Why Work?
Robert Woods, Former Fellow

Many of us may assume the answer is an easy one, "We work because we have to!" Some may say we work, "to make money so we can live." But I'm not talking about the daily practical reasons we work. Is there anything that motivates us to work other than the obvious reason of making money? Is there anything that can give our work a deeper meaning?

Signs of a weak philosophy of work are all around us. You don't have to look any further than the bumpers of cars on the road, or parked outside places of business. Bumper stickers are a unique testimony to how Americans think and feel about their work. Here are a few examples:

- I owe, I owe, it's off to work I go.
- Work may not kill me, but why chance it?
- I work for the Weekends!
- No Work! No Boss! No Money! I'm Retired
- Work fascinates me; I can sit and watch it for hours.

We may laugh a little, but the search for meaning in work is a quest many have embarked upon with no real sense of completion. Most of us could agree with Thomas Caryle when he said,

It's the first of all problems for a person to discover what kind of work one is to do in this universe.

Since the average working American spends between 40-60 hours every week engaged in activities called work, you would think more would have searched for the elements that can make work more meaningful and enjoyable.

One quote from the great civic poet and philosopher, W.H. Auden contains some important clues to finding happiness in work. Auden writes,

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it: they must not do too much of it: and they must have a sense of success in it -- not a doubtful sense, such as needs some testimony of others for its confirmation, but a sure sense, or rather knowledge, that so much work has been done well, and fruitfully done, whatever the world may say or think about it.

Do a quick inventory of your work in light of this quote.

1. Do you "fit" your work? Auden can be read as asking here more than the basic question of whether you are gifted for your work, but whether it is "right" for you and you are "right" for it. Do you find a deep enjoyment and sense of satisfaction in your job? And some will take this question about, "rightness" a step further. There is a new movement underway that has a long and respected tradition. It urges on us renewal of the notion of calling. I've just finished reading two wonderful books about calling and the importance of recovering a sense of calling. The two books have similarities with some significant differences. Business As A Calling: Work and the Examined Life by Michael Novak and The Call by Os Guinness. Both writers operate from the vantage point of a distinctly religious tradition.

2. Do you work too much? Someone may ask, what is too much? Are you exhausted to the point of depression because of your work? Do you feel like you just ran a marathon but didn't even leave the starting block? When you come home in the evening, do your children look as if a stranger has just broken in? Do you simply wish that casual Fridays could expand to include pajamas, so that you didn't have to waste the time of changing clothes before getting to work?

3. Can you really say that you are good at your work and the work you do is important? Do you have a grand and noble vision of your work? In the big picture, does your work make a positive contribution to the human race? The contributions each day can be small in a global sense, but can you believe that its there?

When people answer the question why work with the cynical, "for a paycheck," they fail to see the real possibility that work can provide a deeper meaning to life.

The highest reward for a person's work is not what they get from it, but what they become by it. Thomas Caryle

A significant part of finding happiness in our work is the realization that happiness is not an emotion but a practice. Happiness will be found in work when we are held captive by the desire to be more than just average, getting the job done, but moved to be excellent in our actions, habits, and outcomes in work and life.

Proof of this idea of happiness in work and life can be found not only by living it but by watching and speaking with those who already live and work this way.

Reflect on the following quote from Dorthoy L. Sayers,

That the eyes of all workers should behold the integrity of the work is the sole means to make work good in itself and so for humanity.

Do you see the big picture of your work? Do you look at your work and say, "it is good"? When asked the question, "why do you work?" what is your answer?

When we can say with Martial that, The work itself is a pleasure;we will be able to say with enthisiasm why we work.


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