An Important Question? Why Do We Work?

“Why do I work?” is not your typical question. Working to you is just a given and you don’t spend time analyzing why you work. You may say,

 “I have no option. I have to work to support myself and my family!”

” I’m just glad to have a job.” 

Indulge me for a moment. I invite you to dig below the surface of your answer and examine your unconscious drivers about work. I also would like to root out how the US culture as a whole views work.

At your typical social occasion what is the first question people ask you after “What is you name?” Is it not “What do you do?” Have you thought for a moment why that is so?

Why is it so important for others to know what job you have? Now I live part of the time in Mexico and the job question is seldom raised. People are more interested in my family, history, what sort of friend I will be to them.

What’s with the USA and it’s preoccupation with work? Think for a moment of persons who are going through the crisis of unemployment. Part of that crisis is obviously economic but as a psychologist who has consulted with people in such a transition it is also an identity crisis. More often than not personal value is pegged to the job that one does.

“What do you do?” then is tantamount to asking, “Who are you? What is your identity?” Even following retirement people identify themselves with what they used to do instead of how they are occupying themselves during retirement. I know people who dread retirement because they fear that when people ask them what they do they will not be able to give an adequate answer.

What are the dangers of fully identifying yourself with your profession?

How will you view yourself if you are suddenly cut off from your profession or work? What if you retire, become disabled, or get downsized? If any of these things happen to you, who are you?

If you are no longer identified primarily with your work does that mean that you are nothing? If you are relaxing on the beach, are you wasting time in making progress in your career?

I submit that you are much greater than the work that you do. You are a highly complex person with an enormous capacity to contribute to the world in innumerable ways that go beyond the work that you do now.

I was downsized once. And for 6 months I went through an identity crisis and depression because I had let my work define and therefore limit me.  I had to begin to find ways to discover other aspects of myself and not give my power away to my work.

Ask yourself:

Is the work-identity thing working for me? You may be stressed out to the max. There is little time to enjoy your family, be a part of your children’s development, enjoy the freedom or pursuing deeper relationships or developing different parts of yourself outside of work. Maybe you cannot even take a decent vacation because it gets in the way of your work.

Work becomes synonymous with Life and if we add to that the notion that in our work, we have to prove our worth again and again it is no wonder that people become workaholics.

Is your work in your current profession the only way you define yourself as a good and useful person? I was struck in reading the story of the transition that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter made after they left the White House. Following an initial period of malaise, they discovered a way they could contribute in the public service arena that was far wider than their respective positions in the White House. They founded the Carter Center.

If your answer to the first question is “no” and to the second question is “yes”, what can you do?

At the Individual Level

  1. Face the job-identity issue as a fact. Our deep unconscious cultural conditioning is not going to change quickly.
  2. Don’t wait for a crisis like a heart attack or divorce before you focus on other priorities like your health or relationships.
  3. Recognize the validity of retired people seeking careers or volunteer work in their later years.
  4. Slowly begin to focus on ways to expand your life beyond your job. This focus could be through meditation, yoga, art, or a connection with nature.

At the Corporate Level

1.     Make sure that we are always growing in our jobs.

2.     Find ways to keep the workforce inspired.

3.     See the importance of career path and leadership development.

4.     Do not ignore the crisis of unemployment in the USA.

5.     Recognize that we are a highly individualistic society and the drive to collaborate more effectively should not trump the aspiration for personal advancement.

In these ways “I work therefore I am” has to be neither a life limiting condition or a national curse at both a personal as well as a corporate level.

See also an  earlier blog “When Working Harder is Not Smarter”

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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