This week, a bit of an essay on the purpose of work…
In 2006 I met someone who changed one of my strongest held beliefs. I had always figured that people who became investment bankers had done it for the money. It was the only logical conclusion I could reach. After all, while I had been a management consultant in my early 20s I once realized (after working 20 days straight for 16+ hours per day) that there was such a thing as too much work.
The reputation of investment bankers is that they routinely work these hours, albeit for huge amounts of money. My conclusion was that anyone who went into the field was therefore only there for financial reasons. –I was wrong, however, and it was a fellow Harvard Business School graduate, about a decade older than me, who taught me that.
George was a “retired” investment banker in his early 40s. His reason for leaving seemed obvious to me: he did something he didn’t want to do for 15 years, made a ton of money, and then went on to do something more interesting. In fact, this was not the case. –He loved investment banking, and leaving was one of the toughest decisions he had made, though he ultimately decided to move on so that he could start a family.
Meeting George made me realize that the truth was not that all people who go into investment banking do so for the money, but rather, if I had done so, it would have been for purely financial reasons. In other words, there is a more subtle interaction between careers, interests, and work-life balance that is at play… and it all starts with knowing yourself and the work you enjoy.
Why we don’t enjoy work…
Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a chance to identify the work we enjoy. The introduction most of us have to work is that it is a necessary evil. It starts when we are in school, as homework is piled on us that most of us would rather avoid. Parents and teachers tell us it is essential to do (and do well) if we want to get into a good college and move on to a high paying job.
As children, we don’t have much choice but to go along with this approach, and so we do work we don’t want to do for a reward (grades). In some homes, we may even get money for unpleasant tasks like taking out the garbage.
A close friend of mine grew up delivering newspapers in Alaska. Imagine that in the winter; he froze every morning. Why did he do this? -To earn enough money to buy comic books. In other words, the link between doing what you don’t want to do in order to get the things you want is established very early on. –And many of us never break out of this habit. The pay scale changes, matchbox cars become real ones, but the pattern is the same.
As a result, I see people adopting 3 general viewpoints around work:
- Maximize Income – Earn as much as you possibly can with your skill set (i.e. get as many comic books as you can)
- Maximize Income Per Hour Worked – Do the thing that pays you the most per hour but only work a “reasonable” number of hours (i.e. get as many comic books as you can, ensuring you have time to read them)
- Maximize Hours Worked – Do something you love and work at it as much as you can (i.e. work at the comic book store)
Now the conventional wisdom is to choose option 3, and you’ll “never work another day in your life.” Personally, I believe that the first and the third viewpoints, when taken to an extreme, are flawed. Why do I say that? Well, let’s take the income maximization strategy first. We know from the psychological research that people are prone to adapting to their circumstances, and in particular to their income. Ask someone how much money they need to be happier and the answer will always be more (50% more than what they currently earn according to some research). So hitting a certain income (or wealth) goal won’t ultimately make you happy, because you just want more when you get there.
Focusing on income maximization also shares a problem with maximizing hours worked, and that is that prioritizing income often (though not always) leads to a relentless focus on spending as much time as possible working.
The Problem With Doing Work You Love that Pays Well…
Now you may be thinking: where’s the problem if I maximize my income by doing something I absolutely love? Well, the problem (as I will explain in detail in a later article) is that maximizing hours worked leaves very little time and energy for your key relationships and your health.
You can think about it this way: to lead a happy life you need to invest in 4 areas: Your achievements (professional and personal), your health, your mental state (i.e. focus on the right things and give yourself a chance to rest) and your relationships. I find that most people (myself included for most of my professional life) tend to focus on their career, neglecting their health, mental state and key relationships.
Unfortunately, the world is littered with the neglected families of very financially successful individuals.
What You Really Need From Work
Another way to look at this is from the perspective of research on human drives as discussed in the book Driven: How human nature shapes our choices. In it, the authors identify four human drives:
- The drive to Acquire (i.e. to acquire possessions)
- The drive to Defend (i.e. to keep what you have)
- The drive to Learn (i.e. to constantly gain knowledge and understanding)
- The drive to Relate (i.e. to form meaningful relationships with others)
(Also see my related article executive coaching: the drive to compete)
Now, if you do something you love and it maximizes your income, you are likely checking the first 3 boxes… but then the drive to relate comes in. Yes, there are relationships at work, and in the short term relationships at work may seem like all you need, but over time deep, personal relationships are what deliver happiness.
In fact, The Grant Study, Harvard’s longest running study on success and happiness, which began with Harvard’s class of 1939, found that relationships are absolutely essential to happiness. People who invested in relationships also earned more: the individuals with the highest ratings on “warm relationships” out earned those who scored poorly by over $141,000 a year. In other words, invest in your personal relationships and your career will likely benefit as your quality of life improves.
So, what should you look for in your work? According to Daniel Pink, we are motivated by work that gives us a sense of purpose, a sense of mastery, and a sense of autonomy. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a sense of “flow” where task demands and your skills are aligned is essential.
Personally, I believe that the best work checks all of these boxes yet it leaves times to develop meaningful relationships with family and friends. It also gives us time to maintain our bodies, have moments to ourselves, and to experience the moments that make life interesting.
A Final Thought on Work…
Let me close by sharing a story. I recently worked with a client who was looking to explore new career opportunities. He had been fabulously successful in corporate America and had a role with tremendous responsibility in a firm he had been with for most of his career. As we delved into his situation, I came to understand that he really loved his work and he loved the company he worked for, yet here he was contemplating leaving. Why? He felt slighted by a policy change that made him feel less valued.
While we were ultimately able to find a solution to his situation that did not involve leaving, I share this story to demonstrate that even career paths that have been solid as rock for a decade or more can begin to crumble without warning. In these times, you will be grateful to have invested in your family and your health alongside your career… they are what will endure and what truly matter over the long term. In my next article, I’ll share what might be the most important key to creating the life you want. Stay tuned…