Why Do You Work?

There was a stretch of about two months where I was a voracious TED Talk watcher and listener. I started with the top ten most watched TED Talks, which soon became Top 20 (but I haven’t watched all twenty yet), and it became one of the most powerful 100 minutes I ever spent (“Sir Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity” still reverberates in my head as our two pre-school children grow up).

If you have a limited amount of time, I recommend watching the top five. They will challenge the way you think in a positive way and there is a 0% chance you will regret spending a hundred minutes this way.

Today, I want to talk to you about the talk that had the most profound impact on me.

But first…

Why do you work?

When I posed this question to my friends on Facebook, here’s a small sampling:

Why Do You Work?
Excluding money, why do you work?

Until I watched that TED talk, I never asked myself why I worked.

I worked because that’s what I was supposed to do.

There was no why.

I don’t think about why I breathe air, I just do it. I don’t think about why I go to sleep, I just do it (and looooove it!). I don’t think about why I work, I just do it.

But there is a why and it’s was very important for me to understand it before I could truly put my life in balance.

Start With Why

The TED talk that had a profound (and I don’t use this word lightly) impact on me was a 2009 talk by Simon Sinek. Here’s the 18 minute video, please watch it if you’ve never seen it:

The talk is about businesses but it really applies to people too. Sinek talks about how the truly successful ones understand and start with their Why.

For me to fully come to terms with not working all the time, I have to first understand my Why.

I was running my life by leading with the What and the How. I never led with Why.

Incidentally, Start With Why is the name of Simon Sinek’s first book and it’s a great read. I’ve heard good things about Leaders Eat Last too, but I haven’t read it yet.

Why Do I Work?

On a mid-afternoon walk, I started to think about my Why.

Now, this isn’t a cheesy thing where I show you a photo of my cute little kids and my lovely wife and say I do it all for them. I do, but I always feel like those little disclosures are a little… manufactured. We all do it for our families. We all love our kids and our spouses and we go the extra mile for them.

That’s a given.

But that isn’t what I mean when I think about the Why… I want to go deeper. I need to understand, deep down past the warm and fuzzies, why I’m working.

First, I work for money. I want to and need to be paid. The bank wants money, stores want money, and photos of my kids might elicit an “awwww” but they don’t pay the bills. All things being equal, more is better and I want to be paid more.

I work for that feeling of accomplishment. The feeling that there was a difficult problem in front of me today and I beat it. I pride myself on being able to figure things out, to solve problems, and to work with what I have to accomplish a task. So being able to demonstrate that to myself on a daily basis is very fulfilling.

Finally, I enjoy learning. I think this stems from when I was a child and being rewarded when I knew something other people didn’t. My dad made me study verb tenses (present, past, past participle… I still don’t know what past participle means) from the back of a dictionary, a thick red hardcover Merriam-Webster dictionary, and it was empowering to know things my peers didn’t.

I always need to be learning and growing as a person or I feel stagnant. It’s like exercising. Once you get in the habit of exercising, stopping is very hard.

Being sedentary is difficult because you get a general sense of malaise that you can’t put your finger on.

Continual learning and overcoming challenges is not an uncommon motivation.
Continual learning and overcoming challenges is not an uncommon motivation.

On Money

When I thought about the top three reasons I work (money, accomplishment, and learning), I glossed over money but went into greater detail for the other two. I wanted to talk about money in greater detail now.

First, we all need money for obvious reasons – food, shelter, entertainment, etc.

We also need money because it represents something very important.

After many years of writing about money on Bargaineering, I learned that with money is never about actual dollars and cents.

Polls (Marist Institute for Public Opinion) have shown that at around $50,000 a year, people aren’t remarkably happier if they earn more. A 2010 Princeton University study put that number at $75,000. In other words, once you get past a certain amount, money stop making you happier at the same rate.

When it comes to money, it’s not the actual number on my paycheck or in my bank account, it’s what it represents.

It represents the world recognizing my value.

This is why you’ll have people who are content with their salary get angry when they discover their office mate, who may be an inferior employee, earns more. It’s not the money, it’s what it represents.

It’s why you might be happy with a 4% raise until you find out the next guy got a 5% raise. It’s not the money, it’s what it represents.

The actual money is important but the recognition of my value is also important.

That said, it’s dangerous to fall into the trap of equating my value to the world with how much I’ve earned.

There are plenty of financial wizard types who bring little to the world but are highly compensated because they found an exploitable weakness in the system.

There are plenty of hucksters and scammers who earn a lot of money peddling their systems and processes to people looking to get rich quick.

So while I don’t tie my self-worth to my net worth, money is certainly a small factor.

Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose

Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,  gave a talk at The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts that the RSA animated into this great video:

The relevant part starts at around 5 minutes, when he talks about three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

What’s interesting is that they match up relatively well with the reasons I came up with for why I work.

I have Autonomy because I am my own boss.

Mastery is exactly my desire to constantly be learning and accomplishing things. Getting better at something is part of the learning process.

The last one, Purpose, matches up with money. I work for the money. Pink calls it the Profit Motive and when it gets unmoored from the Purpose Motive, bad things happen.

BAD THINGS!

Now, that’s a little dramatic on an individual basis, since my goal in life isn’t to make money (whereas the primary goal of a business is to generate a profit) but the message is still clear. If my Purpose in my work is to simply make money, that’s not a good Purpose.

THIS is a Purpose.
THIS is a Purpose.

Now What?

Good question. 🙂

What is my purpose in life and where does work fit in?

My purpose is to enjoy life, grow and support my awesome family, be a good teacher to our children, a good husband to my lovely wife, and a good son to my parents.

To use a car analogy, I feel as though I’m the engine and the money I earn from working is the gasoline. I need a certain amount to keep going but I don’t need 50 gallons if my tank can only hold 15.

What I need to do is short-circuit the part of my head that thinks I need to stockpile the extra 35 gallons in drums around the house (for those with clever intentions and a liberal interpretation of analogies, there are no piles of money around our house!).

How do I do this? Cars need more than gasoline to operate. If I want to be happy, if I want my family to be happy, if I want to fulfill my purpose, I need to make sure everything else is maintained – family, friends, health, and spirit…  as well as work.

How I plan on doing that is for another day…

Now it’s your turn, why do you work?

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and a farm in Illinois via AcreTrader.

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  1. Kurt says

    Interesting to contemplate. When I worked for someone else full time, mostly it was for the money. My aim since I discovered at about age 7 that a bank would pay me interest for doing nothing has been to live on passive income alone. That would then free up my time to pursue what interests me, to learn (which like you is a big motivator for me, but I want to learn what I want to learn, not what my boss wants me to learn), and to indulge my hippie side by communing with nature (which I do a lot). So the money I earned working meant more savings which meant inching closer to living on passive income only. I’m more or less at that point today, but I still work, part-time and only for myself or as a volunteer for organizations with missions I care about. The constant I’ve found throughout my life reduces to learning: when I’m not learning anything new and interesting, I become bored and low energy. Time to move on then!

    • Jim says

      It is so rare to come to the realization of passive income at the age of 7, I’d be curious to hear the story behind that if you still remember the particulars. I bet replicating it would prove invaluable for our society!

  2. Our Next Life says

    Planning for early retirement has forced us to get very real with ourselves about how we will see and define ourselves once we no longer have careers or the fancy titles that go with them. And the unflattering answer for why we work, outside of the obvious money part, is that we like feeling like people value our advice. We like feeling important. We like feeling smart. (Of course we like learning and doing good work and working with great people, too, but I’m just cutting to the chase with the most honest answer!)

    Those feelings will be hard to replace without a career, but we’re glad to know that about ourselves NOW instead of figuring it out only after we retire, and then trying to scramble to fulfill that need. But we know we want to volunteer with local orgs on a strategic level, not just walking dogs and picking up litter, because we know we need that mental engagement and a chance to share our knowledge.

    Great post!

    • Jim says

      I think that having value in this world is very important. Having a job, whether it’s in an office or being a person’s mom/dad/husband/wife/whatever, is a huge part of our being – part of that is because someone values YOU and what YOU are able to do. Learning and doing good work are part of that too, even if it sounds less selfish, because what you know and doing it well has an impact on your value. 🙂

  3. Taylor @ Freedom From Money says

    As always, this is an excellent post. I think that there’s a lot of stigma against acknowledging money as a “Why.” There’s a societal script that seems to say, “If you love it, you would do it for free.” Although that is often true, it discounts a legitimate “Why.” I love how you laid out your reasons and motivations.

    For me, my “Why” is freedom and autonomy. As I move forward in my life, I want to be able to set my own schedule, define my own hours and determine how much time I spend with my family. That’s my motivation behind all the jobs I’ve ever had (including my current job in social media management). I’ve never stated that in quite such clear terms before though. It feels good! haha. Thanks for the awesome thoughts. I can’t wait to go back and watch the TED talk.

    • Jim says

      No one loves anything enough to do it for free all the time. There’s always a limit and that limit is affected by money. More money means the limit is bigger.

      So many people are seeking financial independence, which is a great goal, but what happens afterwards? I don’t think many folks talk about that enough.

  4. Mrs. Lewis says

    I have applied the “Start with Why” model to different aspects of my life. My work, hobbies, spending and goal setting. It’s important to never stop asking yourself why you are doing something. You don’t want to look back 30 years and find out half of that time was without any purpose.

  5. Haley Rowland says

    I think all these answers sound nice but are mostly just lies people tell themselves. I think people are working for money to buy the things they need like clothing, shelter, food. People who are financially independent are few and far between and then they work because prob some are working for fun. Prob some are doing it because of fear the markets drop and they lose 20-40% in a critical time of their life so its good to keep your foot in the mix as long as possible. I do think people have reasons they do their particular job, but to say, “I work for impact or to help others” is a load of BS. These people and most people are not yet financially independent. Life costs money. I think we can make nice pat answers to make ourselves feel good about how we have to spend all this time in our lives but it all comes down to eating basically.

  6. Scott Allen says

    I work to bear the cost of a real existence my folks couldn’t give. To offer the chance to my children to carry on with a superior life than their folks. I work since I appreciate working – and it gives me a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. I likewise trust that in most work we’re ready to serve others – regardless of whether it’s through our locales that are helping other people with great Real home money related exhortation.

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