David Heinemeier Hansson

September 6, 2022

The path to meaning is paved with responsibility

That the antidote to a flailing existence might be more responsibility can come off as counterintuitive. Why would you ask more of someone who's already struggling? But that objection flips the cause and effect. Lots of people are struggling exactly because not enough is asked of them.

I remember a version of this diagnosis being explained on TV by the captain of a Danish school ship that took on  young adults, and tought them the skills and the discipline to be proper sailors. And I remember the sentiment of their gratitude: Finally someone was counting on them, they mattered, and if they didn't do their work, there would be consequences. It gave them a purpose.

It was reading Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life that made me recall this story about the captain and his young adults. I enjoyed a lot of Peterson's analysis, and disagreed on some, but the point about more responsibility as the root of meaning really stuck with me.

It even made me think about open source software development. I've critiqued the view of open source as "mere unpaid labor" extensively, so I won't repeat that here. But I do want to link Peterson's articulation of the virtue of additional responsibility to the explanation of why people enjoy doing open source work for its own sake.

It simply feels good to take on more responsibility, and it fills your life with meaning. That's true whether the additional responsibility is something as natural and common as becoming a parent. Or whether it's becoming a maintainer for open source software.

Standard caveats apply, of course: If you assume responsibility over a process that you can't control, or barely even influence, then you're just a passenger, not an agent of action. That's not what I'm talking about. It's exactly assuming agency that provides the meaning. I'm doing stuff, that stuff matters, and the world is better off because of it.

So think of that next time you feel like you're running on fumes. Could you deal with the dread by accepting more responsibility rather than less? Could you counter the burnout of under-purpose with a more meaningful load, even if it's heavier?

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.