Ownership & Pareto Efficiency

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Kyle Gill, Software Engineer, Particl

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Doing great work and living fulfilled can boil down to a specific way of doing work, which is finding a project of one’s own. Said another way, taking ownership of your work leads to better outcomes in every way.

The economic concept of a pareto improvement has become something of a cognitive itch for me that I couldn’t quite scratch until I connected a few dots. As described by Wikipedia:

A change is called a Pareto improvement if it leaves everyone in a society better-off (or at least as well-off as they were before) -Pareto Efficiency, Wikipedia

So many desicisions are the evaluation of pros and cons, or varying tradeoffs. In software engineering you trade developer experience for code complexity, faster performance for getting something done faster. “Move fast and break things” is itself giving up the thought that you can do everything, intentionally prioritizing something that is done faster than something that is built without any flaws.

If something offers pareto efficiency where all facets of a situation improve, wouldn’t you choose it every time?

I’d like to make the case that owning your work offers that kind of outcome, even if it may be the harder option than its alternative—deffering ownership to others.

Work/Life Balance vs Work-Life Balance

A project you are excited about, that you are doing for yourself, offers a different kind of motiviation than one you are assigned to do. Paul Graham describes 2 kinds of work in an essay of his. The first is the work of a child building a treehouse, enjoying every step, not worrying about failing or how their work compares to someone else’s. A work of one’s own. The second is a “dutiful plodding kind of work” more akin to obediently memorizing facts for an exam, or simply doing what someone else has told you to do because they told you to. He describes Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, and Susan Kare working long into the night on a project of their own (the Apple Macintosh):

People who’ve never experienced the thrill of working on a project they’re excited about can’t distinguish this kind of working long hours from the kind that happens in sweatshops and boiler rooms, but they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s why it’s a mistake to insist dogmatically on “work/life balance.” -Paul Graham quoting Andy Hertzfeld’s, A Project of One’s Own

Great work can happen from 9-5, but the best work happens from things that occupy every leftover brain cycle your waking mind has, whether that’s during your 9-5 or outside of it.

Any type of work benefits, from being a mother, to being a software engineer. The innate obsession over scrutinizing every detail, be it finding the right way to raise your child, or designing an API.

Ownership & Craft

The tasks of gardening & weeding actually overlap and can imply the exact same thing, but the name implies something different. Working on a garden requires pulling weeds to keep plants healthy, and weeding is just that as well. Gardening is a hobby for many, a passion for some, and a job for others. You can hardly say the same of weeding. I think most gardeners don’t so much enjoy the act of weeding as they do of perfecting and improving the overall state of their garden. It is fulfilling and so so rewarding to create something and care for it yourself.

Tending a garden is something easy to want to do, it leaves you feeling rewarded for honing your craft. You grow as much as the plants you tend. In it, there is pareto efficiency, you and the ground you work on grow together. It isn’t necessarily easy, but it becomes your craft to master.

Being ordered by a parent or boss to weed the garden more likely ends up in dutiful plodding. You’re more likely to resent the task, and rip off your gloves the minute the appointed time has come to end. In the same way, it isn’t easy, but instead of feeling fulfilled it’s easier to feel like you’ve wasted time.

When your work becomes a garden to cultivate, that you own, instead of a garden to weed, everything improves.

Being 100% Responsible

When the crops in the garden you own fails, it’s on you. The dutiful weeder may blame their higher-ups, but one who assumes ownership asks where they may have picked the wrong soil composition, planted at the wrong time of year, or starved their crops for nutrients by planting them too close.

Everyone is free to choose whether they will direct the blame elsewhere, or own it themselves.

whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.

There is pride that can be taken in owning a decision, even if it’s a wrong one though. Lynn G. Robbins once said:

Being 100 percent responsible is accepting yourself as the person in control of your life. If others are at fault and need to change before further progress is made, then you are at their mercy and they are in control over the positive outcomes or desired results in your life. -Lynn G. Robbins, Be 100 Percent Responsible

This idea then leads to one of personal responsibility over personal entitlement:

Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. -John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

When everyone at a startup thinks about how they will improve their piece of the “garden”, it flourishes. When employees get more focused on free-riding their way to a great exit, it may never come. Pareto efficiency is never reached, because the other gardeners are worse off from the dutiful plodding of their peers.

Take ownership, cultivate your craft, own your decisions, and everyone wins in every way.