Happiness at work requires a focus inward

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Ben Lai: The Key to Happiness

On June 3, I was honored to be one of the speakers addressing 115 interns at LinkedIn to talk about how to succeed as an intern at LinkedIn. My focus was supposed to be “application development.” Based on prior success with me, the people who ran this event entrusted me with the task of teaching these young people how to be good software engineers in the space of 30 minutes.

Now, I could have tried my best to do this. I could have lectured about the importance of simplicity, of taking anything complicated and working your butt off trying to simplify it. Complexity is the enemy of comprehensibility, and therefore, the enemy of knowledge. As far as I’m concerned, taming complexity is the hardest problem not only in software engineering, but in running any business or organization.

Alternatively, I could have talked about how important it is to ask for help. Smart people (like LinkedIn interns) have a difficult time asking for help, because asking for help is tantamount to saying “I’m dumb, I can’t figure this out.” But if you put aside your ego and ask for help, most people at LinkedIn are either happy to help you (because we try to hire nice people), or, much more likely, they are way too busy, in which case you ask someone else. Yes, of course you should try not to waste other people’s time, but once you’ve determined that it would take you 10 times longer to try to figure out something than it would take for someone else to tell you, then you are saving LinkedIn money if you ask for help.

But I didn’t talk about either of those topics. I decided to talk about something far, far more important. I thought to myself: I’ve got 115 young college students in a room, forced to listen to whatever I have to say for half an hour. What is the best possible thing these young people could hear from me? And that’s when I thought of my topic: how to find happiness at work. I can’t reproduce the exact words from my speech, because I improvised most of it an hour before the talk, but I can share with you the main ideas. Here’s what I said.

The Key to Happiness

Hello there, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Ben Lai. I’m a Senior Software Engineer here at LinkedIn. I’ve been here exactly 4 years plus 4 days. I’m supposed to talk to you guys about application development, but here’s the thing: you guys will do just fine. We here at LinkedIn do everything in our power to make you guys succeed. We pair you up with a mentor. We try to find a Goldilocks project for you, where the project is not too easy and not too difficult, one whose impact you will be able to see and appreciate, so that you can go back to your friends and brag about the 20 million additional members you brought to LinkedIn (or maybe not quite 20 million). And our tools and infrastructure are now light-years better than they were when I started four years ago. Four years ago, I tried to get my environment set up for an entire week with no success. Today, your environment probably builds within a few minutes. So I think I don’t need to talk to you about how to be good software developers. You’ll learn that from your mentors, your manager, and your team.

I’d like to talk to you about how to be happy at work.

Instead, I’m going to talk to you about something that I’ve thought about for a long time, something I’m really eager to share with some young people. I’d like to talk to you about how to be happy at work. You see, here’s the thing. All of you have just been through a process of brainwashing that has lasted about 16 years, a process called school. For the last 16 years, every authority figure in your life has been telling you that it doesn’t really matter what you’re interested in. It only matters that you learn whatever they want you to learn. Whatever internal curiosity you might have had was irrelevant to learning Early American History or Neoclassical Poetry. All that mattered was that you learned what they told you to learn, and you learned it well. If you wanted to understand how good people could have possibly allowed slavery or the Holocaust to happen, well, you can find that out on your own; but if it’s not part of the assignment, then it’s not important. Do it on your own time after you finish the four hours of homework each night.

This brainwashing process creates obedient, hard-working employees who listen to authority very, very well. But it doesn’t lead to creativity, entrepreneurship, independent thought, or happiness. Now, I care about all those things, but I only have time to talk about one of them, so I’m going to talk about happiness.

I want to take you on a thought experiment. Let’s say that you’re in a doctor’s office, and on the table next to you, there’s a Rubik’s cube. That’s all, just a Rubik’s cube. No magazines. Nobody else in the room. So naturally, you pick it up and start playing with it. If, like most people, you don’t know how to solve it, then you start by trying to get one side. Maybe you try to get two sides as a stretch goal.

Intrinsic motivation is when you naturally have an interest in doing something.

A few minutes after you start playing, someone else comes into the room, probably another patient. He sees you playing with the Rubik’s cube, and he says, “Hey, it looks like you’re pretty good with that. I’ll give you a dollar if you can get two sides.” Suddenly, you really start trying to get two sides. You rack your brain. You really try many different options. You might get frustrated. After a few minutes, you might even get so frustrated that you just give up and slam the cube on the table in defeat.

This thought experiment illustrates the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when you naturally have an interest in doing something — for example, playing with the Rubik’s cube. If the other patient had not entered the room, you probably would have kept playing with that Rubik’s cube for the entire time while you were waiting for the doctor. You did it purely for the fun of it. Extrinsic motivation is when you perform an action in order to get some reward or avoid some punishment. Even a small reward like a single dollar can trick your mind into “goal-seeking” mode so that you’re focused on something other than having fun. Think about it. You could have enjoyed playing with the Rubik’s cube with or without the dollar. And it turns out that studies show that if you have intrinsic interest in an activity, you’ll stick with it much longer.

Extrinsic motivation is when you perform an action in order to get some reward or avoid some punishment.

I’m currently reading an excellent book that talks about the power of intrinsic motivation, called Drive, by Daniel H. Pink. It’s a very interesting book, albeit a bit academic — he cites a lot of research. Nevertheless, there are so many great nuggets of wisdom in that book that I highly recommend it to you. While I can’t prove to you that intrinsic motivation is your path to happiness, I believe that Pink’s book can do a pretty good job of that. And I think most people would agree that it makes sense. After all, isn’t doing something you enjoy all the time more likely to lead to a happier life?

The problem is that 16 years of extrinsic motivation are incredibly hard to undo. For 16 years, no one rewarded your intrinsic motivation. And for the rest of your life, extrinsic motivation is going to come at you from every direction. You got an internship at LinkedIn. Wow, now you’re famous among your friends. After you graduate, you land a job at Google or Goldman Sachs. Or you join a hot startup with a monster valuation. You buy a house in Palo Alto. Your kids get straight A’s. They get a scholarship to Stanford. You get the idea.

The rest of the world wants you to care about the score. It is up to you to remember to enjoy the game.

None of those things I just mentioned have anything to do with what’s going to make you happy. That’s because all of these so-called successes, these status symbols, are external to you. We human beings aren’t robots or software programs. We have deeper selves that ache to be known; we have inner voices that yearn to be heard. When we suppress our inner voices for 40 years, eventually those voices will break through and ask us, “Is this it? Is this what I’ll end up doing for another 20 years? Is there no more to life than trying to increase my salary every year? Forget about whether I’m good at my job. Do I actually enjoy what I’m doing? Was I a good parent? Do my kids like me? Do my kids know me? Did I contribute anything to this world? What was the point of my life?”

Today, I’m going to tell you something terribly important. I don’t know whether anyone else is ever going to tell you this, so just in case, I’m going to tell you. If you remember one thing from this whole talk, remember this: listen to that quiet tiny voice inside you. Pay attention to what you’re really interested in. Don’t waste your time doing what other people want you to do, or doing what your friends are doing, or doing something just because you’re good at it. Listen to what your heart really wants. I’m speaking to you from experience.

Don’t waste your time doing what other people want you to do, or doing what your friends are doing, or doing something just because you’re good at it. Listen to what your heart really wants.

Now, I can tell you this advice, but I might never see you again after this summer, so you have to be your own guardian angel. Think about it like this: if you had the world’s greatest career coach, what would he or she advise you to do? Probably to listen to your heart. But you might never have such a coach. Instead, all you have is yourself. So if you yourself are not going to defend your inner voice, then who will? So it has to be you. You must protect your right to be happy.

This article was originally published on Ben Lai’s LinkedIn page.