The Crucial Question: Why Do We Work?

Why do we work? Why do we pry ourselves out of bed every morning instead of chasing after one pleasure-filled adventure after another? Why do we engage in hard tasks, invest countless hours, and spend the majority of our waking lives doing something that doesn't involve Netflix and donuts. Well, we work because we have to make a living. Sure. But is that it? Absolutely not!

"Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it." -Viktor Frankl

Our Work Shapes Every Part of Our Lives

There are very few categories in life that shape us personally, emotionally, relationally, financially and spiritually. Your work is one of those few, formative areas.

When you ask people who are fulfilled by their work why they do the work they do, money almost never comes up. The list of non-monetary reasons people do their work is long, and compelling. Satisfied workers are engaged workers; they lose themselves in it. (Not all the time, of course, but often enough for it to stand out.) Satisfied workers are challenged by their work. It forces us to stretch ourselves, step outside of our comfort zones, and enjoy the challenge and creativity of it.

For most modern-day workers, almost nothing shapes our identity more than our chosen work. It’s why the first question you ask when you meet someone is ‘what do you do?” It’s tempting to choose which job will best convey the image we want to portray to the world. But your work should be the expression of your identify, not the source of it. And this inverted way of thinking could be crippling your ability to do work that matters.

The Three Forms of Work

But not all work is created equal. There are three forms of work that dramatically shape the way we view what we do for a living:

  1. Job: If you are in a "j-o-b", you are familiar with the menial, meaningless, monotonous, and mind-numbing qualities of this form of work. You enjoy little discretion, minimal engagement, and nominal creativity. You do this out of necessity, and for pay, because there is no other intrinsic motivation to do it except for money. You would switch to another job if they gave you more money, you resent the daily grind, you pray for the weekends, and you can't wait to retire. Sadly, this type of work has become nothing more than a paycheck for you. And let's be blunt here: doing something you don't want to do for money is basically prostitution. You do not have the opportunity to express your gifts, and in the words of Charles Schultz, "there is no heavier burden than unfulfilled potential."

  2. Career: A career is a slightly more evolved form of work. Those in a career often have more discretion and engagement than a j-o-b, and may even enjoy the work. But the focus is on advancement, the upward trajectory of the corporate ladder, promotions, and pay. "Careers" are often depicted as the proverbial "rat race", with its workers on an endless quest for status, success, and identity.

  3. Vocation: Vocation is the most evolved and most satisfying form a work. Vocation, derived from the Latin word "vocare" or "to call", represents a calling to do a particular type of work. This is the big picture purpose many people never identify for themselves. But before you can tell your life what you want to do with it, you have to listen to that 'still small voice' telling you who you are. You are "called" through the skills and abilities you were given, and the personality and passions that draw you in a particular direction. A calling gives you meaning, purpose, and fulfillment if you listen to and answer that call. You view work as one of the most important parts of life, and a vital part of your identity. You are thrilled to be doing it, and believe their your makes world a better place. You get great satisfaction from what you do, and you inspire others to do what inspires them.

Steven Covey explains that we all want "to live, to love, to learn, and leave a legacy." Our vocation will leave a legacy. And the beauty of it is that everyone has a vocation or calling. It is not for the fortunate few. It's not reserved for the pastors, priests, nuns, doctors, lawyers, or engineers. You fulfill your calling by being excellent at whatever you were gifted to do and created to be. Everything you do should be a part of your calling, and your calling will be aligned with your natural talents, personality, and passions. Your vocation is work that matters.

Work Was Meant to Be Meaningful

You have a unique contribution to make to this world. And every day that you don't share it, you will feel a nagging sense of frustration and dissatisfaction. The more you resist your calling, the more restless and resentful you will feel. You will always feel like there must be 'something more.'

We are only satisfied with our work when we find what we do meaningful. And meaningful work provides a sense of purpose, a source of challenge, an outlet for our talents, and room for creativity and autonomy. Your work has the potential to make a difference to the world. It might even be significant. All work can be made meaningful by focusing on the ways it uses your gifts and improves lives of others, as long as it is done right and done well.

Getting paid is not at the core of why we do what we do. In fact, we tend think material rewards are a bad reason to do anything. When we say “he’s in it for the money”, that’s not exactly a phrase of praise. And even at high-income levels, we see people's frustrations, which only emphasize the fact that money is ultimately never enough compensation for unhappily investing your time and energy. There has to be a sense of purpose, meaning, and accomplishment. Once our basic needs are met, we become concerned about how we can do what we're meant to do. And paradoxically, those who do the work for reasons outside of money tend to do the best work, and therefore become the most successful and satisfied.

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life,

and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.

And the only way to do great work is to love what you do." -Steve Jobs

Satisfied people do their work because they feel like they are in charge. They have ownership, and their work offers a level of autonomy and discretion, and they use that autonomy and discretion to achieve a level of mastery or expertise. You learn new things, develop as professionals, and grow as people. It employs your greatest strengths, your natural talents, and your desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others. You become who you were created to be. And great work not only makes us better, but it makes the world better too.

"Be who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire." -

St. Catherine of Sienna

So if work is meant to provide meaning, challenge, creativity and discretion, why is it that for the overwhelming majority of people in the world, their work has few (if any) of these attributes? Why is it that for most of us, work is monotonous, meaningless, and mind-numbing? Because the way we think about work is old and broken.

Read Next: Where Did We Go Wrong? The Sad Statistics on Satisfaction


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