Updated on 05.07.08

Who Do You Work For?

Trent Hamm

Yesterday, I made a feeble attempt to explain what I now do for a living to an eighty eight year old woman as we stood in line at Fareway. The line was pretty long and I had helped her earlier in the store to put some cat litter in her cart, so I said hello to her and we struck up a conversation. When she asked what I did, I told her I was a writer, but when she asked “For who?” the only answer I could think of was my audience. That didn’t seem to be much of a good way to make money and so she basically just started pretending I wasn’t there, thinking I was some sort of crackpot or something.

Me being me, though, I couldn’t help but think about her question. Who do I work for? It’s a question that seems to have an easy answer, but it gets complicated really quick and it gets into some interesting personal finance territory.

At First Glance, I Work For…
When I first look at the question, the answer seems fairly obvious. I work for my readers. You guys are in many ways my boss – if I don’t keep writing compelling stuff, you stop visiting. In that sense, I aim to please – I usually try to select ideas that will interest you guys and try to curb at least some of my tendencies away from that (and towards quirky humor or my own personal beliefs).

For most people, it’s also very easy to answer this question at first glance – it’s whoever your employer happens to be at the moment. I work for Ford. I work for Chevron. I work for the Iowa Department of Transportation. I work for the law firm of Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe.

At Second Glance, I Work For…
But that’s not really who we work for. Almost everyone has to exchange some of their time or some of their personal value for money. We make that exchange because we get something in return out of it. Among them:

Money This is the biggest thing that many of us work for. That money translates into a roof over our heads, food on the table, and things we enjoy.

Fulfillment Some people are personally fulfilled by their work – I know I am. Their jobs bring them personal joy and make their lives better. Writing is a huge creative outlet for me – most of the time, it leaves me feeling invigorated as a person. There are many others, though, that don’t get this kind of fulfillment from their work.

Prestige Others work for the prestige of their job. They like to be seen as prestigious by others and often that becomes a major factor in what they choose to do. “How will this affect my image?”

Other needs There are countless other reasons why we do the work we do. Perhaps it’s because of our significant other – we’re forced to find work in a certain area because of their job. Maybe it’s because of your own specific talents and skills, whether you enjoy the work or not. Some people even choose jobs because it makes their parents happy.

In the End, I Work For Me
These reasons all lead back to a handful of key sources. Maybe the sources are personal in nature, like fulfillment and prestige. Maybe you need to work at this job to keep food on the table for your kids. Maybe you’re working to make your parents proud.

Those reasons all have one thing in common: you. Never, ever lose sight of the fact that you’re the one in control here. It is your choice.

You work for yourself. You make the decision to work at your job because of a collection of positives and negatives that led you to believe that your current place is the right one for you. If another offer came along with a better balance, would you not take it?

Looking at your job through this lens brings some new things into focus. What are the things you value most in your life? For me, I value my wife and children the most, followed by personal fulfillment and also a desire to help/uplift others. Other issues – personal prestige, the opinions of my family and others important to me, and higher wages – didn’t really mean that much in comparison to the big reasons. Once I realized that, I found that switching to becoming a full time writer from my previous attempts at writing on the side while maintaining another career was the right choice for me.

What are the core things that are most important to you? Is your current career situation maximizing those core things and minimizing the negatives? If they’re not, isn’t that alone a good reason to switch?

Try this exercise. Consider the three most important things in your life. Your spouse? Your children? Your prestige in the community? Enough income so that you can play on the weekends? A flexible schedule? What are the most important things for you?

Then list the positives and negatives of your current job in comparison to these things. For me, my current job leaves me feeling very fulfilled (positive) and it gives me more time to spend with my wife and kids (positive), but it doesn’t earn as much which worries me a bit about the long-term future (negative). How big are each of those things? For me, it was an overall positive, because I believe my fulfillment and passion will carry us through.

What about your other career options? What sorts of positives and negatives do they hold? Consider everything – even switching to a convenience store clerk has some advantages (basically no stress and no overlap between job and life). How do those advantages and disadvantages match up with what’s personally important to you? If you have an option in mind that’s an overall positive compared to where you’re at right now, look very seriously at making a switch.

In the end, you work for yourself. That means you call the shots in the end. If there’s a better opportunity for you out there, take it.

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  1. Michael says:

    “But that’s not really who we work for” should have been “but that’s not really what we work for.”

  2. livvy says:

    I work in a small sized office for a big sized company, but someday i want to work for myself…probably doing something completely different from what I am doing now. I need to figure out what I want to do because I don’t know of any job that pays me for watching my shows on DVR.

  3. My.cold.dead.hands says:

    When the lady asked “For Who?” she may have been expecting a company name i.e. ‘The Daily Planet’, ‘The Wallstreet Journal’ ect.

    When you said, “My audience.” she may have thought that you were being intentionally vague or a wise guy and decided to cut the conversation short.

    When people aske that question they are usually looking for a fairly straightforward answer.

  4. chris says:

    I would have answered. “For the internet”. If they have the knowledge to ask “What website?” They should have the capacity to understand that you run a blog on your own, if they don’t ask then that answer should be enough to satisfy them.

  5. Kelly says:

    I’ve been reading “Your Money or Your Life” recently and reading this article helped me realize it’s sinking in. I had that momentary need to answer the question and first thought of my employer, but quickly realized the real answer is “myself”!

    Thanks Trent, you helped make it just a little clearer for me.

  6. Becky@FamilyandFinances says:

    I’m struggling with this now. I’m currently working 36 hours/week, but it still feels like too much. My husband and I have a hard time getting things done around the house. Luckily, we’re both naturally tidy people, but the dust bunnies are going to take over!

    I’m considering switching to a part time job until we have kids and then staying at home full time. It seems weird, though. It’s pretty uncommon for a woman without any kids to stay at home. Should I be working full time so we can continue to build up our savings (more) for when we’re on one income? I just don’t know…

  7. Jeff says:

    Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe. *snickers*

    I think you have it right. “But that’s not really who we work for”

  8. margo says:

    “Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe”

    Unauthorized quirky NPR-referencing humor! This is going in your permanent personnel file.

  9. Becky,
    I never fully understood how you were feeling until my child was born a couple of weeks ago.
    Now I want either my wife or I to be at home all the time with her!
    If you’re really worried about the “dust bunnies” it would be easier and more finacially savvy to hire a cleaner to clean your house while you are at work.
    I do, however, have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not really the “dust bunnies” that you are really concerned about.

  10. Lisa says:

    I’ve begun the gradual shift toward working at home. It will take some time and a lot of work, but I know that’s what I want. I’d like to work for myself on my own terms.

    Thanks for this article. Every bit of encouragement helps.

  11. Kacie says:

    @ Becky: Who cares if it’s uncommon for a woman without children to be a housewife?

    That’s what I am, and there’s a lot more to it than I first thought. I’m in charge of keeping our house running smoothly and saving money wherever possible. I do a few small things to bring in trickles of income.

    My husband appreciates it, and we’re both less stressed.

    Plus, it’s excellent ‘practice’ for when the kids come along! I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have a good handle on cooking, shopping, cleaning, organizing, family finances, and more if I instantly became a stay-at-home-mom when a baby was first born.

    My point being, if you and your husband want you to be at home, take steps to getting there!

  12. David says:

    I am self employed now, but even when I wasn’t, I would usually answer the same thing when asked “what do you do.”
    My answer: “I enjoy life.”
    I’ve always thought that this neatly wraps up most of what I do. Unfortunately, it is rarely taken well or accepted for what it is because more often than not, the question really means, “what do you do for a living so that I can quickly categorize your status in society.”
    (The joy comes in the very rare occasion when the person asking understands the answer which leads to discussions about hobbies, and life in general – which is a broader and more worthwhile discussion to me than one’s means of making money.)

  13. I have made several career changes over the years because of the reasons you listed.

    I do believe that some people are truly trapped where they are. But anyone who has a choice, needs to think long and hard about what she really wants out of life. It is SO SO painfully short.

  14. Carrier says:

    @David, I like your response to “what do you do?” I hate that question. One of these days I’ll answer “about what?”

  15. junkcafe says:

    I recommend reading Daniel Pink’s “Free Agent Nation” (hey, Trent, you might consider this for a book review). While I made up my mind on an IT consulting career well before I read it, the author makes a strong case for how the current American workforce has shifted to the i-work-for-me paradigm. You certainly approach your work and career differently when considering who the true boss is.

  16. James says:

    Another great posting from The Simple Dollar.

    Being a PhD in training I find that I’m working for the advancement of social science. Also, when I blog I have the opportunity to work and bring in some extra cash for the good of my marriage and the future of my family.

  17. JReed says:

    Keep it simple; always have a few business cards in your pocket for explaining and marketing at the same time. You never know who you are talking to and how that person may be connected to someone who could help you. Your answer wasn’t successful because it closed the conversation and shut down any potential of her handing your business card to her media mogul son who is looking for someone just like you…and you were halfway there after loading the kitty litter!

  18. Anne K says:

    I stopped working at ‘a real job’ when I married. We don’t have kids, either. It was really weird at first! And I fought the idea, even though my husband and I decided I don’t need to work as long as we’re careful; I was always worried about money, and that I *should* contribute to our financial wellbeing as a couple. Well, my contributions can be in other ways than simply earning more. Took me over two years to realize it. I really enjoy being a housewife and after some thought, I think I always wanted to be a housewife/stay-at-home mom more than anything else. Several friends can’t understand why I would choose not to work for a company and add more money to our bank accounts. This especially holds true for friends that grew up in poverty or close to it due to divorce, and for friends that immigrated to north America from another part of the world.

  19. Becky@FamilyandFinances says:

    Tyler and Kacie-
    Thanks for the thoughts! Kacie, I have a feeling we’re very much alike in our thinking :)

  20. Anonymous says:

    Another, perhaps more accurate description is we work for whoever provides us a paycheck. In your case, I guess that would be whoever is paying you for the ads on your page, etc.

  21. For the money, no doubt. But right now I’m lucky enough that I can say that my work will soon help a lot of people. Not with starvation or poverty issues, but with financial ones. Knowing that my job will indirectly help people save and invest in their future (if I do it right) is a huge bonus. On those Mondays that I really don’t want to get out of bed, this is a very powerful motivator that cheers up the day instantly.

    It’s very nice to have.

  22. Kandace says:

    Great post. One problem. It should read “whom” do you work for, not whom.

  23. Kandace says:

    Great post. One problem. It should read “whom” do you work for, not who.

  24. Jeff Lewis says:

    Wells Fargo – Des Moines.

    Love your blog man. I was in a similar situation when my daughter was born. It wasn’t a lack of $$ in my case, it was uncontrolled credit card spending. We have it under control now, thank goodness and are actively saving.

    But I see where you are coming from regarding your journey in life. When my daughter was born, it wasn’t about ‘me’ anymore.

  25. Shoji says:


    I hate when questions catch me off guard. Inevitably I give an insufficient answer. It sounds like that is what happened to you with the elderly lady at Fareway. I have a suggestion for you to consider that might help you answer that question in the future. Why not say something along the lines of:

    “I work for The Simple Dollar.com. It is a website that offers practical financial advice for regular people. I also have a book contract with [publisher name] and my first book should be on the shelves later this year.”

    That answer gives you credibility, which was missing from your initial statement, and answers her question in a way that probably would have kept the conversation going.

    Because you started the site and are now self-employed, I think at the time of the question you weren’t viewing The Simple Dollar as a reputable company/brand, which led to your inadequate answer. If you think about it, even factory workers are working for their audience (read: customer).

    I hope this is helpful for you.

    Here’s to your future success,

  26. Joy says:

    Great post. I really just have one thing to add… I really miss Fareway!

  27. jm says:

    She probably just thought you were being a smart-ass.

  28. CIO says:

    How on earth do you know that this woman was 88 years old? She may of cut you off thinking you insulted her by asking her age.

    You hit it on the head with your last sentence, “In the end, you work for yourself. That means you call the shots in the end. If there’s a better opportunity for you out there, take it.”

  29. JM says:

    You said: “When I first look at the question, the answer seems fairly obvious. I work for my readers. You guys are in many ways my boss – if I don’t keep writing compelling stuff, you stop visiting.”
    You write for your advertisers. If you stopped writing interesting content, and people stopped reading, you’d lose money from your advertisers.

    Writing a blog is no different than running a magazine company which is free. Money is made off the advertisers. The more readers, the more money the magazine writes.

    You are you’re own boss, no one makes you do this but yourself. We, the readers, are NOT your boss.

  30. JM says:

    Really wish I had read that for typos…the exact reason I don’t write a blog – my grammer!

  31. mrsmonkey says:

    I freelanced for much of my career so the question of who do you work for was always an issue because it meant explanations that weren’t exactly simple. If I said I was a freelance artist or designer, people seemed to get stuck on the artist part, assuming that I painted. Or they’d ask, what does that mean “artist”/”designer” or what kind of art do you design? Often that was more than I wanted to talk about, to be honest.

    I don’t necessarily want to discuss my work in detail. I mean if you meet someone who is an office manager, you might ask what kind of office, but you’re not going to ask, what do you do all day which is pretty much how it goes whenever the discussion goes to art or artists or design or advertising, etc…

    Even now, I pause when I’m asked “what do you paint”, when people ask after I tell them I’m an artist. I DO paint, but I don’t necessarily want to go into any great detail.

    I have found people are fascinated with artists, writers, creative people. But we’re not that fascinating. What we DO is fascinating, but not as a discussion. Its the work that’s fascinating and talking about it, for me anyway isn’t easy.

    If I were you, I’d say I write about economics and finance for a website I produce. The idea of being a writer who writes about money of all things, is complicated though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d end up having to explain it six ways to sunday.

  32. Mary says:

    Since you are basically a freelance writer, I would have told her “I’m a freelance writer with a PF blog.” It’s sad that we are defined by what we “do” for a living. I’ve found this to be true of the older generation, probably because of the values, etc. they were taught.

    As a college student, I get this a lot. When I’m asked what I do for a living, ppl aren’t content with “student.” Of course I’d rather focus on my studies so I can get my money’s worth out of the skyrocketing tuition. I’ve talked to some rather condescending people and end up telling them that I’ve got babysitting/housekeeping gigs on the side. These kinds of odd jobs are few and far between but it seems to assure these folks. Strange how some people are so stuck on this.

  33. michael says:

    I work for my cats. They’ve become accustomed to a certain level of comfort and leisure, and I dare not let them down.

  34. Khaki says:

    Ditto what Shoji said in post 25. Memorize it!

    “I work for The Simple Dollar.com. It is a website that offers practical financial advice for regular people. I also have a book contract with [publisher name] and my first book should be on the shelves later this year.”

  35. Khaki says:

    In addition to saying that you work for thesimpledollar.com have that business card ready like JReed said in comment #17.

  36. BigMike says:

    This is my favorite topic so far. I especially like the comments. It is true the Lady probably thought you were some kind of nut job. Michael’s answer is cool and I can relate. It’s my dog’s house they just let me live there, because they find me useful and besides in their eyes I am a really good hunter.

  37. Harm says:

    To make it simple, you could just say
    “I’m a self employed writer.” I’d save the
    info about the blog(s) for if you thought
    she was computer literate….
    BTW, ‘Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe’ was a 3 Stooges
    joke from way back, and maybe from before them.

  38. As a new graduate, it is hard to not realize that I do have to work for myself and not just for the sake of money. I have a lot of friends who end up working in jobs they hate just to pay the bills and student loans. I am thankfully working at a job that I find great satisfaction and joy from, and time flies. While it is great to find the impetus of why we work, we have to realize that we cannot always have our dream job, but we can make the best of what we got. Not everyone can be CEO, and not everyone wants to be. With the right attitude, any job and position can be rewarding in ways greater than monetary values.

  39. Phil A says:

    You say a convenience store clerk job is not stressful? It has to be. You never know when you will be shot down dead by a thug.

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