Why We Work.

work-hard

“Hide not your talents, they for use were made.” ― Benjamin Franklin

At its very core, your work is essential to us.

Back in the beginning, families were responsible to accomplish everything for their existence: hunt, farm, build, sew, cook, clean, etc. Until one day when somebody noticed their family was better at farming than building and decided to barter with a neighboring family. “If we grow extra food and give it to you, will you build an extra house than we can live in?”

Our understanding of work was born. Both benefited from the arrangement: better food was grown and stronger homes were built. In the end, all of society benefited. And each individual was able to pursue contribution in their area of giftedness and passion.

But somewhere along the way, we lost our focus. We no longer worked to benefit others, but ourselves. Work became selfish. Work became that thing through which we make money so that we could do the other things we really wanted to do (credit: Dorothy Sayers). As a result, work became something to avoid or shortcut if possible. And today:

  • 70% of Americans hate their work or are completely disengaged (source).
  • The 4-Hour Workweek is a New York Times Bestseller.
  • Americans are working less and less.
  • CNN defines retiring before 65 as the “ultimate dream.”

Meanwhile, we still need your talents and abilities. We still need you to work hard and do it well. Your work contributes to the good of society and moves us forward (in most cases). We desperately need your contribution. It makes us better as people. It enriches our lives.

Please don’t view your work as something only to be endured or avoided. Instead, rethink your work. Regain focus and motivation to use your passions and abilities to contribute good to a society in need of them.

Utilize your strengths. Develop your talents. Study your craft. And encourage others.

Seek honest compensation, not riches. Work hard. Enjoy it.

And at the end of the day, we will all be better because of it.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. says

    This made me think about how the whole community concept has been redefined since the internet came along — and how much simpler things would be if everybody thought about how they are working for others, not themselves.

  2. says

    I think it helps if you look for something in your job beyond money. I work with kids, and it is so rewarding. A lot of people have asked me how I can be happy working for a very low wage, but I get satisfaction from the actual work I am doing.

    Katie

  3. says

    I find it to be bizarre that many people I know don’t realize there is anything more to work than having to do something you hate in order for money. It’s a completely different mindset that a lot of people take to because we’re taught early on that jobs are grueling. How often do we hear someone joke “Ugh, you/I have to go to work?” It’s become common to think that way.

  4. says

    My son is 13 and beginning to think a lot about what he wants to do when he grows up. Today he told me that he thinks he might want to be an actor or a singer, and I said something encouraging. He seemed surprised and said: “Some parents wouldn’t think that’s okay.” I said “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”

    He’s spent most of his life saying he wants to be a billionaire and we’ve always told him there’s more to life money.

    • hairyguy says

      tell him to yearn for consistent good health during his lifetime instead. michael j. fox has all the money in the world yet his world has fallen apart due to his disease. same with those wealthy people who do drugs or neglect parenting their kids. health is wealth. not the other way around. and that includes mental physical and spiritual health.

      • TeacherJ says

        hairyguy:

        Michael J. Fox has his it own sitcom started this year and realizes that his so called disease has made him an even better person.

        Cheers,

        J

  5. Loren says

    I am with Vincent. Too many people are doing jobs that give them nothing in return but $. That is sad. I see too often people on the roads, still asleep in their lives, riding on autopilot. They all wait for the weekends and hate mondays. How sad. My mom tught me early on that it’s better to work “Smarter, not Harder” meaning find something you love to do and figure out how to make a living doing that. In this way it feels like you are not even working, but moreso living your passion and loving life. I sleep very sound at night.
    I also am rather thrifty and buy everything used…cars, guitars, even household items.
    Why pay $12,000 for a car, when a year later I can grab it for only $2,000. I believe if you live like a caveman and stay one step BEHIND technology, you can afford to live very well. I am now working on a new theory …”keep only things that serve a daily purpose or you use…ditch the rest.” Great article Joshua!

    • Jen says

      Can I come live where you do? I mean where is a new car $12,000 and it depreciates to $2,000 in just one year? Wow – sounds like a dream to me. But I totally get living what you love by doing what you love (or at least like). The problem with that is there would be very few garbage collectors, wastewater treatment workers, etc. Somebody has to do the jobs that everybody hates. Not everyone can afford to do the work that they love, either – sometimes all it pays is a smile. If we can all find jobs that we don’t hate, that’s doing pretty good. I’m lucky, I have one I really like.

      But, really, where can I get a 1 year old car for $2,000 that isn’t a complete beater? Please tell me where this magical place is!

      • says

        I think in reply to the problem that there would be very few garbage collectors, waste water treatment workers etc. if everyone did a job that they love i.e their ‘passion’…I think the people you work with are the key. Imagine doing your ‘dream’ job (I would be an ice cream tester!) but you worked with people you despised. Plus you’d probably eventually get sick of ice cream…maybe :) Then think of being a garbage man or a sewer worker- but you worked every day with your best friends! I’d be so happy every day to go to work. I think we get caught up on this ‘passion’ thing and doing what we love. That is important to some degree, but I think passion can be people. I’m sure there are some way happier garbage men out there than some rich CEO’s

    • joshua becker says

      All of my sources point to Benjamin Franklin… though quotes on the Internet can be difficult to definitively confirm.

      The full quotation goes like this, “Hide not your talents, they for use were made. What’s a sundial in the shade?” Which sounded a little less Yoda-ish.

      • Loren says

        Joshua, I was totally joking. The Star Wars geek in me can’t help finding humor in old speak. and Jen, I was exaggerating the point of how quickly cars depreciate in value. I’ve heard the actual stats are more like:
        Loses 9% first minute you leave dealership, 19% 1st year, 31% yr 2,
        almost 50% by year 3…….in 2008 I bought a 2000 Dodge Intrepid with Leather Interior, tinted windows & Infinity Car Stereo for $1700. No Payments No Hassle.

  6. says

    This is a great post and brings up important points about life today and the way kids are brought up. This isn’t so much about hating jobs and having to just show up and do the work. This post hints at more than that. It hints at what the modern world has become.

    The issue today is that most kids go to school until they are about 18 and unfortunately, most never have the opportunity to learn what their talents are, much less explore them.

    Year’s ago when farmers farmed and hunters hunted, kids went to work early in life and they did work they were naturally good at because parents actually looked for their talents and not shunned them in place of standardized learning.

    If a kid showed he liked to carve and whittle wood then there was a good chance he’d be apprenticed early and grow up to be a carpenter. Today he might be diagnosed with some kind of disorder because he’s not focused on his homework. (I know, this hints at ADHD, but I’m an advocate so that’s another topic. see adderworld.com)

    The issue is that kids are being raised to take any job they can get and like it.

    Do the learning and then do whatever is available. However, even those who do learn something specific that they enjoy the odds of that job being available are becoming slimmer. So the main issue is that most people are stuck in jobs they don’t enjoy because either they never discovered what they do enjoy, or, they took what was available and without realizing it they’ve become resentful they have to show up, clock in and waste their time. Of course, there’s the saying if you have a job be thankful and do the best you can do. That’s okay, I guess, but the reality is we are raising kids to not be themselves or not to do what they are naturally good at and those who are fortunate enough to be doing what they enjoy doing have a difficult time understanding why the other 70% don’t get it.

    And yes, I totally agree that kids have parents who do not enjoy their jobs, but guess what? Their parents were stuck in the same boat growing up. This goes generations back and it’ll just get worse and there will be more medication and therapy to get what will soon be the 90% of those who hate their jobs to actually do a somewhat good job.

    But what if, just what if, we started looking at kids the way we used to and allow them to discover and enjoy their natural talents when they first start to show signs? Maybe they’ll grow up and know what they want to do the rest of their lives and become part of the smaller percentage of those who actually enjoy their work? Here’s the thing, if a child grows up already using their natural talents they will find a way to make them work to their advantage, but if they wait until they are 18 or older to discover their talents then they’ll be forced to use their under developed talents as hobies they sometimes get to do. I know there’s so much more to do this…

    This isn’t to disagree with this post, because I do agree wholeheartedly, it’s just that there’s a much bigger picture at work and if we don’t address the cause then we’ll continue to see people depressed, unhappy and unsatisfied with the work they do. It might be 70% now, but if we don’t work on “the causes” which isn’t limited to just what I’ve discussed in this comment, it’s going to get worse, not better.

    Hrmmmm I kind of went on and on there, didn’t I?

    ~Bryan

    • Kelly Tribble says

      Hmm… I love your idealized view of early life. And I am CERTAINLY a fan of allowing people to discover their own strengths and weaknesses. But I wonder just when the change occurred. I have reading the biography of (founding father) John Adams and it seems that men of the day (at least the professional men) were deciding everything for their family… including what each child would study. Hopefully they did this prudently and with love. But I suspect many times it was out of vanity (“I want a child who is a doctor”) or necessity (“I know you’d like to go to school, but I need a farmhand”) that drove those decisions.

      Not knocking what you say… just commenting that people are hard to predict and parents don’t always make the right choices.

    • Loren says

      Amen Bryan… I don’t believe in wasting a life on something that takes a good portion of my time, leaves me with little time to truly BE ALIVE. And to those of you still stuck on the fence in a meaningless job…get….out….now. How can we all tell our kids to dream big and Go For IT, when we are all afraid to get out of dead end jobs, relationships, and anything else we have SETTLED for. Go ahead and roll your eyes….are you living life and really going for it…or do you watch the clock and hope the day goes by quickly…think about that for just a second…in a hurry for it to be over…life is too short to want it to go quickly 5 days a week.
      Our True Nature causes us to lose track of time when we are doing something fun or meaningful. There is no need to be in a hurry for the end of the day, week or retirement if you are having so much fun that it doesn’t feel like work. Also, a side benefit is that everyone else around you is excited to be around you and your energy…your zest for life, if you will. I had 2 jobs where I made crazy good money and hated both of them. I would wake up at night after grinding my teeth in my sleep. Finally I quit, started doing something I love that paid LESS and whala..I sleep better and look forward to every day.
      And Jen to answer your question about Garbage Collectors and other jobs that give you nothing more than a paycheck….if I have more time to live, I can take my own trash to the dump, mow my own lawn, clean my own house, do my own taxes, fix my own equipment, prepare my own meals (and better for you than fast food..no time no time!) etc.Much of our own country has our kids spending much of their time in daycares, families eating fast food crap and using charge cards to live beyond their means…..no, I don’t want to be part of “the american dream”. Be thrifty, work smarter & take time for the important moments that fly by all too quickly in this life. Best to all of you.

    • says

      You seem to start from the premise that talents cannot be discovered while in school. What about intellectual talents? I certainly discovered mine in school, as have many of my friends and family!

    • says

      I think you are definitely onto something, Bryan. It’s why I believe unschooling / homeschooling one’s children is a natural extension of minimalism.

      Getting back to the basics, doing work that matters, living a life of purpose and value (instead of status and blind consumption) – they are all in line with the growing unschool / homeschool movement.

  7. says

    Thank you! This needs to be said. Keeping up with the Jones’s these days means work less and have more. It makes no sense to me. I was just writing about our true purpose this morning. Our purpose it to be a blessing and add value to the world. Hopefully with blogs like yours… and mine, we can uplift enough people to create a tipping point and bring fulfillment from hard work back to the world. We can sure use it.

  8. Rob says

    Joshua, your minimalist posts and blogs are one of the few things I regularly read on the internet. I respect you as a writer and minimalist.

    For that reason it’s difficult for me to express my disagreement with the parts of this post where you state, “We no longer work to benefit others but ourselves” and “We still need you to work hard and do it well.”

    No man does now or has ever worked for anyone other than himself. Man works because it serves an end for him. Even the parent “selflessly” caring for helpless child does so because it serves the parent (i.e. the parent would rather see the object of their love cared for and thriving.) Similarly, the 80 hour a week workaholic CEO also does it for himself (perhaps to satisfy the ego, who knows…).

    What if man chooses not to “work hard and do it well”? What if man is more productive for a society at say computer programming than blogging about minimalism? Does that mean that man must program a computer for the benefit of society to maximize his production? Choosing not to work to the fullest extent of your capability and not to contribute maximally to the economic output of society is an option that minimalism helps many of your readers create.

    The division of labor is one of the most amazing things to ever come into spontaneous existence. Most people, even minimalists, never stop to consider the lifetimes it would take them to acquire the the things they possess if they had to start at square one as an individual outside a market economy and mix their labor with land.

    Thanks for all the great posts. I, for one, am really glad you’re contributing this to society instead of programming a computer somewhere for more money. Keep up the good work.

    Rob

    • joshua becker says

      Thanks for the comment Rob. I appreciate the opportunity to further clarify some thoughts.

      First, I don’t disagree that humans are built with a desire to care for and provide for themselves by seeking their own self-interests. In that way, I would agree that we do work for ourselves. But I would disagree that your examples are similar. A mother finding self-fulfillment by expressing love and preserving the life of an infant is a far different expression of that innate desire than a CEO working 80-hours/week to feed his ego and/or build his own kingdom for selfish reasons.

      Second, I would never argue that each worker should maximize his work for the economic output of a society. Each worker should work diligently in his craft to benefit society and provide value to it. This is the original model of work. And if I can contribute most good to society by writing about minimalism than I can by programming computers, I should write about minimalism to the best of my abilities and seek honest compensation in the process. I think we are both arguing for the same point here.

      My greatest hope was to raise the argument that our work is actually a benefit to others and we should begin again to see it as such. And we ought to remove the notion that work is something to be avoided or merely endured.

  9. says

    As a society, we are beginning to rethink this whole notion of ‘work.’

    Your article reminds me of this BUckminster Fuller quote:

    “We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

    • says

      “He who does not work shall not eat.” St. Paul
      I assume you are volunteering to be fed by others so you don’t have to “earn a living.” No wonder America has become so socialistic–which is government theft of those who have worked to give it to others who refuse to do so. I couldn’t disagree more with the entire premise of this article, and will blog about the subject myself soon.

      • joshua becker says

        Caelan,

        I disagree with a central premise of the Buckminster Fuller quote. I do not agree that “we keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist.”

        On the contrary, I believe that people work because humans were designed to work and contribute to society. I do not think this whole idea is “false” as Fuller argues. And subsequently, I don’t think work is something to be avoided.

        I think the real problem exists because many people don’t work just for the sake of work. They work for some other reason (to go on vacations, to fund their entertainment, to make enough to quit working, etc). As a result, work is merely tolerated as the means to a different end.

        But when we begin to embrace work as contribution to society. We begin to change our outlook on it and our goals while pursuing it. In this way, many of the drudgery jobs could be avoided by individuals who are determined to contribute their absolute best to society through their work.

  10. Indigo says

    The article contradicts itself. The list of statistics indicate that many people are miserable precisely because they work for the benefit of others rather than themselves.

    The division of labor implied in the opening part of the article was a function of individuals working to improve their own condition, a goal they achieved by fulfilling the needs of others in exchange for some usable good. This in turn created universally exchangeable goods we now know as money.

    In sum, if you want a happy life, and a sane society, you must encourage everyone to work to improve their lot; a process they can only achieve by serving others.

    As an aside, the urge to believe there was ever a time in our dim and distant past when we lived in a communitarian fashion is the same belief that drives totalitarian communism. As Adam Smith pointed out centuries ago, the basis for the fairest societies we have ever created has been self interest.

    • joshua becker says

      Thanks for the comment Indigo though I disagree with what you believe the statistics represent. However, it may be just a difference in semantics. The list of statistics was meant to show that in modern society there is a notion that work should be avoided. And I disagree with that sentiment. Work should not be avoided or merely endured. Work should be welcomed in our lives as it benefits society.

  11. BT says

    It is quite interesting to see that Stoicism is quite relevant as a philosophy of life now.
    It may show up in different disguises, but the essence of it is still very useful to navigate our lives now.

    It is sad our schools do not teach philosophy of living anymore. They are too busy preparing kids for jobs to teach courage, honour and the art of enduring pain and insults!

  12. Pattie says

    I’m going off to school for the first day back for teachers. I like my work but I’m spending too much time thinking about retirement. Thank you for the message I will think about the work The Lord has set before me to do. My school year is off to a better start.
    A soon to retire Special Education Teacher.

  13. Kat says

    What an interesting definition of work. So, back when people were still supplying their own food AND their own handmade house, they were not doing work? Although I agree with your suggestions on values, I can’t agree with your definition here.

  14. says

    Interesting post Joshua. I think that your point becomes so much more stark when traveling to other countries (specifically non-Western, developing ones) and we see how our definition of work and ‘making a living’ clashes with others’.

    I think in many non-Western countries, life is still about survival and making ends meet. It is about putting food on the table for the family. If you are lucky, you have an education and maybe a modest job. There is no such mindset suggesting that you work until retirement at which time the government takes care of you. In many of those countries, you work until you’re too old and then you live with your children. There is no social security. There is no 401(k). People struggle and they survive. Work is not so separate from life the way it is in the U.S.

    But over the last century, I think we stopped having to worry as much about survival the way other countries did and still do. Food became readily available and shelter became affordable. The rewards for our work resulted in wealth that we could spend on other pleasures. We can now stray away from what we used to focus on and what we needed to simply survive in exchange for of more, bigger, and better. We don’t have to worry so much on survival the way others do. But I think sometimes we need to cap the more, bigger, and better. We have it really good and it is so important to realize how good we have it. We don’t need to look for even more. We are at a great time where we can now focus our energy on what we are good at, what we are talented at, and what brings benefit to ourselves and others. Some of that can come in the form of job, but it doesn’t need to be vocation exclusively. Humans contribute to society in many ways beyond work.

    Carl

    • Loren says

      It’s funny as I sense a line in the sand of beliefs here. I believe that people can and do contribute more to society, when they are happy and feel like they are making a difference, as opposed to the old Catholic/Christian sacrifice and suffer while in this world and be rewarded in the afterlife mentality. We are either programmed to run on fear and guilt, or take the time to think outside the box and figure out what makes us tick. (just like Joshua did on that spring day with his garage). Up until that very moment, his point of view was one way and with just a few words from his neighbor, EVERYTHING Changes. We are all on a mission in this life and the key is to take a moment and look around and think for Yourself.
      Many of us just follow the rest….have a beer, watch tv, hate my job, hate my boss,…..and the next day…and the next day….grave. When a friend of the family told me “only 8 more years to retirement, and then I’ll really start living”, it made me step back and count my lucky stars that my mother instilled the values in me to make me question “The Norm”. I sure hope he makes it to retirement, but why wait to “live”. There is an excellent book that nails my point. It’s called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s about a Seagull who wanted more and thought outside the box. Great Book!

      • says

        I absolutely love Jonathan Seagull. Read it for the first time when I was 8 or 9, and reread it many times, always understanding more from it. I saw the movie too.

        I agree that if we are happy and feel we are making a difference with our job, we will contribute much more to the society. We will be motivated to always improve, and we will be filled with energetic enthusiasm.

      • Kay says

        Loren – I’m not sure what you mean by the Christian sacrifice and suffering mentality, or why you see that as a negative. Sacrifices? Yes, there have been times when I have needed to sacrifice my time or wants in order to meet someone else’s needs. Suffering? Yes, I have run across people who ridicule my faith and think I’m missing out on all the fun and pleasures this world has to offer, they dont understand why I would choose to go against society’s norms. I have recently come across minimalist websites, and I see a lot in common between this deliberate lifestyle and my faith. Jesus teaches us to life live to the fullest, to be joyful, to be grateful, to be content in the Now. Today. The Bible teaches against storing up treasures on earth (hoarding) but rather to trust in God to meet my daily needs, and to be generous with the excess in order to help others.

        Joshua – thank you for this post. The Bible teaches me to do everything I do as if for the Lord. Whether I am washing dishes, working as a garbage collector, changing a baby’s diaper, working in the corporate world, doing volunteer work, if I keep my focus on I am working for the Lord it helps me to try to do my best at whatever the task may be.

  15. says

    Here’s the thing: Most people will never have a 4-hour workweek, and most people already work their ass off for little pay.

    Loving money, or looking to retire before 65 isn’t the problem; the problem lies with the fact that it is hard for regular folks to earn an honest, adequate living. Since most people can’t, and so many of them are living paycheck-to-paycheck, their circumstances create a scarcity mentality. They can fathom getting paid what their worth, and have already lost all hope, so they cling to every dime they have coming in. Not because they are greedy, or arent grateful, but because they dont know any better.

    If you want to work hard, by all means go right ahead. But most people dont. Most people wish they could work smart, not hard. They wish they could genuinely help people, and NOT feel like dying at the end of their work week.

    Most people arent inherently selfish; they’re simply stuck in a system that is stacked against them.

    Dont blame the victim for protecting his own, and doing what needs to be done to keep on living.

  16. says

    What a great message, Joshua. Great timing, as well. I spent a few years downsizing so I could take a year off of work (a Ferriss-ish mini retirement, if you will). Incredibly enough, the day I quit my job I got called for my dream job. I was made to work and align my passion to it; luckily I am paid money for it. Thank you so much.

  17. Matthew Nelson says

    Something about this article really rubbed my fur the wrong direction, I mean it really fired me up. 787 words into my response I realized I could sum it up with one blunt question:

    Dude, are you a communist?

    I mean: “your work is essential to us” “We no longer worked to benefit others, but ourselves. Work became selfish” “Your work contributes to the good of society and moves us forward (in most cases). We desperately need your contribution” “Seek honest compensation, not riches. Work hard. Enjoy it.”

    You sound like a communist.

  18. David Arndt says

    “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: so shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.” Proverbs 6: 6-11

  19. Marie says

    I love this post, and totally agree. I am trying to rectify several of your points in my head. I really do love my work and feel it is a good use of my talents. I don’t feel at all I just work for the money. I also am trying to build a life around what matters most: my children–another recent post of yours. Some of your posts have also extolled a one-income lifestyle. I think we could get by on one income and my children are very very important to me, but I do think my talents lie elsewhere (in my paid work). Even though I value my kids and want a life build around them, do I need to be home with them all day? Any thoughts on how this is all rectified? And if you have no answers, what questions should I be asking?

  20. Susan says

    Anthropologist has estimated that the original hunters and gatherers populations worked about 3 to 4 hours per day to make a living. Our view on work-related issues in modern times are overall social and cultural constructions.

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