Wes Kennedy
Wes Kennedy

Wes Kennedy

What is your life's work?

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

What is your life's work?

Wes Kennedy's photo
Wes Kennedy
·Apr 26, 2022·

7 min read

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At NVIDIA there is a saying, "NVIDIA is where you can do your life's work," which I think is a very valuable thing to think about. Rarely do we step back and think about the items that we do each and every day and what they actually add up to. I mean really, when did you assess what you're going to do today in the context of all the work you're going to complete in your life? I have maybe done this once or twice, ending up saddened each time.

When talking to a friend about this, he sent me the following, which I wanted to put it towards the beginning to let it sink in through the rest of the piece.

"So there’s an interesting cross section between figuring out what your life’s work should be, and the general argument between individualism vs. the collective good. Like, who determines what’s good for society and that more people should be working on “MY” idea, vs finding out what they’re personally passionate about?" - Shiraz Lall

I should start by saying, only you are in charge of determining what you are personally passionate about and what you are working on. If you want to focus on building a hell of a career, you can absolutely do that. Given that, even a small increase in the number of people focusing on the collective good will make a difference.

I've written before about how I want the work I do to matter in the world and it's very hard for me to see that right now. At best I'm working on the next iteration of accelerated computing that will hopefully allow for great things to be built on top of it, but it will also accelerate things that don't matter at all too.

So what is my life's work exactly? What do I want my life's work to be? What are the problems that I think need solved?

A lot of this will go back to my values and what matters to me, so the answer to what I want my life's work to be is always going to be related to people. How do we protect people, around the world? How do we make the world a more safe and equitable place for all?

  • Climate Emergency
  • Global Health
  • Hunger/Famine
  • Human Rights abuses

How is it that with a nearly $100T global GDP, we can't figure out how to feed everyone? How is it that we can't guarantee a basic level of health, housing, and education globally?

The ability to solve these problems exist in spades throughout the world, but the abilities are being focused on other things - namely, building companies that increase shareholder value, while providing a salary to pay for your food, shelter, and clothing.

I think each person has a small part to play in making incremental steps towards solving these problems. I think we each have a skillset that can help move this forward, but we have to work hard to find our niche and a way to get paid to do it. Unfortunately, we each still need our capitalism points to pay for our basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing.

Individualism vs The Collective Good

I will mostly be looking at this problem through the lens of a United States citizen, which tends to be a very individualistic country. Decades of policy in the United States has been written to support the wealthy, assuming that trickle down economics will take care of the rest. Unfortunately, trickle down economics only works when interest rates are punishingly high, >%50, not the ludicrously low amounts that corporations pay today (just look at the taxes Amazon has paid in the last three years). This leaves the individuals left to pick up the mantle.

So how do you build an economy that focuses on the collective good? How do you write policy that builds opportunities for everyone, rather than the few? I don't claim to have answers to these items, but I do know how we can begin to make a difference, with our own work.

If you look at how I've been making career decisions for the last decade or more, it's been largely self-serving. I've wanted to move up the ladder, so I can make more money, learn more, and have a larger influence inside of a company. This has worked for me. I make a great living, live in a wonderful home, never worry about the grocery bill, and my son will probably never know what it's like to worry about where his next meal will come from. My work has been focused on myself, rather than the collective good. My work has contributed to my employers making millions upon millions of dollars from my labor, most often lining shareholder's pockets. There's nothing wrong with wanting to build a good life for your family, but it's also worth taking stock of what your work creates in this world and seeing if that work can make a difference while still providing a good living.

It comes from a place of privilege that I realize that I can take a step back and decide what I want to work on. Years of building a career have put me in a place where I have a healthy emergency fund, equity in my home, and the ability to jump right back into a high paying tech career if I fail. In addition to that, I work in an industry with flexible hours, so for me to spend a few hours during the day focusing on what I want to do in the future is not a big deal either.

Recognizing that privilege, I want to talk about what can be done with it.

What are you good at?

It's hard to be introspective, to talk yourself up, to identify what you're good at - because we're taught to be modest. But, it's worth going through the thought exercise of identifying what you're best at, because only then can you truly begin to think about making a difference for the collective good.

You want to be able to take your best qualities, most honed skills, and point those at a problem you want to solve.

So ask yourself, what are you good at? When have you excelled in your career? Is there a project where you felt that you were at your best?

For me, I realized that my greatest skill is tying non-technical problems to technical solutions. Even a month ago I would have worded this as tying business problems with technical solutions, but I feel very strongly that solving for business problems is the wrong way to handle this skill. Instead, I want to point this skill at people.

Solving Human Problems

There are so many problems that face the human race, several of which were listed in the beginning of this piece.

Our climate is well past changing and charging forward full steam ahead to disaster. There will be millions, and eventually billions, of people displaced due to rising sea levels and/or changes in atmospheric conditions for various reasons, over the next several decades. While there are many policy changes that need to happen to resolve this, there are also things we can all do to help work on this problem. Technology to develop, habits to change.

Two years into a global pandemic we're still seeing thousands of positive cases per day, people are still dying, among other things. There will be increasing amounts of viruses in the future. There are billions of people that live in countries with poor healthcare systems. Even people who live in some first world countries don't have access to or can't afford proper healthcare. Our products and lifestyles often contribute negatively to our health and there is little education regarding this.

According to Action Against Hunger, more than 800M people have insufficient access to appropriate amounts of food. There has been headway on this issue, but 800M people is still a lot more than ZERO.

The number of human rights abuses that occur globally is shocking. Attacks on people based on gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, religion, and so many other things happen daily. In the United States there are bills being passed state to state targeting the LGBTQ+ community, which will eventually lead to people dying.

With all of these issues going on in the world, I want to focus on Global Health. Specifically, I will focus on indoor air quality, which I've talked about at length in my Building in Public series. Indoor Air Quality is a very important health contributor when most people globally spend greater than 40% of their time indoors.

I want to be able to look back at the work I've done in my life and it be easy to point at the value I've brought to people. I want my life's work to have a positive impact on people's lives, I want to solve problems that directly improve people's health. I want to make the world a healthier, happier place to be.

What human problems do you want to solve?

What will be your life's work?

 
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