Why do people work? Think back over your career. Think of the most difficult times, the most enjoyable times, the laughs, and the satisfaction. The challenges and difficulties.
At the sunset of your career, what do you envision the purpose of all that sunk time working to have been?
Is it to line your pockets, to create a cushy life for you and yours?
Or is it something else, maybe even golden handcuffs?
What is the purpose of work?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
Jenni and I were on our evening stroll around our neighborhood earlier. Fall is on the horizon, we were a little more bundled up than normal. As we tend to do on these jaunts, we talked about the day’s goings-on and what we were each working on. Jenni mentioned she’d be working a bit more this week than her (recently) normal ~1-2 days/week. I asked why, curious as to what was driving her. She explained she wanted to catch up on some of the projects she cares about as she’s been falling behind while having to fill-in for other coworkers on vacation. She said:
I’m not doing anything else, why not work now?Person who might work ’til they’re dead
I responded in a little bit of a negative way, “what do you mean you’re not doing anything else?!”
I was worried about how easy it is to slide back into work. That’s doubly true when you don’t really mind the work, they pay you well, and they want you to work (triply?).
I was there once, too. I thought back on how much work has tried to claw me back.
Why Do People Work?
“Golden handcuffs”, or an employer’s incentives to keep you working, are all too real and enticing. They’re more of a soft velvet handcuff, scented in gardenia. They might even have some secretive intravenous method to pump you full of just the right mixture of dopamine and endorphins. More than just tempting, they’re also addictive and entangling. Sometimes we sadly answer the question of “why do people work” with a singular answer: money.
The worst form of golden velveteen handcuffs is those in disguise. They come with the promise of ease and luxury. For just a bit more of your time, you’ll earn the chance to be lauded by your colleagues with many an “attaboy”.
Oh, you still have more time?
How about the promise of industry recognition?
You’ll be buttered up one side while your time is siphoned off down the other. Between the BMW and corner office, you won’t realize it happened.
I mean, who doesn’t want fame within their industry (just don’t ask the famous)?
What now, you’re curious about the work itself?
Hush now. It doesn’t matter what the work is. You sweet summer child.
Punch the numbers, input the clock. Repeat. Punch clock. Input numbers.
Be the cog.
Business is trying to answer the question in its own way. “What’s the purpose of a business?”, recent studies have asked. While organizations struggle to answer, their end goal remains the same: to make more money.
But is that really the reason for why people work?
Reasons why we work
We rested from our stroll at the peak of an art garden on a bench, the sun sharp on the horizon in the early evening.
I asked Jenni about what she said and listed off the many projects, hobbies, and pursuits we’ve begun as she’s made the switch to part-time work. She just finished a post on her big patio project and conquering DIY fears! How’s that “not anything else”, I asked.
Of course, what she meant was bigger adventures: foreign slow travel, local volunteerism, long visits with friends and family around the country. These reasons for why she’s worked have been held up or at least minimized by the pandemic.
What is the purpose of work?
At the outset of this article, I asked you to think back on the challenges in your career and the positive highs you’ve felt. Did you think of monetary wins: a bonus, a promotion?
Some of you likely did, but most probably thought of something else:
- The project that was filled with seemingly insurmountable challenges
- Making a sale that forced you to try a new approach from the tried and true
- Product development that required you to stretch your mind in a novel way, breathing to life something new
Undoubtedly your experience that you remember best, surmounting the challenge ahead of you, required some genuine outside the box thinking. The commonality among those meaningful parts of work is in the novelty of the task at hand combined with the new methods you employ to combat the challenges.
It’s the opportunity to apply your creative side that gave the work meaning for you.
Finding purpose in work
The purpose of your work is not to repeat the rote procedure. Even as the routine might be necessary at first, the goal and satisfaction come from removing routine through creative work. This isn’t just in mechanical, industrial processes, but in art as well.
Do you believe a great artist would find satisfaction and purpose by churning out small variations of an existing artwork of theirs?
Michelangelo wasn’t sitting around making variants of David for his sponsors.
In fact, he didn’t even move from David to another sculpture. His next project was the Sistine Chapel ceiling, an entirely new sort of challenge to his creativity. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have to work to bring his creative vision to life.
“The greatest artist does not have any concept
Which a single piece of marble does not itself contain
Within its excess, though only
A hand that obeys the intellect can discover it.”— I Sonetti Di Michelangelo: The 78 Sonnets of Michelangelo with Verse Translation
Michelangelo suggests that it’s only through the creativity of our mind that we can discover greatness. He’s saying quite directly that greatness already exists, but you must find it through intellectual creativity and work to remove the excess which hides it. The difference between creativity and rote production is having an end goal in which novelty is created.
Why do people work? The purpose of work is not an outcome of repetition, it’s newness.
A sense of purpose at work
Newness and creative vision that supports it is what makes the difference between the unsatisfying work of a factory production line and the subtle experimentation, feedback, and improvement loop of an artist seeking perfection.
The 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi exemplifies this lifelong pursuit of improvement in one’s work. Roger Ebert wrote:
“If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?
Standing behind his counter, Jiro notices things. […]— Roger Ebert
He knows his staff has recently started massaging an octopus for 45 minutes and not half an hour, for example. Does he search a customer’s eyes for a signal that this change has been an improvement?”
As the master of sushi, Jiro has spent decades producing the same final product: a piece of food, ephemeral in its short existence.
Wouldn’t that suggest that Jiro has merely created a fine-tuned sushi factory line?
Jiro’s process is one of constant evaluation, experimentation. Each customer has a different experience from another: right-handed folks are seated differently from lefties. Customers don’t choose what to eat, the head chef does for them.
Jiro’s ability to maintain a passion for his craft is in his goal to reach a pinnacle of sushi perfection even as he realizes the impossibility of such a task. As he nears perfection in his craft, his experimentation becomes increasingly minute to eke out improvement, but he doesn’t accept any less than better each time.
Jiro’s goal is not one of routine, he’s applying his intellect to remove excess in order to create his own art.
Why Do People Work Hard but Retire Early?
As Jenni and I plodded down the steps of the art garden with the cool evening air seeping in to replace the setting sun, we spoke more on the newly freed time she and I both have with our pursuit of retiring early.
I prodded her about her time, “I think you need to incorporate more time to create in your schedule.”
Like many first reaching financial independence, her creative energy has been directed and absorbed by her employer for so long that it’s jarring to be free and on your own. The creative possibilities that open up to a life of work on your own terms can paradoxically be paralyzing.
Some seem to even believe that work stops upon retiring (early or not)!
I’d argue that financial independence merely frees a person to true choice in their work, it’s more a beginning than it is an end.
Personally, I have no desire to cease my own ever-evolving form of work even as money ceases to become a driver of that work. The purpose of earning money is to have enough money, no more, no less.
Finding meaning and purpose at work
I have a huge advantage over Jenni when it comes to managing time and finding passionate pursuits in early retirement: I’ve not had a genuine full-time job since 2012. I’d be surprised If I spent more than a thousand hours doing actual work in a single year since then (I’m an avid time tracker with the data to support this).
With all this extra time, I’ve been able to spread my interests far and wide. When I was working full-time, I needed to be at the top of my game in my area of expertise. That meant I needed to go deep but on a narrow set of knowledge topics.
These days, as the pressure is gone to keep up with peer competition, I get a much more varied set of problems to deal with. I’ve become much more of a generalist vs specialist as I’ve worked less.
I’ve filled my time with creative projects and experiments since then, along with some (seemingly) necessary rote production to reach our FI goals. As we crested a million bucks and true “FU money“, can you guess what the first thing was that I removed from my schedule?
I ruthlessly cut anything that looked or felt like routine, mindless work. Even when they offered to pay $200/hr+. The money didn’t matter anymore and that realization let me see the work for what it was. A means to an end, which had arrived.
The work I’m still doing emphasizes creation, and in some novel ways:
- Mentoring folks in my area of expertise with the goal of creating more capable individuals that contribute back to the field and their own mentees
- Supporting non-profit organizations with meaningful missions to create good within society, especially those closely aligned with my own ideals and locality
- Documenting and teaching (I hope!) our experience with reaching financial independence and retiring early through this very blog to create opportunity for others
Some of that ends up being work that has paid me money, some of it isn’t. In fact, I lose money on some of it. But, in either case, it doesn’t really matter. Like Jiro or Michelangelo, my goal is to chisel away the excess in order to create something meaningful to someone.
Why do people work? The purpose of my work is to create.
The Purpose of Work Is to Create
By the time Jenni and I reached the entry to our historic little neighborhood, we’d been batting back and forth different creative ideas for her to pursue. She intends to refurbish our teak mid-century modern dining set herself, an opportunity to work on her upholstery skills. Our bathroom needs a new coat of paint (and some plasterwork to go with it!).
She’s a crafty person with a variety of physical creation skills that’ll go into some seasonal decor for the fall, fresh paintings as gifts to family and friends, and perhaps an opportunity or two for me to join her artistic pursuits as an excuse to be a little closer to her.
I don’t know what creative pursuit will eventually really drive her forward.
Will it be physical art? Digital creations like this blog (which is a significant creative outlet for me)?
Will she continue to contribute back to her area of expertise in pharmacy to define creative solutions to interesting problems?
So, what do I think about the answer to “why do people work?”
I’m okay with not knowing the specific answer for us as individuals. Financial independence frees us to pursue creative work that is of interest to us, to experiment, and to improve. Our work becomes more honest and more representative of us. I know that our purpose for work will continue to be some form of creation.
Why would work that fulfills our creative purpose ever stop?
While my opinion is that the purpose of work is to create, what do you think? Perhaps you’re more focused on the greater good, achieving status, or something else?
Let me know in the comments!