Most of us will spend a large portion of our lives at work, so it is essential to have a considered approach to both why we work and how we approach work.
Let’s start at the start.
What is work?
Traditionally, this is viewed as exchanging your services (i.e. time) for money.
While this is a technically correct definition of work, it does not describe why work is necessary for an individual.
Many people who are extremely wealthy, nevertheless choose to work, sometimes very, very hard. They don’t need to work, they have enough assets to last time several lifetimes, and yet they continue to set goals for themselves (and their organizations) and turn up, each and every morning.
So, perhaps we should have a broader and more meaningful definition of work:
Work is an activity that produces value for other society (i.e. other people!).
So work has a purpose, and that purpose is that it is productive, in that they add value. This does not mean that all types of work are intrinsically rewarding or fun. Nobody wants to clean toilets or collect garbage, but society would not be able to function without these roles as they have a large amount of utility for society.
However, for every type of work that is dull and dehumanizing, there is an opportunity. Someone can come along and change that type of work, or make it redundant by the use of technology, and thus elevate future humans to a higher level of existence, free of having to do dull and personally meaningless work.
So the teams that design and build washing machines save billions of hours for society each year through automation. The job of designing a washing machine is far more intrinsically rewarding for an industrial designer than washing clothes by hand is for a stay-at-home parent.
Still, we have to recognize that there are really two types of approaches toward work, and I’ve touched on these in a previous essay.
- Work to live.
- Live to work.
The first category of individuals approach their work as a means to an end, the end being the lifestyle they want to achieve when they are not working. They will often have a vibrant social life and many hobbies outside work. They can be highly competent and even great managers in large organizations. But, they rarely change society at large.
The second type of individual does not view work as a means to an end. They happen to be doing at work what they would be doing in their spare time, even if nobody was paying them. They tend to have a far more singular focus in their lives, and can affect large changes in their industry. But, they can often pay the price with an unbalanced approach between work and every other demand in life, such as friends, family, and even health.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
From an organizational perspective, work is obviously required. Organizations have their own goals, and they require human beings to help them carry those out.
But, why do individuals work? There are really four key reasons:
- Money — Work serves the obvious function of providing an individual with money, with which they can purchase any product or service that they require to live their life according to their desires.
- Socializing — Work is an excellent opportunity to meet individuals from diverse backgrounds and to develop life-long friendships with co-workers, customers, and suppliers. Many adults spend more time at work than they do with their own families — so it is no surprise that tight-nit and meaningful bonds can be created.
- Social Status — One of the most common questions when meeting someone new is: “What do you do?”. And what we really mean is actually a multi-faceted question — how do you trade your time for money? What do you provide to the wider society that is valuable? With this question, we can quickly determine someone’s social status and how we should treat them. If you don’t have a convincing answer to this (i.e. you’re unemployed), people can view you with suspicion or disdain.
- Self-Esteem — This is related to point #3, but also quite separate. Work can provide a stable routine and clarity of purpose, something that many people struggle to live without. Work allows individuals the ability to showcase to themselves that they can master a certain set of skills and competencies, and that they can successfully manipulate their environment. In other words, they can actually do something that others value and so has a place in society. Wherever you work, people will have to rely on you to do your job, and that in itself provides satisfaction.
I had an interesting experience of this last point recently when Blue, my project management software-as-a-service company, experienced an outage for a few hours. Lots of customers emailed in asking what was happening and when the platform would be back online.
This actually gave me a large sense of purpose, because it hit home that a lot of individuals and organizations across the world rely on the software that my team design and build. In other words, we have some value in the world!
While I am not going to argue that work is 100% required to function as an individual, this is likely the case for most people. The dream of sitting on a beach in the Caribbean with a cocktail in hand is just that, a dream. You can do it, but within a week, you’ll then be asking:
And I speak with experience — I have travelled extensively across the world, and it doesn’t matter about your surroundings, you still need something to do.
Without meaningful work, most individuals will experience a lack of meaning, a sense of powerlessness, and an overall condition of alienation. You don’t feel that anything you do matters, so why do anything? You become detached from society, just floating by as an observer.
This can even happen to those who are working, but it is the wrong type of work. Perhaps it is repetitive rote work that does not lend to any degree of creativity or self-management, or just does not provide enough of a challenge to be motivating.
So, why is work important?
Because work provides a web of responsibility.
And responsibility provides meaning