Why do we work?

If you are like me, you have been taught in your childhood that in order to succeed in life, you had to work hard. You’ve learned that the money you need to fulfill your needs and desires had to be earned at the expense of great effort.

You’ve been told you had to go to University, build a career, covet a job in a prestigious company that pays its employees very well.  Go to work every day, get your tasks done and fill your time sheet.  Earn a salary in exchange of your working hours.

This conception of hourly wage is so anchored in our way of thinking that it scrambles our sight.  Without realizing it, we forsake some of our potential, or even worse, we give it away to our employer.

When you are at work, you earn 20, 30, or 40 dollars an hour. At any other moment of the day you earn nothing.  Zero. Has it ever happened to you to think about your job outside working hours? Probably. Maybe those energies you spend outside of work contribute to your professional success.  If you are like me, it did happen to you quite often to find the solution to a work-related problem while you were asleep, waking up in the morning with the fuzzy feeling you finally solved the annoying problem you had.  And all the time that you spend working out at the gym or the care you take to eat healthier food, aren’t these important factors that positively influence your productivity at the workplace? But your employer doesn’t pay you for these actions you take outside work.  Only hours spent on the job really count.

On the other hand, is it possible that sometimes, your productivity on the job isn’t as good as it could be?  Friday afternoon, your are happily delighted at the upcoming weekend.  Or some other day, a severe pain in the neck prevents you of accomplishing as much work as you usually do.  Your employer pays you the exact same amount for those unproductive hours.

Some hours are more productive, some are less. You tell yourself that globally, on the average, nobody looses.  However this might not be the case.  You probably lose much more that you are willing to admit.

The truth is, working for somebody else is alienating.  It deprives us from a part of our freedom.  Once we’re stuck in the system, it becomes increasingly difficult to take a step back, because all our energies are funneled in our work.  We become accustomed to the steady money flow and this acts as a pair of handcuffs.  When the rare holidays come up, we feel the need to clear up our mind and we don’t take that opportunity to reevaluate our situation.  The fear of losing what we’ve earned so far paralyze us. 

However, if we took a step back, we would realize why we work.  A paid job brings us a certain level of security, a relative comfort.  Under the terms of a contract between us and our employer, we agree to fix a constant monetary value to an hour of our work.  Human nature is so that we voluntarily trade some of our freedom for a bit of security.

But in reality, our hour of work is probably worth more than our employer is paying us for it.  Or else the big companies of this world wouldn’t make so much profits (and we don’t blame them for doing so).  In some ways companies have more freedom than their paid employees.

We should erase from our mind that we need to provide a unit of time or effort to obtain money.  We should instead strive to create value

Companies and their shareholders understood this right from the start.  How do we estimate the value of a company like Coca-Cola? Sure, it does have great sums of liquidities, important amounts of real estate, factories and equipments.  But its greatest value certainly doesn’t reside in tangible assets.  Its distribution network and the brands it possesses are its real value. How much hours of work do you need to create a brand like Coke or Sprite?  It’s impossible to say.  We can’t quantify a brand name in terms of hours of work, although it certainly has a value (defined by the stock market in the case of Coca-Cola).


If instead of going to work each morning you decided to spend your time relaxing, having fun and enjoying life.  Then suddenly an idea – a single one – came to your mind. A revolutionary idea that could potentially make your employer win (or save) millions of dollars.  What if, in that single minute of your time, you contribute to create more value for your employer than you could generate for yourself by working at hourly wage during your whole life !

This seems to be too good to be true.  Admittedly it’s usually not so simple, but certainly not unrealistic. Just think of the tremendous success of YouTube.com, a website created by two friends Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, which sold 18 months after its birth for the impressive sum of 1.6 billion dollars.  It would be absurd to think that those two young fellows could have reached the same result by working for somebody else.  Which employer would have paid them 1.5 million dollars a day from the start?

This example is a little extreme but is only intended to illustrate my point.  Such a success is indeed extremely rare.  But fortunately, a more modest success is definitely achievable by most people.

By working for an employer, you trade your potential against income safety.  You good ideas won’t benefit yourself but your boss, your company and its shareholders.  You could certainly expect a nice promotion or a large end-of-year bonus out of it.  But you would still leave behind a part of your freedom.