Why do we work?

Hi, friends! I hope everybody is doing well in these strange yet growingly-normal times.

Onto my question, which is a bit philosophical waxing and genuine interrogation on my part.
I was listening to ep.101: Taking a Sabbatical, which I found fascinating, to the point where I’m thinking of doing it myself.
I am not a business owner, however, and while I enjoy some latitude, I work for a company, a fairly large one at that, where work culture, while flexible and daring recently, is still not going to cater to my personal ways just because I want it.

This got me to thinking about how I may need to work for myself if I want to carve my own bubble in the ways I believe in. But this lead to the question that is also this post’s title:
Why do we work?

Of course, we work because it pays for our shoes and the roof over our heads and the food we eat between the two, but on a more abstract level, why do we work, how do we pick the job we’ll do?

Is the ultimate goal for you reaching the sort of independence that will allow you to take that year-long sabbatical?
Does the business matter beyond being what pays you as long as you maintain it or does the nature of the business matter?
Is the job a means to an end or is it the end itself too for you?


@Pixoshiru, this is a profoundly important question, one deserving deep thought and discussion.

However, this forum is not focused on a topic of this nature, at least from a teleological perspective. Rather than sharing my perspective, which may invite a discussion that is not entirely appropriate for this forum-though I’m very tempted!—the more appropriate thing for me to do is to share a link to a site that reflects well, not perfectly, my thinking on the matter. The link is here.

The short answer is we work for Freedom, Fulfillment, and Flourishing.

I hope this is helpful!


@Bmosbacker Thank you for that resource. Along similar lines, here is a short essay that is close to how I (try to) think about work. (rest of the series)

It’s indeed difficult to discuss this question without quickly getting into deep water.

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Indeed, and I need to stay out of deep water! :slight_smile: I’ve marked the essay and the link for reading later this week; I look forward to it!

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I highly recommend the book The Crossroads of Should and Must on this topic. It’s a very personal thing to figure out, but this book is great and has a really cool visual style (author Elle Luna is an artist).


This is a potentially deep discussion and my thoughts have evolved on it recently. At present, work is means to an end (save enough to eventually quit - either retire or start something new - whichever comes first). I enjoy what I do most days, it pays well, and gives me enough freedom but I don’t feel like it’s a calling.

A few years ago I was upset at myself for not “pursuing my passion” and “working at a job I love”. But I realized I wasn’t even sure what my passion was…or might be in 5 years. Some people work hard and figure this out, though I feel like it’s still “work” and isn’t all a bed of roses. I haven’t got there and might never, so I’m hedging against that fact by saving for the day I can cut back or quit.

Now, if I absolutely hated my job I probably would have a different opinion.

I also have been pondering this article from Ryan Holiday - specifically the question - What Do You Do With Your Money? It really made me stop and think if I was doing things I hated just to get more money to put in the bank (thankfully I am not).

At some point I will take a sabbatical. Travel will be a part of it, so it likely won’t be anytime soon unfortunately. If that means I have to pause or stop work for that time period, so be it.


I don’t wanna be that guy but it seems too relevant to ignore: I gave a TEDx talk a while back at the intersection of this subject and youth.

Specifically, I was advocating that we stop asking kids “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and start asking people (in general!) “Who do you want to be?”

Lofty, sure, but it gets at the heart of this conversation. We tie work to identity as early as possible, and then we oversimplify what work is (what kid ever says “I want to be a knowledge worker!”?), and then we fail to challenge or question anything else about who we are.

At the same time, we fail to acknowledge that we are what we do, and as a result we put thousands of hours into whatever we’re already doing rather than think with intentionality about what we should be doing or what we want to be doing.

We shouldn’t answer “Why do we work?”—we should answer “Who do I want to be?”, and the work will follow.


Well, you are THAT guy and that is good!

I love your question. Who we ARE matters far more than what we DO. Sadly, too many assign their worth to what they do rather than to the quality of their personhood and character.

Can you share the link to your talk? I’d love to listen to it. :slight_smile:


Sure, with the caveats that (1) I’m not actually wearing a neon green blazer, though YouTube’s automatically-chosen snapshot seems to insist otherwise; and (2) the producers failed to realize that I was using a custom font, and therefore some slides were messed up in the uploading version—I promise I’m a better designer than that, even eight years ago.

As an aside: In my wizened state I think the talk’s an exemplar of the TEDx cliché formula: :ballot_box_with_check: a few hyped pop-science facts; :ballot_box_with_check: a clarion call about a damning social peril; :ballot_box_with_check: a nice clean call to action; and :ballot_box_with_check: a personal story that ties it all together. One fact in particular hasn’t aged well: this myth that everyone will soon be working in “jobs that don’t exist yet”.

Still, the idea’s a worthy one. My wife and I are expecting our first kid soon, and I will be doing my best to resist reducing their future to a job title!


Congratulations! 20 characters…


Thanks to al of you for all these insights, I’m floored!
I definitely agree with the idea supported by @ryanjamurphy, that asking who we want to be more than what we want to do is key.

I guess I should give a bit of context:
I’m working as a creative director, and that’s a dream job I didn’t know I wanted until I got it (I’ve worked as an illustrator, then art director, then this, essentially).
So I’m definitely doing a “passion job”. I’d never refer to it as “work” or “the business”, as work is defined by what I do within it and the content matters more than the machine producing it. It does pay well too and I’m perfectly happy about it all.

Listening to Focused and other such smart discussions however opened my eyes to a few ideas like sabbaticals, listening to my own rhythm, intentionality, and contributed to my realization or at least my questioning of the fact this may still not be all there is to life, a questioning that becoming a father 2 years and a half ago started with a bang. And all of these feel like to reach some of these things I’d need to step out of this work format I’m currently in, and thus I feel this contradiction between the passion for the work I do and the aspiration for a more intentional and meaningful life.

It is indeed a very personal question to answer, but I found myself at a loss trying to answer for myself, so I’ll definitely read/watch all the resources shared in here, and I’m excited by this journey. Thanks all for your help!



We work because it’s what defines us. Humans need to struggle and since largely eliminating the daily hunt for food we have found other ways to test and stress us, work being one of them.

The competition and desire to “achieve” define that as you will, is just part of the human condition and has resulted in its best and worst moments. Work is just an expression of that.

We still mostly exist in a society that judges (males in particular) by what they have achieved (read accumulated). Work is a way of accumulating whatever.

Many people choose work that lets them define themselves; a comparative luxury when their basic Maslow needs are met. But most work because they need to, sometimes desperately, and don’t have much choice in their work. (Some elderly Walmart greeters work to see people and get out of the house; some work because they need the minimum wage at age 75 to live.)

When not forced to struggle for survival, people struggle internally. I wouldn’t call it a need as much as an apparent design flaw in the brain, reinforced by culture. You can own the smoothest-running Tesla but there will always be a bad metaphorical axle.

Maybe in much of North America, but around 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases, more than AIDS, TB and malaria combined. And in India alone around 200 million people are undernourished, most of those not outright hungry relying on an insufficiently nutritional, grain-based diet.

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Work defines us, whether it’s because we have to which most of us do, me included but as work takes up the largest part of most people’s lives by definition it must at some level define who we are.

Thank you I am aware that people are starving in the world however I doubt that those who are which of course is a tragedy are contributing or worrying about MPU forum so the comment was really for consumption here

Yes, there’s a different type of consumption here.

A lot of very interesting ideas in here.
@TheOldDesigner’s sentence about how work defines us makes me pause, though.

Work is, in western culture and beyond, what we define ourselves by, I definitely agree.
But maybe where I used to see the question I’m asking as “which work do I want to be defined by”, I’m wondering if I’d rather ask it as “is it work I want to be defined by?”.

This goes back to the trigger to this all for me, which was building the right context that will allow me to have sabbaticals and such. In that example, I’m still not too sure what work Sean McCabe actually does. But I know he does sabbatical weeks every 6 weeks. That’s what he’s defined by, to me.

And we mentioned male and female’s respective expectations from society. It’s not hard to imagine a woman who’d be defined by not her job but her family, and I wouldn’t mind being defined by that myself. If anything, it shows easily that there are alternative to being defined by work.

Again, @ryanjamurphy’s got it right, in my opinion, as he asked the wider question of who we want to be.

And it’s like the sabbatical thing too: Doing a sabbatical isn’t about avoiding work, as if that’s what you feel like doing then you should do work!

Of course, whatever the answer, it’s going to be, as it’s been said here, profoundly personal, and it may imply sacrifices, the same way our beloved @MacSparky has to twist the notion of sabbaticals so it fits the person he wants to be (Quick side note: I really feel he’s too hard on himself a lot of the time but, in a counter-intuitive way, as he said in the last episode, by allowing himself not to allow himself to have a perfect sabbatical, he’s actually already listening to his own beat more thus already getting some of the benefits the sabbatical is meant to give him. Smart guy! :D).

If one wants to be defined by their work, that’s perfectly valid! But it doesn’t have to be the only area to look for an answer in, I feel.

But beyond all that, the mistake would be not to ask ourselves the question.

Thanks for bearing with me. :smiley:



I should add a proactive defense against one of the more fundamental critiques of deciding who we want to be: many of us don’t have that much control over our situations, so the question can seem naïve.

In other words, asking “who do you want to be?” in the context of “why do you work?” can be impractical. It doesn’t really matter who you want to be if your circumstances lead you to do work that doesn’t align with that.

To which I would say: our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.

Obviously, we must recognize whatever constraints we’re living in. To ignore them is to picnic in a thunderstorm.

Still, we can decide who we want to be within our circumstances. This means thinking about the kinds of activities that might be more fulfilling to us, or considering the nature of our relationships with whoever we have to interact with. It’s then our job to “resize the experience” of the circumstances to fit those goals as best as possible.


Exactly! That’s what I was suggesting by pointing at David’s own resizing of his sabbatical. There are constraints, and some of us have more than others.
I completely welcome my questioning being described as naive at this point, btw. I’m only starting to probe that area of reflection, and I’m privileged in more ways than one (white, male, educated, debt-less, healthy, etc,…) but I already feel it’s a question that is worth asking regardless, as a way to frame one’s existence and measure the space within which we can have that control you talk about.
Maybe that space for me allows more than I think (I actually talked about doing Sean McCabe’s 7th week sabbatical idea at my job and that’s something we may try), maybe it allows for less, like David having to not completely close the door on disruption during his sabbatical because him being a solo practitioner simply won’t allow him to close down shop for more than a few hours. And of course, that is still leagues better than most humans on Earth. :confused:

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The problem I have in general with this discussion is the separation of work and life. To me they are one and the same.

What makes you think that family isn’t work? It’s all work and it’s all life. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve defined “work” as something that is separate from and unrelated to our own expressions of who we are. Hunter Gatherer societies in the neolithic spent less time on getting and satisfying basic needs for water, food and shelter than a typical modern low wage worker does. I’ll see if I can find the studies but there have been several that showed that fact. There are differences in how long each society needed to “work” usually based on the environment they found themselves in but in many ways they had more “leisure” time than most modern humans.

I disagree with that notion. I think everyone can change their situation. The first hurdle is believing that you can. I don’t buy the fact that we are all stuck in where we are. What I will agree to is that for many the fear of the failure of trying and failing or not getting to the desired final objective leads to the conclusion that they cannot change their circumstances.

What I think does and can happen is that you make make a smaller or less expansive change initially. That’s what I see MacSparky doing with a smaller sabbatical. Not giving up on the idea of doing a longer one but starting with what can happen and then moving in the direction he wants to go.