Why Do We Work

by Karl Rohde — Get free updates of new posts here. Photo Credit: Arto Marttinen


Monday to Friday, most of us work. We get up early. Face peak hour traffic. Take instructions from a boss or serve a customer. Do some stuff. Then we head home somewhat depleted and repeat it. For some who are self-employed and business owners the work never stops. Why?

It's for the money, right?

Really? Since we get paid at the end of the month, after we've done the work, money is more a result than a reason for our toil. While money is a crucial element to justify work it is in fact more an outcome than the core reason why we wake up and head off to work day after day. If money has become the main focus of our work we have lost our way. And it’s not due to a fault of our own. The industrial age ushered in a system where trading time for money was the intent. Add to this, in many workplaces the way work is structured means that there really is little reason to do our jobs except for pay.

“…when we say of someone that “he’s in it for the money,” we are not merely being descriptive; we’re passing judgment.” --Barry Schwartz

Actual Motivation

When we look at what truly motivates us at work money is rarely the most effective stimulant. To be clear, money can motivate, but not for long. Daniel Pink’s research into what really motivates us reveals that money as an incentive has a rather brief effect.

I think the person who takes a job in order to live - that is to say, for the money - has turned himself into a slave. --Joseph Campbell

If we focus on what motivates and what inspires I think we get a better and more accurate picture as to why we work.

So why do we really work? For a moment lets park the melodrama of the industrial age. In an ideal world what is the "why"?

The short answer: To do something meaningful, something we can take pride in, something that matters and that makes a difference to a peer or a customer, to learn and to grow personally.

Work is Fundamental

It's a poignant part of our life. Work is life. It’s elementary to our lives and the people we support. The fact we spend more time at work than anywhere else somehow indicates that the work we do has the biggest bearing on the quality, meaning and purpose of our lives. Something that takes up more than 60% of our waking hours is significant. Work is not separate from our life, rather it is an intrinsic part of our life. Is this a problem? If you're immersed in work that fails to inspire and motivate it most certainly is. Logically if we are going to find meaning in our work and therefore our lives we need work on something that connects us to a higher place.

Resigning ourselves to meaningless work is not an option. If we are to have a nice (or better) life we owe it to ourselves to find the "why" and connect to it no matter what.

To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness. --John Dewey

The “why” in work encompasses a lot

Work is a platform to grow and develop mastery over ourselves. It's a place to connect skill, capability, experience and passion to something of value. It’s a platform for our art (innate creative ability). It’s a place to discover our talents and apply them. Our work is part of our legacy. It’s a chance to be valuable, valued and useful. Work is a vehicle to leave things better than we found them. It’s a fundamental development platform for our character and soul. A place where we can face challenges and most importantly overcome them. It’s where we can receive and act on feedback to make ourselves better people. It’s where we can develop self-worth and self-esteem through the consistent delivery of something of value. It’s a place to connect with our humanity through shared discovery and experience. It’s a system to leverage a better future. Work enables us to scale in value and worth. It’s connects us with the world at large. It gives us exposure. It allows us to experience interesting people, places and culture. Work ensures we can sustain a lifestyle. And living in style makes life worth living. Crucially, it ensures we can provide for the people we love. Work is an avenue to demonstrate our uniqueness. It’s a place to foster great relationships. Work is a place to help others, to be a mentor, to be a coach, to teach and inspire and be inspired.

Work is a fundamental setting for finding our voice and helping others find theirs.

Above all work is a channel for personal creative expression. The expression of our art – to be human. It opens up the opportunity to make something remarkable. Our lives.

So why do we work? As Friedrich Nietzsche summised: Art is the proper task of life.

We work to unleash our art.

The Internet age has connected some 3 billion people. The constraints of the industrial age are gone. A new world of work is here. The gap between work and purpose is smaller than ever. Are you adapting? Stay tuned to find out how.

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