I have spent a fair bit of time at various conferences in the last three months: DEFCON, USENIX Security, and ACM CCS. A lot of research has been presented, informal or not, all of it the result of dozens upon dozens of person-hours on the part of the authors. This display of newfound knowledge serves as a powerful personal motivator, and I always return energized and ready to tackle various challenges. I also use this opportunity to reflect on sundry topical matters, and (possibly because I found myself surrounded by some very smart people during these events) as of late my thoughts have been directed at understanding what I think our resources, as individuals, should be primarily focused on. The answer is that we should all (researchers or not) aim to make an impact on the world, some contribution that positively affects life in the global or historical sense: meaningful work.
While this may seem like a straightforward observation, perhaps so much so as to border on appearing naïve, I consider it deserves explicit reaffirmation, insofar as the anecdotal evidence I collected leads me to think it is an oft-forgotten principle.
Not everyone may succeed in curing a disease or engendering world peace directly through their work, but everyone can and should participate in a piece of something comparatively important for the Human Race. As the discovery of penicillin teaches us, it is not always obvious how things are intertwined, so accidental achievements are possible. Still, the few such exemptions only reinforce the general rule that great results come from directed focus and concentrated efforts. It is true that significant accomplishments may follow from unexpected work, and it is hard to know in advance how things will play out, but reflecting on what our intended goals are does provide the perspective needed to find the appropriate focus.
There are many ways to connect advances in a particular field to the more general issues we face at global scale. Maybe a curious new encryption scheme only seems exciting to mathematicians and cryptographers, but it may be the basis of a secure communication protocol with strong mathematical guarantees that it cannot be intercepted, allowing freedom fighters all over the world to succeed in their struggles. Knowing how certain bees mate might sound silly, until the discovery gives new insights into certain enzymes that end up solving cancer. These examples may seen like stretches of imagination, and an intelligent individual would be able to draw such links between arbitrary points of the Human Knowledge Graph. Yet, there is no real damage doing so, except for the illegitimate ego-boosting and incidental annoyance. But when you are part of something that you know to be, simply, of real importance, no amount of intellectual posturing will convince otherwise. Work that falls in this second category, whether it is something you lead or take part in, matters. It has meaning beyond the next paycheque earned, journal or conference willing to publish it.
Always gravitate toward Big Things.