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…

Table of Contents
  1. Why do you work?
  2. Start With Why
  3. Why Do I Work?
  4. On Money
  5. Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose
  6. Now What?

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.


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. πŸ™‚

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 forty-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 farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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About the comments on this site:

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  1. Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says

    I think you have to really know yourself to know why you work. I’m personally very much motivated by autonomy and purpose which is why stumbling into self-employment has been a huge blessing (even if it is far more time consuming).

    I’m a big fan of what I call the “zoom out”- taking a moment to step back from doing and reflecting at least once a week (if not more) to make sure I’m in alignment with my why. I don’t think we give ourselves those reflective opportunities often enough, we forget that we’re evolving and changing all the time. We need to zoom out and make appropriate adjustments to stay in alignment with who we are and why we work (or do anything) today.

    ps. If you can’t tell already, I’m also a huge fan of TED. The TED podcast is awesome too!

    • Jim says

      I’m a big fan of zooming out too. I really need to step back and think about what and why I’m doing something, not necessarily always how. When you’re younger, you can always just outwork people because you have the energy and stamina. When you get older, you realize it’s more about working smarter than harder. πŸ™‚

      For me, it’s also one of those things I need to schedule in my calendar because when you’re heads down, tunnel visioned into something it’s REALLY HARD to break free.

      TED is awesome!

  2. Erin @ Journey to Saving says

    Great post, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot! Like Stefanie, I stumbled into self-employment, and went a little too fast trying to earn more. Money was certainly a motivator, and my “why” was too weak. I’ve slowly been redefining my purpose and figuring out a plan to balance my work so it better aligns with how I want to live. I really liked the car analogy for that reason, as I’ve been guilty of focusing on the numbers while missing the bigger picture. It’s so important to stop and reflect (especially when you’re the boss – no one else is going to do it for you).

    • Jim says

      The transition to self-employment is really really hard on so many different levels and this is one of them. It’s hard to be reflective when you have to work hard at the same time!

      How have you been adjusting your approach? How is it different now vs. when you were first self-employed? I’d love to hear your experiences because that’s a really tough transition.

      • Erin @ Journey to Saving says

        It is tough, especially because it’s hard to know what to expect when you never thought you’d be self-employed. I plan on writing an entire blog post about it when I figure it out. πŸ˜‰ I’m in the beginning phases of trying to plan and make changes to my business, but by the end of the year, I hope to have a more solid direction.

  3. Natalie @ Financegirl says

    I listened to a Knowledge for Men episode with Dean Graziosi and he explained the same idea. It was life changing for me! Discovering my why made making decisions easier and created more focus for me. I highly highly recommend finding your why to anyone who hasn’t yet.

  4. Vanessa @ Cash Cow Couple says


    This is a great question. Like you, I don’t know that I’ve ever asked myself why I work, so this is a great reflection exercise.

    I think, when executed properly, work can be extremely rewarding. This, of course, depends on the type of work you do and whether or not it fits your lifestyle.

    • Jim says

      I never did it until I was prompted and it seems very common. But when you start thinking about it, like really thinking about it, it’s surprising what comes out.

  5. Janet Fazio says

    I have to say, I’ve never really given this much thought since changing careers (accounting to advertising) 12 years ago. Probably time to evaluate. It can only help make me more clear in my business goals.

  6. MMD says

    Great thought process here! Beyond all the normal things like making money and providing for my family, I feel like work challenges me. Not only do I have to learn new things but I also have to push myself outside my comfort zone to places I wouldn’t normally go.

    • Jim says

      The challenges, and overcoming them, can be a huge motivator because that’s how you continually grow, right? Having a productive environment to challenge and push yourself is extremely important for a lot of folks.

  7. Kate @ Cashville Skyline says

    Great post, Jim! And you’re right. Simply earning more “because” isn’t enough of a why for me. I had the ability to earn incentive based bonuses at my last job and I never found it that motivating. But the ability to be creative has always fueled me. And in the future, I’m certain helping people will by my why.

    • Jim says

      It’s so awesome you’ve realized that so early in your career too. I remember years ago, sitting in interviews, where someone would ask me why I wanted to work at the company. My answer was always “I enjoy creating things, I enjoy writing code and seeing it build something on the screen that did something productive.”

      At the time, my answer was one of those “eh, this sounds good” because in my heart I thought “I want to get paid.”

      It wouldn’t be years later that I realized I enjoy solving interesting problems and seeing what I’m capable of doing… which in a sense is like my original answer but not 100% accurate.

  8. Hannah says

    The behavioral science presented in the video is incredibly convincing. However, unlike the presenter, I have a tough time believing that most for profit institutions can create those “purpose fulfilling” jobs. One of my goals as an employee is to be an “intrapreneur”, taking my company to the top by the virtue of my ideas. This mindset has been rewarding both and has come with great financial perks. However, after five years of a rewarding career, it’s tough for me to get behind my company’s purpose which isn’t exactly my purpose, and even autonomy and mastery and money aren’t enough.

    My recent thoughts on the matter are that quitting jobs every once in a while can be helpful in re-orienting my internal compass, helping me prioritize my highest purpose, and then finding a way in which paid work can once again help me work towards my purposes.

  9. Scott Trench says

    Awesome post Jim! Love this concept. For me, the why I work is very specific. I’m concerned with IMPACT. Reaching and influencing as many people as possible – be it by giving them new thoughts, or challenging their assumptions is what motivates me.
    I think that this most closely ties in with the “accomplishment” reason you list here.

    Thanks for the article!

    • Jim says

      Thanks Scott!

      You’re working with a great team over there at BP, I have no doubt you’ll have a huge impact.

  10. Julie-Ann says

    Like other commenters, I think this is a great piece because it makes you think. Too many of us settle into a routine of getting up, battling traffic, and punching our time cards.

    My response is a little bit different from many others because I work in corporate America. To me, I think I stay with my company because I like the idea of being part of a team. As an only child with a small family, I like the idea of having a community to bounce my ideas off of, and a group to share successes and failures with.

    It’s interesting also, because a discussion about why we work also makes me think of the other age old question – what would you do if you *didn’t* have to work? I don’t have an answer to that one yet, but hopefully we’ll all get to find out one day!

    • Jim says

      That was what I missed about the corporate world, that camaraderie is hard to replace when you work for yourself. While I miss it, I knew that it wasn’t something I absolutely needed to have and so I was OK saying good bye. I was part of a fantastic team, we worked well together, and I miss them but…. πŸ™‚

  11. DC @ Young Adult Money says

    I think everyone initially works because they need money. It’s why I work, and specifically it’s why I work WHERE I work for WHO I work. I think it’s a natural evolution for some to start or continue working because it makes them feel good about themselves (to your point of accomplishment). Right now I work because…I have to. I need money! If I was financially independent and could stop working today, I would do other types of work but I would still work in some capacity, mainly because it makes me feel accomplished.

  12. Nick says

    Hey Jim – I love this TEDtalk by Simon Sinek.
    The ‘why’ is so important indeed.
    A few years ago, I was working to make money, so I could travel abroad and visit the world. Now my goal is to make enough to be financially independent so that my decision to work would not be money-related. Ideally, I would then focus more on self-development, on my own terms and as such, increase my autonomy.
    Great article, thanks for putting this together.

    • Jim says

      Your why was to explore the world, your what (to fund it) was your job. You worked for the money, yes, but the real why was what that money represented – freedom to travel. It’s a far better motivator when things at work aren’t going well!

      And you say your new goal is to be financially independent, it’s not that different from your first goal. πŸ™‚ It seems that being independent is a big motivator for you, it seems to be a common thread, right?

        • Jim says

          It’s often hard to see these types of things for ourselves because we’re so close to the situation. If you had a few managers, or friends, tell you that they saw this… I’d believe them. πŸ™‚

  13. Ryan says

    I am a Resident Director; essentially I oversee the R.A.s you had in college, and whatever building you live in. This is a short poem/statement that my coworker found. I feel it’s a strong representative of why I work:

    Because the Student has a need, we have a job to do.
    Because the Student has a choice, we must be the better choice.
    Because the Student has sensitivities, we must be considerate.
    Because the Student is unique, we must be flexible.
    Because the Student has high expectations, we must excel.
    Because the Student has influence, we have the hope of more students.
    Because of the Student, we exist

    I wouldn’t have a job without the student, so my soul reason for working is to serve the student and their needs. It’s an odd relationship. Thank you for the post!

  14. Perry says

    I work to afford a life my parents weren’t able to provide. To give the opportunity to my kids to live a better life than their parents.

    And another by product of work is to provide safety to the war fighters so that they can be with their families as well.

    Money just happens to be the result of something I love to do. It’s nice.

  15. John Wedding says

    Maybe some will think this is a cop-out but I work because I was designed to work. We all are designed for the purpose of working.

    Also I work for those moments that things just click. (I go through a lot more moments when they don’t click, though!)

    • Jim says

      So there’s a term for when things click – Flow. Being in the zone = Flow.

      It’s a beautiful thing and a rush, so I can see how that’s a good motivator.

      I was designed for play though. πŸ™‚

  16. Peter says

    I’m with John to a degree, I believe we’re made to work, and that we’re happiest when we’re working and serving others – and providing value through our work.

    Proverbs 14:23 says, β€œIn all labor there is profit, but idle chatter leads only to poverty.” I believe that – hard work is an effective positive, and when we’re working we’re profiting – for ourselves – and others.

    I work because I enjoy working – and it gives me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. I also believe that in most work we’re able to serve others – whether it’s through our sites that are helping others with good financial advice, or through being a garbage man and providing a needed public service. By serving others we’ll be more fulfilled. Unfortunately too many these days are in it for only self serving motives. Finally I work in order to provide for my family – to have a nice home and a bit of extra spending money, and to be able to give more to our church and community.

    So why do I work? To serve others (whether it’s my family, my community or the world), to be fulfilled and to provide for my family.

    • Jim says

      Peter – thanks for sharing your Why – I think having such a good understanding of your why is one of the reasons you’re successful and well respected.

      Hard work is an effective positive and I’m a firm believer in that.

  17. Jenn K says

    You made me think more than I thought I would when I started reading this article. (That’s due to my own laziness more than what I thought your writing would exact out of me.) Getting beyond the “I need to work for money” is something I need to really figure out, so that the jobs I take on can actually accomplish what I need them to and so that my purpose in life is matching up with what I choose to do for “work.” My thoughts are whirling. Good job. πŸ™‚

  18. Ashley Chorpenning says

    This is great Jim. Thank you for sharing. It is something I think about everyday and constantly working towards getting there. This is a reminder of why we do what we do everyday.

    • Jim says

      Why is so so so important but so hard to discover. Thanks for coming back, don’t be a stranger!

  19. Garth says

    Great post. It got me to thinking on why I work so hard and have gotten a great desire to read and work on FIRE material in my life.

    Security for my family and our future is definetly the #1 reason. I think back to when I was 19 and laid off from a summer job when the employer hired to many people for the work they had. This has had a much more dramatic effect on me than it should have. I developed a fear of loosing future jobs and the lack of security from this. This has driven me in my work effort, time investment and desire to be a top performer- all for security and protection from a past event. I Never stopped to think about the affect this past incident had on me.

    Second would be the desire to create, innovate and to see the results from my efforts. The creation/ innovation desire comes from the need to leave something behind that will carry on even if I left the company. The results aspect is based off my high competitive nature and desire to be positively looked on.

    Great post. Not many posts make me look inward and discover more about myself and my motives.

    • Jim says

      Job security can be a very stressful thing, I know that a lot of the thrift we see in older generations come from their experiences during the Great Depression. What may seem strange to an outsider (younger person) is made perfectly clear when you understand how life was back then. Those habits and patterns become a part of you even if you don’t realize it.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, it was an exploratory post for me too!

  20. 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!

  21. 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. πŸ™‚

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

    • Jim says

      Yes! Regret is the worst. If you ask yourself the why now, at least you’re doing what you can to avoid it.

  24. 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.

  25. 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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