Why We Work

Why We Work

I’ve seen the modern 9 to 5 job called “barbaric” and “slavery” in the last week alone. It’s like a shot in the back to the millions of hard-working people who get up every morning and head to work to keep this economy rolling. Sure, there are plenty of days I despise the drudgery of modern work, and I’m taking steps to leave it behind someday, but to denigrate an entire class of working people reeks of entitlement.

Since I first saw the above statements I have commuted to my office job several times and received a neatly deposited paycheck for doing so. I now type this article on a computer purchased with previous paychecks. I sit in a warm and comfortable home paid for, again, by those same paychecks. I returned a few days ago from a ski trip with my kids, paid for … you get the idea. Does that sound like slavery to you?

However, I do understand the sentiment behind such bold statements, though I do disagree with their ‘made for Twitter’ exaggerations. There has been a growing movement over the years to “escape the rat race”. I have felt it too. This longing that we were meant for more than mundane, meaningless office work. That we should have freedom to explore our deeper desires and find our true callings. It’s a valid feeling, but nonetheless blaming the rat race for our own decisions is pure projection.

The Grass Isn’t Greener

I’ve spent many long days in fluorescent lit offices daydreaming about being the lawn guy outside, working with his hands, getting sun, and seeing the fruits of his labor in a wall groomed lawn. Ah, the jealousy. Of course, the true realization comes when you find out he’s daydreaming about being in the air-conditioned office with the free coffee, thinking to himself “I should’ve gone to college.” So, what drives our near universal dissatisfaction with work, and how do we fix it?

We must figure out why we work and keep that front and center every day. I was watching Boy Meets World (a great 90s sitcom) with my daughter this week and a particular scene hit me. Alan (the Dad) is telling Corey about the dreams he had for his own future when he was a teen. None of them involved being a grocery store manager, his current profession. But he said something else more important. “Corey, once I got married and had kids my dreams changed. My dreams involved providing for my family, and that’s what I do.” He said this with a certain amount of pride and contentment.

Many of our jobs can feel pointless and unsatisfying, but first it’s important to remember your “why”. Are you providing food and shelter for your spouse and kids? Are you working your way through college? Are you working to pay for your kids’ college? Whatever the reason, it’s likely more important than you give yourself credit for. Remember when you put your shoes on each morning to consider *why* you’re doing it. Picture it. Put something there near your shoes to remind you. You’re doing it for something, even if it’s your own independence.

An Honest Day

We have made work out to be more than it needs to be. Work doesn’t have to be a source of great meaning in our lives. The meaning is in the reason we earn. We can use work to support other meaningful endeavors and hobbies. Work is a means to an end. To me, the workday feels lighter and more airy when I know I am headed home to work on my favorite hobby, or meet with a group of friends, for example. Finding passion and purpose in a day job is more unlikely than we’d like to believe. Let’s not overcomplicate a simple transaction of time for money that benefits both the employer and employee.

We must also do good work. Much of our dissatisfaction at work comes from not giving it a full and honest effort. Nearly any type of work, no matter how mundane, can become satisfying when we master it. Passion often follows competence. Becoming an expert at what it is you do can be very satisfying. Becoming the person others turn to, the “expert” in your field, can bring that much desired fulfilment we’ve been looking for. In my latest newsletter I talked about how crushing your day job can unlock success in many areas of life. Giving it your all is the surest path to breaking the stasis.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we come to a point where we know our current profession isn’t right for us and we must move on. There is nothing wrong with that. Someone said to me recently that when they finally left an ill-fitting job that it was a big relief because it freed that job up for someone who would enjoy and excel at it. That was important. If our job is a drag no matter what we do, then let’s start taking steps to leave it. Let’s not sit back and complain and hope our situation changes. Do something about it. Do good and honest work, then come home and work on our escape plans. Discontent without action is misery.

No matter which direction we decide to go in, we should embrace it. We shouldn’t spend a single day of this beautiful life complaining or thinking that our situation is akin to slavery (narrator: it’s not). Let’s go to work with some humility and gratitude for the opportunity to provide for those we love. Whether in self-employment or employed by others, let’s be thankful for the health to work another day, recognizing that the only prison is in our own minds, and that escape might be as simple as taking a deep breath and remembering why we work.

Read more at markallanbovair.substack.com.


  1. I appreciate this article. I was someone who had the good fortune to be in a field I liked. That doesn’t mean I liked everything about it, but I mostly enjoyed the work. Sadly, part of that work as a school counselor was talking to kids about careers. The trend is to encourage kids to “find their bliss” in their career. To find what they love and do it. It’s never about filling a financial need to take care of themselves and their families so they can do they things they love outside of their job. The idea seems to be that work is the end all, be all of life. When did this start? When did the job become the source of fulfillment instead of the family, instead of relationships, instead of the Church?
    Work should be a means to an end. I’ve lived in Germany for the last 10 years. People go to work for their 40 hours/week and then go home. They sit out on their balconies with their friends, laughing into the evening. They go for walks in the woods and parks with their families. Family groups sit together in beer gardens and at outdoor cafes, spending several hours eating together. Their lives do not revolve around work, but around their relationships and leisure. Their work simply provides them the means to do this.
    We Americans could learn a lot from this. There is a lot I would do differently as a school counselor if I could do it over.

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