David Heinemeier Hansson

May 2, 2023

The responsibility is the reward

One of the straightest paths to purpose in life is to take responsibility for something (or someone). Becoming a person whose presence and competence benefits others. For both your sake and theirs.

Jordan Peterson calls this the "meaningful burden" in 12 Rules for Life, and downright posits it as an antidote to depression. Echoing Victor Frankl's famous quote "he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how" from Man's Search for Meaning.

There's something inherently counterintuitive about this notion that people who feel overwhelmed by life, or lost in its endless possibilities, might not need a lighter load, but a more meaningful burden instead. It reminds me of the version of burnout that stems not from overwork, but from under-purpose. Sometimes, the answer to "it's just all too much" is, weirdly, "can I have some more, please".

Denmark's strong culture of clubs and associations, in which 9/10 Danes belong to some form of one or the other, is an example of this. All of these clubs and associations are built primarily on volunteer efforts. People choosing to spend their evenings, weekends, or vacations on organizing and participating in cinema groups, handball leagues, trading-card circles, and a million other things. Not just because they really like films or handball or trading cards, but also because they like the responsibility that comes with being an organizer of such efforts.

I've spent the last twenty-plus years finding such purpose in open-source development. Becoming a person whose presence and competence benefits others through the sharing of free software and ideas. And I've seen countless others do it too. But I've also seen people become upset about this concept that the responsibility is the reward in itself when it comes to open source software. That there's something inherently unfair or exploitive about people choosing to spend their free time, without recompense, on advancing projects that might commercially benefit others. The whole "unpair labor" theory of contributions.

But the more I think of it, and I've thought about it a fair deal, the more tragic I think it would be if all the hundreds of thousands of programmers who find purpose in open source start seeing their contributions primarily as a poorly-paid second job. What a well of resentment that would fill.

Some people are lucky to find a full serving of purpose at home or at work. But many more need to find it in a third place. A place where the responsibility is the reward. This should be encouraged and commended.

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.