid that our purpose is sometimes to simply be a cog in a big machine. Even if you’re the President of your company and therefore consider yourself to be a bigwig rather than a cog, what does your company really do? Well, if it’s a software company, you make software. It likely won’t save the world single handedly. Man survived before it existed and will likely survive after it has gone out of business (unless you’re developing SkyNet). But, being a cog is an important part of the overall machine. If this doesn’t satisfy your need to feel like you really contributed something, find a place to volunteer, be a mentor, be a Big Brother or Big Sister. It’s hard to be the one person who’s going to save the world – even those who try usually end up screwing it up more than helping. Simply being a productive part is help enough. Everything else can only make it better. Your “dash” is up to you.