Ryan’s notes

My view on work

Note: I found this essay very difficult to write because deciding how to approach work is not much easier than deciding how to approach life; sustained work, after all, can occupy half our waking hours.

Work in its simplest form is the application of effort to achieve some result. Work is painting a wall, bathing a child, bulldozing a house, climbing a mountain, deploying code, writing this essay, making lunch. Sustained work is the continuous, directed effort we exert for months or years at a time that compounds plain old work into something bigger and more exciting.

My vote for better

Sustained work shapes the world around me; it’s the act of leaving the world different from how I found it. It’s a vote for what I want to encode and pass on (a way of expressing values). Sustained work is my way of making the world around me more fun, livable, beautiful, fair, efficient, tasty (“better” in some way), as decided by me! This is binary, not continuous: either I think something is worth doing, or I don’t.


While I think there’s great value in research, maintenance, and other forms of sustained work, I prefer to make things. I enjoy work that combines design (how should this work?), architecture (how might we construct it?), and tight feedback loops (is it any good?). I enjoy thinking in systems: what are the component parts, what are the dependencies, and how does it all fit together? I crave direct manipulation and instant feedback: a push and pull with what I’m creating. Work of this nature puts me into flow: that wonderful engaged creative state that feels both comfortable and challenging.


I value work that embodies craft: a harmony of flavors in a dish, simplicity in a tool, elegance in a model. I love to successfully wrestle complexity into useful order; I want to make things that are so well considered, so well designed for the task at hand, that they feel obvious in retrospect.


Work is dramatically more fun when collaborating with people who are excellent at what they do. First, there’s the affirming feeling of being in the struggle together (what we’re doing is worth something, because we both think so!). Next, there’s the way in which you build on each other’s thoughts (Yes, and… what if?). Collaboration brings feelings of belonging, purpose, inspiration, hope, and play. It’s important that I collaborate with people that are great at what they do: these people have the power to bring a new perspective, to redirect my thinking and to unlock new ideas.


I crave recognition and affirmation to flow back to me from the people who see the work I do. I need to be great at my work; to be the person everyone knows will get the job done well. My choice of what to work on is also judged by the people I meet and while I don’t care what everyone thinks, it’s important to me to work on something that the people I respect… respect. Ultimately, I want to be Somewhat known in certain circles for the work I do.


Work can occur on large or small scales, usually with the tradeoff of making small changes for many people (a garbage person empties thousands of bins every day) or larger ones for fewer (a teacher shapes the way a few dozen children develop and grow). But for me, it’s not about large scale verses small scale, it’s about local: I want to do work that the people around me experience, that actually makes a difference in the lives of the people I get to know, work I can feel.

Financial freedom

Sustained work can be a way to achieve financial security and freedom. I planned to work very hard in my 20s to achieve freedom in my 30s. But the freedom I’ve gained isn’t worth anything on its own; instead, it’s the freedom to choose what to work on next (Freedom is choosing (to be less free)).


The sustained work that I look for:

  • Is my vote for better

  • Involves making, design, architecture, and tight feedback loops

  • Is done with people I admire

  • Earns me the respect of my peers

  • Touches the world I know

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