Why Work?

A few days ago, my four year old son came into my office when I was finishing up an article for The Simple Dollar.

“What are you doing, Dad?” he asked.

“I’m working,” I told him.

“Why?” he asked.

“Well, I have to work so that we can make money, and we use that money to pay for our house and for our food and our clothes,” I told him.

He thought about that for a minute. “But why do you work on your computer?” he asked.

“Well, that’s my job,” I told him.

“Why?” he asked.

“I enjoy writing. It’s something that I like to do and I’m lucky enough to make money when I do it,” I told him.

He stood there for a moment. “But sometimes you don’t like it,” he said.

“Yes, that’s true. Sometimes I get frustrated with it. But if it were always easy, everyone would do it,” I said.

“Why don’t you make money doing something you like better?” he asked.

“Well, there is no job in the world that doesn’t sometimes frustrate the person doing it, Joe,” I told him. “No one always likes what they’re doing.”

“But why do you work when you don’t like it?” he asked me. “You should go do something else when you don’t like it.”

“It’s not that easy, bud,” I told him. But I did go and play with him after that.

Still, our conversation stuck in my mind for quite a while. I jotted down most of it in my notes a bit later in the day to think about some more.

Joe brought up a few really good points along the way. Why do we work? What are the reasons we choose to do the things we do? Why do we sometimes choose frustration and unhappiness along the way when it comes to that work?

Most important, what’s the right balance?

Why Work?
The easy answer, of course, is to make money. But that’s far, far from the only answer.

Think back to that classic high school guidance counselor question: “What would you do with your time if you had ten million dollars?” Once you got the rest and relaxation out of your system, of course.

For me, the answer is an easy one. I’d write fiction. I’d write lots of fiction. I’m usually happiest when I’m creating a character and breathing life into him or her, then carrying that character through some event in life. I’d try hard to get it published, too. (What I do now is a reasonable substitute for that, but it’s not a perfect substitute.)

Everyone will have a different answer to that question. My oldest brother, for example, would love to make hunting videos. He loves hunting deeply and is all about sharing it with others. My niece would be a photographer. She loves capturing moments on film. My father would cry himself to sleep with joy if he could run an outdoorsman’s lodge. The list goes on and on.

What Keeps Us From Doing That?
The need for money, to put it simply.

For most of us, money simply doesn’t grow on trees. We need a certain amount of money to pay for housing, for food on the table, for electricity and heating, for clothing, and so on.

Most of the things we dream about doing do not earn much money, especially at first. An unpublished fiction writer is going to not earn much at all for quite a while as they keep throwing short stories and novellas and novels at the wall until (hopefully) something sticks. You can’t make hunting videos and sell them without buyers and a reputation. You can’t open a restaurant or a lodge without a tremendous amount of capital that will take quite a while to recoup.

Those two things run head to head. So we compromise. We find a job that’s tolerable that earns us some money – something within our ethical boundaries (a hitman, for example, is outside of most people’s ethical boundaries) and our skill set (not everyone can be a doctor, for example). We settle in. We get used to it. And those things that we dream about doing become just that – dreams.

Bridging That Gap
This brings us back to that key question – why work? Ideally, shouldn’t we work in order to make our lives more enjoyable? And, since we fill quite a lot of our waking hours with our work, shouldn’t a big part of our work’s effort go towards making that work time more enjoyable?

Five years ago, the thought of writing for a living was firmly in the “dream” camp for me. Rather than working to make my whole life better, I worked solely to make my life outside of work better.

That was a huge mistake. When I stepped back and looked at the big picture, I realized how much of my time I was devoting to a job that wasn’t the peak of my personal happiness. I enjoyed it, but it was keeping me from things that I enjoyed more, like my children (especially when I traveled) and time devoted to writing.

Given that my work took up about fifty hours a week of actual work time and commuting time – and often took up much more than that during crunch times, emergencies, and travel – and would often fill my thoughts when I wasn’t at work – I was devoting the vast majority of my waking hours to something that was (far) less enjoyable than what I dreamed of doing.

Fixing that problem is one of the most worthwhile goals there is for your extra money.

If you stuff your hours full of one thing, but find yourself wishing you were spending all of those hours each week doing something else, you absolutely should devote every spare resource you can to (1) getting yourself out of debt and on a very stable financial playing field and (2) putting the pieces in place so you can live that dream.

That means going without some things – and the things you choose to go without really depends on how urgently you want to change your life. If you want to reach it any time soon, you may have to make some radical changes.

Just step back and ask yourself these three things.

First, how many hours do you devote to your work each week, including your commute, any trips you have to take, and time outside of work thinking about your job? What portion of your waking hours is that?

Second, what would your life be like if you could fill those hours doing something you truly loved doing?

Finally, how many of those material trappings in your life are really worth forcing you to trade away all of those hours each week?

You might just find that a completely different game plan is the one that works for you.

Think big. Do you need that large of a house or that large of an apartment? Do you need that car? Keep going down the scale. Do you need to eat out? Do you need that cable bill? And include the hundreds of small things, too. Do you need name-brand paper towels – or paper towels at all?

And when you think about how you want some of these things, compare them to the majority of waking hours in your life that you devote to doing things that you don’t want to do.

When you start thinking that way – and moving in that direction – big elements of your life start to shift. The simple question of “why work?” changes in nature when you start making those kinds of choices.

And, yes, a big reason why I’ve chosen the career that I have is to show my children very clearly that you can do whatever you want in life. If you want to do a certain thing, you certainly can make it happen.

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  1. Julie says:

    My problem with the “what would you do if you had ten million dollars” question has always been that, even at the outer reaches of ability, my answer does not make money. My answer is two-fold: First, be a stay-at-home mom to my children (currently just a twinkling in my eye). Second, go back to school. I don’t necessarily want another degree, but I want to take courses in absolutely everything: art, sciences, business, psychology, history, gardening, languages… everything.

    No matter how long I think about this, I *still* can’t figure out a way to get to the “making money” phase of either of these goals. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be very happy to hear them. What’s a girl to do when her aspirations won’t make any money, even if she gets really good at them?

  2. Crystal says:

    Volunteering with the HSPCA and Meals on Wheels full time is my dream. Volunteers get the “fun” jobs like walking the animals and helping them get adopted or driving the meals out to the people who need them.

    I work now and save as much I can so I can retire asap. I volunteer on the weekends since that is when I have time.

    It’s a fine balance for me since my job is low stress, never takes more than 47 hours of my week (including the commute), and has good benefits.

  3. Molly says:

    @Julie:
    Me too! I would LOVE to get to take classes in whatever floated my boat. Just for fun. I took some of them while I was in school, but I’d love to take more just because I WANT to. How great would that be?

    Then again, I’d also like to craft. A lot.

  4. Kara says:

    How do you know what you want to do, until you actually do it?

  5. Jon says:

    What do you do if you completely loose interest in everything you do after about 1 to 2 weeks. I have yet to find anything I am genuinely passionate about. Everyone says to keep trying, but it’s getting rather old to keep trying.
    If I had $10 million dollars I would be Peter from Office Space. I would do nothing.

  6. Gretchen says:

    This begs the question: Trent, why aren’t you writing fiction?

  7. Jon says:

    What do you do if you completely lose interest in everything you do after about 1 to 2 weeks. I have yet to find anything I am genuinely passionate about. Everyone says to keep trying, but it’s getting rather old to keep trying.
    If I had $10 million dollars I would be Peter from Office Space. I would do nothing.

  8. Carole says:

    Trent, you are a very prolific writer and a good writer. I feel lucky to know everyday I will find something well written on your blog (or whatever is the right term). Good luck as you search for ways of earning a living with your talent. I suspect it will be a very good living.

  9. DivaJean says:

    I’m like Julie & Crystal- my choices would in no whatsoever allow for a family of 6 to exist. The fact of the matter is- you’ve got to find a balance between what you would like to do no matter what and what you’re okay doing to make money.

    Case in point- I would just as soon run my church’s free clothing closet; clothes are given to the needy in our inner city free of charge. It’s open every Tuesday and someday, I’ll be doing this. Just not now. For now, I can volunteer for a day or two when we get the tons of clothes each semester from the university (kids can donate clothes or stuff they don’t want to pack for home or can’t take with them wherever they are going) and sort clothes.

    I also like to sew doll clothes- more than anything right now, but its just a hobby. I can’t imagine trying to compete with others already out there. I will be trying a local craft fair this spring- but I am not planning to consider this a career move.

    Instead, I love being a nurse and found the best possible position for me. It can provide for my family if we live frugally.

  10. jgonzales says:

    For those of you who say “I can’t make money with my love”, I counter, why not?

    For those who want to stay home with their children, you can bring in money through a side business or you can help save more of what’s brought in through frugality.

    If you are interested in going back to school for a degree, look at working for a university (or someone else in your immediate family). My grandmother always wanted her degree and so did my grandfather. My grandmother ended up working for a major state university in their admissions dept. She was able to get free tuition for herself and her immediate family. She worked there for 15 years before she retired. While she was working there, one of her sons got his degree for free and one of her daughters was able to complete most of her general ed studies before having to transfer. After she retired, both she and my grandfather were able to get their degrees. It never cost the family a penny.

    And for the person who wants to run the clothes closet, many places do hire someone to run their charitable giving area, you can talk to your church and even if it starts part time, you may be able to get paid to do it.

  11. Des says:

    I think the “find a way to make money with your hobby” thinking is not the best way to achieve balance and happiness.

    It’s a little like saying “You like dessert, huh? Well, just take your favorite dessert and make it healthier, then eat it for dinner!”

    Sure, you can bake a brownie with whole grain flour, applesauce instead of oil, banana instead of sugar, and maybe throw in a handful of vegetables to round it out. But all you’ve done it turn the brownie you loved into something mediocre (or worse, something you dread). Wouldn’t it be better to just eat dinner and make sure to save room for dessert, then eat whatever dessert strikes your fancy?

  12. Poultry in Motion says:

    Great article! I enjoyed it and took quite a bit away from it. Thanks!

  13. Amy says:

    When I read this it sounds so easy, but when I think about applying it to my real life I get overwhelmed. One step at a time I guess right? :)

  14. Nicole says:

    Hm… with 10 million dollars I’d buy a little place in mountain view with a small garden (leaving a little less than 9 million to live off the interest of), send my kid(s) to daycare, sleep in, spend time with my husband, read novels, watch netflix, go hiking, and possibly entertain more. I might pick up computer RPGs again if I had time leftover (not online, of course). And we’d visit family more often. All in moderation. Sadly nobody is paying me to do such things (at least, not in moderation– I don’t have any deep love for hiking for example). So I do an important job I mostly enjoy in a part of the country I don’t mind for a moderately large income instead.

  15. J says:

    I’m with Des on this one, I don’t think that your work and hobbies need to line up so closely as to be the same. Also, I’ve encountered plenty of folks who took on their “idyllic dream job” (B&B owner, wedding planner, photographer, etc) and then found that the actual reality was FAR from what they were expecting when they were dreaming about how they would spend their days.

    It’s sort of like getting married to an exact copy of yourself. That would get boring after a while.

    I’m not saying that you don’t need to pursue your dreams or anything like that — but there’s nothing wrong with having a tolerable day job and making time to do what you like as a hobby, either.

  16. Jon says:

    @jgonzales

    Yes, you can probably make money doing what you love. But can you make a LIVING doing what you love? The answer to those two questions can often be worlds apart. And maybe you can make a living from what you love, but how long would it take to go from $0 to $xxxxx needed to completely replace your current income. Yes, you can eliminate your debt and build up a savings cushion, but life is still expensive regardless of what you cut out.

  17. LiveCheap says:

    Trent,
    Really timely article for me. Two of my kids asked me the “why do you have to work” on your computer question again yesterday. When I traveled all the time a year ago, I noticed my kids started acting very differently. Even at 4 my daughter was clearly not happy and I would come back after a few days and they would be fighting and giving my wife a hard time. Few travels now and the kids seem to like daddy’s work better.

    I think a question that I have now is it better to work a job for 15 years that makes a lot of money and allows you to do whatever you want when you are done or one that you love that may pay a lot less. Very few of the jobs that pay a lot of money are likeable and easy on the family. But if you do them and live cheaply, you have lots of options in your 30s and 40s. It bucks the “do what you love” mantra but how many people would love to play with their kids without worrying about money at 40?

  18. Gretchen says:

    I’d wrangle cats if I had a million dollars.

    Not much profit in cats. Plus no insurance.

  19. psychsarah says:

    I think Des (#11) makes a good point. I love music, and many people wondered why I didn’t go into music as a career when I was leaving high school. I said that although I loved it, I would most definitely stop loving it if I had to compete to do it all the time and face the business side of it. I still do it as a hobby on a regular basis, but doing it as a career would be like my “mediocre brownie”.

    If I won ten million bucks, I would continue to do my job, but on a pro bono basis. I love what I do, but often my frustration lies in not being able to provide services for people who can’t afford them but really need them. I would probably work a 4 day week instead of 5 though, so I could play more music, read more books and volunteer in other areas.

  20. Carey says:

    @Jon – Peter from Office Space. Great reference. That’s me too.

    If I didn’t have to work, I’d play games, read, watch movies, and drink beer with my friends. This past week, I was snowed in pretty much the whole time (see: Maryland, most snow accumulation in winter of 09-10 of any state, including Alaska), and I didn’t get an ounce of cabin fever. It was great. Can I get paid to play games, read, watch movies, and drink beer? Nope.

    Not to discount Trent’s message though. I believe that people like Trent who can get paid to do what they love are unbelievably lucky, and there are a lot of people who could do the same, but are stuck in regular 40 hour per week jobs. So it’s important to get those people inspired. But not everyone is that lucky.

  21. Jane says:

    I pursued what I thought would be my dream job – being a professor – and now I’m miserable doing it. Of course, I never got that cushy tenured professor job that everyone in academia hopes for, but I think I can safely say that I was wrong as to what work would make me happy. After spending ten years chasing a dream of escaping “real life” and retreating into a world of knowledge and writing, I’m surprised to find that it’s not what I thought it would be. I think this can be the case for anyone, and you know what – at this point I would more content with a 40 hr a week job that didn’t necessarily fulfill me but just paid the bills. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not being passionate about your work or not pursuing a career related to what you love. For some people it might be the prudent choice to keep passion and work separate.

    I went to graduate school because I love to read and write. Too bad it took me ten years (and a useless Ph.D.) to realize that I would prefer to read and write in my spare time instead!

  22. done that says:

    Trent – great post. And the comments really bring out the issues.
    @Julie – exactly what I would have said. I love homemaking and growing a garden. May save us some money but doesn’t make a living. And my current passion is traveling which takes bucks, even with volunteering vacations.
    I like the brownie example. I have several skills that could make pocket money but then they wouldn’t be fun anymore.
    I have two friends who are successful artists. One makes posters and greeting cards to pay his bills and then paints as he likes. It doesn’t matter how long his paintings hang in the gallery or even if they sell because he covers his living expenses with his commercial art. My other friend is a potter and makes spectacular pieces. However, each year he also gears up for the local fairs and does production work, turning out several batches of matching cups, plates, bowls, etc. Maybe that’s like writing a blog for your living and writing fiction just for you. Maybe you’ll sell a novel, maybe not, but you weren’t writing it because you need the money.

  23. Maureen says:

    I think my answer to the question “Why work?” would have been a discussion of the value of the work in question rather than focusing on the monetary aspect. For example, ‘I work so that children can learn to read’ or ‘so that sick people will feel better’ or ‘so that we can live in a clean home and enjoy delicious meals’. You might have replied to your son that you work so that people all around the world can share ideas on using their money wisely.

  24. The 20K Mom says:

    Funny to read this article, as i am a stay at home mom to my two kids. Though I am at home, I do WORK, lots and lots of work. Most of the work I do–childcare, laundry, scratch cooking–is to keep my family from spending too much money so that we can live on my husband’s salary. But the value of my work is also in giving me a purpose, teaching good values to my children, and keeping our family happy and healthy.

  25. Kerry D says:

    I love Maureen’s point–the value of the work itself is often important in the contribution to our communities.

    Also wanted to mention my experience–as a young adult, got a college degree in Business (family pressure to be practical), had a $$$ job I hated, quit when I had kids and was lucky to be able to care for them at home when they were small… then, I went back to grad school to pursue my dream–I’d always LOVED dance. Degree in hand, I’ve enjoyed teaching (dance technique and theory) in the college environment the last 7 years, but it’s a very different experience than dancing for my own pleasure. Turning a hobby/love into a profession adds a different focus and pressure to perform at a high level. It is really different. Still glad I did it.

  26. We all work for only two reasons, to cover today’s expenses and to provide for tomorrows. If you can accomplish this doing what you love, you are fortunate. If not, you can either take the path of financial sacrifices and live on less, or you can sacrifice what you love doing for what you have to do to achieve your financial goals and the eventual freedom to do what you really want.

  27. Kara says:

    Any good resources for figuring out what you want to be when you grow up? Books, aptitude tests, etc??

  28. Indeed, why work and not do whatever whenever? I think the main mistake, at least this is what people tell me, is in not realizing that there are other ways to get money than by working for it.

    More specifically, not accepting that this is an option for most people, and not just for the wealthy heirs, the lottery winners, or those who got lucky with their business. Of course it does require some work to that stage, less than a decade of employee work including education, but after doing so, the problem of not being able to make money doing what one loves becomes somewhat of a nonissue.

  29. SP says:

    It is good to encourage those who never thought about how to make a living at something they love. That being said…

    I think it is more important to create a life you love than a job you “love” (because even those whose careers are very passion based must do drudgery to make it profitable). for some, the two are inseperable. For many, they really aren’t and don’t need to be.

    I do not wish to turn any of my favorite passions into a business. Instead I wish to use my talents at my day job, and spend my ample free time playing with the things I like, the way I like, when I like… without trying to squeeze a profit out of them. And when my interests shift, I follow them!

    Please don’t tell me I’ve settled and gave up on my dreams! I reach for my dreams all the time, and I’ve seen many of them come true. And many of them came true BECAUSE of my normal career, not in spite of it.

    Love life and live a passionate life, in whatever way works for you.

  30. almost there says:

    Retired at 50 and thought I would be in Hawaii now doing the recovery from the Great Aloha Run yesterday. Our dog and his expenses keep us from just up and leaving for all parts of the world and we will adjust until he is no longer with us. As for why work? It bring in an income until one retires. Then you can reflect back on how work sucked the life out of you. As a lifelong worker bee I never called the shots. Now I just want to be like the Dude in the Big Lebowski movie and do a whole lot of whatever I want.

  31. Brittany says:

    Agree with Maureen #23. Maybe it’s the very tiny Karl Marx that lives in my heart, but my answer to “Why work?” would be that work is an act of self-creation.

  32. Maureen…yes, that is a lovely point. I teach piano to make money, but also to serve my students by helping them learn to make music. I make money doing photography, but I also do it to bless other people with nice, but affordable pictures of their families.

  33. I have been out of work for nearly a year…I have wrestled with the desire to do something I “love” and going back to the mundaneness of the business world. The harsh reality is–I need money. I am positioning myself to work AND actively pursue what I love in my free time. Hopefully, I can build that into a career at some point.

  34. littlepitcher says:

    Half the things I love to do are allergenic, and I can do them only seasonally or in small doses. The rest pay minimum wage. Ouch!

  35. Mule Skinner says:

    If I had ten million dollars I would buy a nice oceangoing sailboat, hire a bunch of Filipino or Sri Lankan girls as crew, and then . . .

  36. Candi says:

    Hmm 10 million, alas my dream would be to run my own used book store/coffee shop (and by coffee I do not mean mocha latte foam things, just actual coffee). This alas would probably burn through the 10 mil long before I got too old to do it, lol. So maybe one day when I am retired. . .

  37. Razlan says:

    If I have ten million dollars…

    I will travel the world in no hurry, and blog about my tales in leisure. I will share what I found on my journeys, so my friends can benefit from my experience. I will make new friends all over the world, and will be proud to call myself a seasoned traveler. I can work for Lonely Planet. Not because of the money, but because I could.

  38. Priscilla says:

    “Find out what makes you come alive and do it” I’ve heard. Fine idea. But what if what makes you come alive does not pay the bills? I think it’s just as honorable to work at a job you somewhat enjoy in order to earn enough money to support “what makes you come alive”. For me, I’m passionate about buying old real estate and fixing it up. I love making things more beautiful. Trouble is, buying real estate takes a lot of capital which I just don’t have. So, I’ve focused on our home and yard and have done the best I can with them. This is satisfying to me, and hasn’t cost a ton of money to boot.

  39. Nicole says:

    Dang nabbit. I was happy with my saving/spending before this blog post. Now I keep thinking how nice it would be to have 10 million dollars. But the sacrifice involved to get said 10 million dollars would put a deep crimp in my life today and for the next couple of decades, by which point in time my priorities (and housing costs in Northern CA) will have changed. I don’t want to work more or watch money more carefully or stop donating to things… I want to enjoy life now too.

    Before I was planning for a more relaxed financial independence with better trade-offs and a happier today. I need to get back into that mindset. I work because it provides compensating differentials of many kinds. It may not optimize, but it definitely satisfices. And satisficers are happier.

  40. Sharon says:

    It’s not just why we work but what are the particulars that can make work enjoyable if you’re just earning a living. I really had to think about this in detail after I left a job that wasn’t providing growth opportunities for one making 50% more $ and was dreadfully unhappy. The work circumstances also shook my confidence in myself for a bit. It’s taken a lot of soul searching and thought to figure out what I really need at a job to make it enjoyable so that I can enjoy my passions on the side as they won’t pay all the bills.
    Kara, et al – Take a look at “The Renaissance Soul” by Margaret Lobenstine, also try the updated Meyers Briggs Type Indicator test. Great for getting insight into one’s self.

  41. Caroline says:

    I love it – “do you need paper towels at all?” It’s partly your blog that convinced I didn’t need most of the stuff I had. Keep up the good work! It inspires me to go for the minimalist / traveling / grad school aboard life I really want.

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