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Cover image for My Recurring Existential Crisis as a Software Engineer
Tyler Hawkins
Tyler Hawkins

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at

My Recurring Existential Crisis as a Software Engineer

I find myself having an existential crisis at work about every six months.

“What am I doing with my life?”

“Am I wasting my time?”

“Does what I’m doing right now matter?”

These questions have continually resurfaced for me over the last decade regardless of what company I’m working for, what project I’m working on, or what my job title is. And my answers to these questions have fluctuated from month to month and year to year.

What I’ve found is that my motivations at work have changed over time. I’m not sure if they are evolving toward a higher purpose or simply changing without an obvious end goal, but they are in fact changing.

Personal focus

Personal focus (Source: xkcd)

Sometimes I’m motivated by the work itself. Is the work technically challenging? Does it push me to learn and grow? Am I interested in the tools and programming languages that I get to work with? Am I solving complex problems? Sometimes just having work that you can get lost in is enough. Learning for the sake of learning can be fun.

Maybe it’s all just a distraction.

Don’t let the existential dread set in

Don’t let the existential dread set in (Source: Blue Chair)

Other times I’ve focused more on the company’s mission. As a company, are we working toward a goal that contributes to the world in some meaningful way beyond making money for our shareholders? Do I believe in what the company is doing? Am I excited about the impact we’re having and the product we’re building?

Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

I don’t want much in life

I don’t want much in life (Source: Poorly Drawn Lines)

Most recently I’ve become more interested in people. Do I have opportunities to impact other people’s lives in a positive way? This could be through management or leadership opportunities, or it could be a mentoring relationship, either formal or informal.

Or am I impacting our customers’ lives in a positive way? Maybe the company’s mission or product isn’t world-changing, but does it at least help make someone’s life better or their job easier in some small way?

Jupiter gives Earth a moon

Jupiter gives Earth a moon (Source: wawa wiwa)

I’m undecided if any of these purposes are better than the others or if they’re simply different. Maybe they don’t follow a natural progression and it’s normal to cycle through them.

Many people don’t find meaning at work at all and instead find purpose in other pursuits in life. That’s ok too. Family, friends, hobbies, religion, sports, and volunteer work all give meaning to our lives.

Your job shouldn’t define who you are. As software engineers though we should count ourselves lucky that we’re even in a position to consider our work meaningful.

Discussion (14)

jfbrennan profile image
Jordan Brennan

I used to put in long hours because I thought I was being fulfilled, but I realized it was actually just an addiction to feeling productive, which is insatiable.

I've learned to stop looking for fulfillment at work because real fulfillment is not there. Doing a job you enjoy and creating value for customers does make the daily grind more pleasant and sustainable, but imo there is no job that can fill the mental/emotional/spiritual void like marriage, children, religion and community service can.

I now give my job 100% effort for just the amount of my time as required and then I turn my focus to the better stuff. Much happier!

drumstix42 profile image

Well said! There really can be an addiction to needing to be, or feeling, productive -- nearly constantly.

dvddpl profile image
Davide de Paolis

Great post. I find myself often in the same cycles. Sometimes fiddling one day on linter configuration is so much fun, sometimes one day drawing diagram of complex legacy system is super interesting, some other days is just writing feedbacks and improvement plan is all that counts. Some other days, I am asking myself what's the point. Why I care so much. The good thing of this job which I am greatful for, is exactly this variety and size of scope, the challenges and the learnings.

rosekamallove profile image
Rose Kamal Love

I am not even working yet, I'm in my second year of college and started thinking "Why" and it got worse after I and my girlfriend broke up. I was thinking in the lines "What is even the point of getting a good job". Took me 6 months to get my motivation back. And have been interviewing for internships, but the thought process still is right around the corner, ready to mess up my min anytime.

I think this blog post will help me find meaning, and give you meaning since you're helping someone like me, who's just starting out by sharing your personal experiences. I really appreciate it 🙂

gene profile image

Perhaps we're getting old and we're no longer starting to look for "fun". Instead, we are looking for satisfaction.

alexiades profile image
Alejandro Alexiades

Nice post. I share a lot of thing that you said. One thing that rules my life, is that money can buy my free time. So, I do my job the best I can and then:

  • I spend time with friends and family.
  • Try to learn the piano or guitar
  • Ride with the motorcycle and take picture's
  • Read a interesting book.
  • Play sports...

That time will never return.

hseritt profile image
Harlin Seritt

Work and productivity are not the be-all/end-all. I'm so glad you guys' generation is understanding of that. Something that's worked for me -- and this may sound Nietzshe-an (probably not a word but hope someone gets the gist) -- is realizing there is no real external meaning to anything in life. And that's not a bad thing at all. Remember how happy you were when you were a kid and had no mandates that you should do this or that beyond what was needed in the moment?

Anyways, after I'm dead, I figure anyone who is interested can look back at my life and decide how meaningful it was. That's not up to me. But, I'm sure that won't happen beyond my funeral. After that, I hope they'll be too busy living their life instead. I'm sure they will.

Spirituality, service to others and focusing on my family seems to work for me because I'm not thinking about me. But are they ultimately more valuable than anything else in life? I tend to think no.

Focusing really on anything that's going on in the moment seems to take me away from thinking about me. That's when I'm happiest. I could be working on something that may even seem selfish but if I'm putting myself fully into it, that seems to cure any kind of existential issues that I might dream up. Even focusing on work seems to put me in the zone as long as I'm doing it at the right time.

When the whistle blows at the end of the day, I try to focus on that at 5pm. Focusing on my family when they are right in front of me (and nothing else is) seems to work well too. Basically, whatever the moment demands and focusing on that at that time seems to help with all the mental hand-wringing.

jdhinvicara profile image
John Harding

I've been doing this for 30 years now. Definitely continuing through similar cycles that you mention. I'd say it's getting tougher now as I balance the end-game of my career between "what I can achieve" vs. "what I want to achieve"...

natriumdev profile image

This is great. It shows how you need to reinvent yourself, in the first place for your own well being.

frodolight profile image

Good post, kudos!

erickgonzalez profile image

Well said. I’m happy that they pay me to essentially learn and help solve problems for others. :) I’ll take it.

leob profile image

What about doing the work simply to pay the bills and put food on the table? Many people in the world are scrambling to get by on a daily basis, if you have a job that lets you do that and you don't hate doing it then you can already count yourself lucky. Most of the time the thought of that already motivates me sufficiently, even when at a certain moment the work isn't glorious, or isn't that motivating in itself. Sometimes we just need to be grateful for what we have.

bndissanayaka profile image
Bhagya • Edited on

I have been feeling this for months now. And it is way more often than every six months :( . Sometimes it is every day; I am asking "why"? "why do I exist?" "what is the purpose"? and the only reason I live for, is work. It is the only satisfaction I see in life. This is dreadful. Thank you for posting this so now I know it is not only me.

apayrus profile image
Rustam Apay • Edited on

Thank you for sharing.

Please, read/watch about clinical and season depression and bipolar disorder.

What you call crisis could be mental disorder, that can be cured.