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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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