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Rewards of Serviceby Xiong (Hermit)
|on Mar 05, 2012 at 21:59 UTC||Need Help??|
Let us think about the rewards we gain by our work. We may be entertained by the effort, paid money, given respect and honors by our fellows, and be of service to others. There is perhaps a higher plane of reward given to a few as a result of great achievement; this may embrace any of the lesser rewards but also has a spiritual aspect (for want of a better word). Those fortunate enough to penetrate to universal mysteries need no explanation of this; the rest of us cannot describe it. Self-amusement and money returns are so pedestrian I'll not dwell on them.
We often scorn honors whether we receive them or not; many are empty. I do believe that the highest purpose to which an average person can aspire is to be of service to others: to produce work of utility and interest, to educate, to assist. The time I spend in play and rest I grudge to the need of my creaky brain to lie fallow in a sort of distracted thought in order to produce anything of lasting value. If I knew myself certainly to be incapable of that lasting value, I'd rather invest my time sweeping the sidewalk.
I wish to raise two connected issues of valuation. The first is of the value of one's work; the second is of the value of the respect accorded it. Many will agree with me about the value of serviceable work; but how are we to judge our own stuff? Shall we grind endlessly, sure in our hearts that we do good? I submit that any of us can crank out a great pile of matter that is of little use to anyone else; and be ignorant of that uselessness. We cannot know we have served unless we are so told. The honors we are given for our work comprise an evaluation by which we can tell whether we have served well; and for that reason are valuable in themselves.
Elaborate honors are often empty; a casual "well done" is better than a title or office. It's tempting to cry sour grapes if one is not respected for his work. I hope I shall not be thought guilty of promoting majestic awards, given with much ceremony. My intent is to advance the value and practice of earned respect; and caution against its opposite.
We might do well to value the praise of others; to hope for it; to work for it. In this way our work may be of greater service: We waste less effort on foolishness and on ideas that seem good only to ourselves. We might do well also to reward those, who serve us, with tokens of our respect, be they mere words: We encourage them to do more of the same.
Personally, I have spent a few years now learning Perl and attempting to produce work of value to others. I've been given a numerical rank within PerlMonks, which (not to be rude) appears quite meaningless; XP measures participation, not merit. If I valued empty honors, I could have risen faster merely by voting at random every day. I have also received a few bug reports on RT. I consider these a much more valuable reward as, although each indicates a flaw in my work, it also shows that some person cared enough about the whole to describe that flaw. Absent a stream of purchase orders, the only sure way to know someone is using your free software is when you are told so.
Meanwhile, I've become quite discouraged. Judging by the number and type of comments, my work is of little or no value to anyone. Granted, I have done much less by any standard than others; my time is limited and split among many pursuits. Yet if I examine soberly the feedback I've received, it would appear my Perl time is wasted.
I am not convinced this is so. Perhaps this is only a defect of our culture. We are accustomed to money rewards and, when working for them, we see at once the tangible evaluations of our products. When we buy a shoe, we feel under no obligation to thank the shoemaker; our coin is reward enough. Perhaps we need to think harder about the respect we give to those who serve gratis; and perhaps all of us who do so serve are insufficiently rewarded. I don't speak of "sufficient compensation" but of sufficient feedback to keep us on the right track: this is good, this is not good, this is better, do more of that. If this is lacking, it would explain why so many free software projects appear to be badly conceived and executed; and why so many are abandoned before being refined to a decent level of quality and utility.
On the other hand, I may be quite right; and few speak well of my work because... it just isn't much good. I don't know; and that is the point of this little essay. I inveigh again against empty praise. The respect of one's fellows is an indicator of one's usefulness; it is not to be sought on its own. But pursuing that usefulness blindly is as likely to lead to self-indulgent production as to real value. I will not assume the arrogant position that my work must be good because I know it is so. In Geometry, perhaps — there, I can prove it. In Perl, no.
Many of us are accustomed to being the smartest person in the room; put us all together and we tend to engage in a contest to see who is smarter. This leads to backbiting and nitpicking. Each of us is full of his own stuff and spares scant attention to the good works of others. I do not declare myself innocent of these sins. I call upon myself first to bite my tongue before lunging at a bikeshed argument in lieu of any readier opportunity to prove myself righter than the previous fellow; and to take a moment to tip my hat to those whose labors do, indeed, deserve thanks.
I'm not the guy you kill, I'm the guy you buy. —Michael Clayton