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Why do we work so hard?

January 9, 2014

I spent 40 days between jobs without working.  This is the first time I’ve spent 40 days in a row without working at all since I got my first summer job in high school (that is if one counts going to school as “work”, which could be debated).

As excited as I am about the new job and new opportunities I have, I wasn’t exactly excited to be leaving behind the luxury of my 40 days of time off.  We kept pretty busy with traveling (vacation and holidays) and getting settled into our new home, so I really only had a week of what I would consider true down time with complete flexibility in my days and tasks.  I cleaned, ran errands, caught up on my finances, read, and cooked a few really great dinners.  I felt so relaxed – it was wonderful!

A few days before I went back, T and I had a conversation.  “Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we work so hard to achieve?”

Don’t get me wrong – I liked my last job a lot and I intend to like my new job just as much.  T loves his job.  I really like being productive, working with a team, taking on new challenges and learning new things.  Yet, it can be hard to keep a full work schedule and have time for everything else.   Even a job you love can be stressful at times.

There are a lot of different was to be happy in life, and the vast majority (all?) of them don’t involve big careers, high salaries, and the norms that tend to surround those things.  Still, both of us (and many of you) are motivated to achieve these things.  It isn’t just for the financial security aspect.  It isn’t because we are hung up on status.  It isn’t for the STUFF.  It is a little bit for the travel / experiences, but that is only a few weeks a year at best.  What is it for?  I can’t quite figure out why I’m compelled to achieve.

I’m not too embarrassed to share a quote from Grey’s Anatomy that resonated with me the first time I watched the episode.  “We push ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much we achieve. If you’re a climber, there’s always another mountain.”  (Did I just admit to watching some episodes of Grey’s Anatomy more than once?)

Since my lifestyle does currently make me happy, I’m not too concerned.  I’m just curious if all my choices are truly optimal from a lifetime total happiness perspective.  If not (and surely not!), what are the big drivers that would make impacts?

I came across this really interesting article describing a study where participants “earned” chocolates by listening to static noise for a certain period of time.  Many participants “earned” far more chocolates (average >10) than they could consume ( ~5) or predicted they would consume (~4).  They also noted that people seemed to be driven by how much “work” (noise) they could withstand rather than how much chocolate they needed.

Since I know many of you are similarly minded, why do you think you work so hard to achieve?

PS –  Here is the end of that quote, which doesn’t resonate with me quite as much:  ““ They take pictures of mountain climbers at the top of the mountain. They’re smiling, ecstatic, triumphant. They don’t take pictures along the way. ‘Cause who wants to remember the rest of it? We push ourselves because we have to. Not because we like it. The relentless climb, the pain and anguish of taking it to the next level, nobody takes pictures of that. Nobody wants to remember. We just wanna remember the view from the top. The breathtaking moment at the edge of the world. That’s what keeps us climbing. And it’s worth the pain. That’s the crazy part. It’s worth anything.”” 

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2014 1:35 pm

    “I’m just curious if all my choices are truly optimal from a lifetime total happiness perspective.”

    So eloquent. I guess I’m starting to wonder something similar. I really do have my dream job, at least for now, the only thing that sucked was the pace/time pressure – the years I’ve been here have just melted away (that’s changing this year and it will be interesting to see how a different pace impacts my enjoyment of work).

    But I was just as happy travelling for six months, only doing the occasional freelance assignment.

    I dunno. I mean, I think if I was financially independent I could totally be happy cooking, reading, travelling, volunteering, working when I wanted to, relaxing. But I’m also pretty happy with my chosen field, am okay with the income, and the flexibility, the actual work, the sense of accomplishment I get from producing writing that people read.

    • January 12, 2014 10:54 am

      I guess that since we can be happy working or not working, working certainly makes the most sense as it provides money and makes the logistics of life much easier!

      I would seek a sense of accomplishment no matter what, but not having to produce income would allow me to be more flexible. For example, I could focus on things I have no chance at making money from: running, climbing mountains, playing an interment, etc.

      On some level, that is attractive, because I can set my own goals 100% rather than tying them to an organization. But I like doing big things, and it is easier to do big things within a big company.

  2. January 9, 2014 8:59 pm

    This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately over my last few job changes. I think it’s something too that changes a bit with each job that you do.

    I’m not very good at not working, but I’m terrible in extreme stress too. So I think that somewhere in the middle there is a better balance for me. I also feel like working 3.5-4 days per week would be perfect, rather than 5 days a week.

    • January 12, 2014 10:55 am

      Yes, it is odd, because if someone offered me (and I assume you) 70% of my salary to work 70% of the time I work, I’d do it in a heartbeat, even if it meant being marginally available on the other days. But that just isn’t how work is set up.

      • January 18, 2014 7:17 pm

        I think 3/4 days would be the perfect balance a week, or 8/9 months out of the year.

        But my field just isn’t that lucrative, so I couldn’t accept the commensurate pay cut for reduced hours.

  3. January 10, 2014 4:28 pm

    I feel somewhat torn over this. I’ve always been aiming to accomplish big and great things that I can be proud of and that tends to involve earning more. But over the years I’ve used up my tolerance for the nonsense of the workplace as well (politics suck) so there’s a small part of me that doesn’t particularly feel work-ambitious anymore either.

    We’re quite comfortable, even considering we live in the Bay Area and can’t afford a house. I’m not struggling anymore and I’m just getting used to that feeling, some of which is nice, and some of which makes me feel intellectually flabby.

    I do agree that the latter part of that quote doesn’t resonate as much though – I do think the journey and the struggle is part of the beauty of our efforts.

    • January 12, 2014 10:58 am

      Yes, I guess it is less about the income, but more about the effort so many people are willing to put into their goals. That part makes sense, but income / money complicates the picture. Are you working for money, or for the reward of accomplishment? usually it is both, but sometimes I don’t even know!

  4. January 11, 2014 7:08 am

    hey hey hey. Grey’s Anatomy is awesome.
    I think it’s important to work hard. I’m usually such a hard worker that sometimes I forget to take care of myself. Now that’s bad. But generally it’s not bad to “work hard” as long as you know how to “play hard” and relax sometimes too.


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