What is the purpose of work?

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The question of “What is the purpose of work?” is really important. And it’s probably worth it for all of us to think about how we would ideally make a living for ourselves, and if we should choose our work based on money, happiness, fun, helping people, purpose, or social status?

I was watching this YouTube video by Ali Abdaal of him talking about leaving medicine forever, and was captivated by his introduction talk about the purpose of work. He listed five purposes for work which are: 

  1. Money
  2. Fun
  3. Helping People
  4. Purpose/Meaning
  5. Social Status

I’d say that I fully agree that these are the purpose of work. 

Let’s go into them all a bit further, and explore some ideas around them.

1. Money

We need money to survive. And we get money from working. So, it’s not a secret to anyone that one of the biggest purposes of work is to earn money so that we can continue living.

All the other purposes of working (having fun, helping people, feeling purpose and meaning, social status) can come from other sources than working. You can volunteer to help people, go and do fun things outside of work, and create and do meaningful things without earning any money from it.

However, one interesting idea here to think about is that many people who are financially independent (who don’t need to work to survive), still choose to work. So, clearly, even though we can get the other purposes of work from outside of work, it may for a variety of reasons be easier to combine them into work.

One reason for that is probably because work is such an integrated part of modern society and the normal lifestyle. It may be hard to be fully integrated into society and with other humans if we live too different lives. By working, even if we don’t need to earn more money, we conform to society’s norms, other people see us as one of them, we are not outside of society. We can talk about our work at parties or other social gatherings, we can relate to common topics other working people are discussing. 

2. Fun

Some people experience intrinsic fun and enjoyment from their work. For example, if you work as a graphic designer and love to design things, or if you work with flower arrangements and you really love putting together flowers, or if you work as a researcher and love the intellectual challenge and learning new things.

We may also have fun while working because of the social contact and jokes we tell with our colleagues. If we have friends at work, laugh a lot, and have fun together while working, then of course work will give us enjoyment. And there’s also this feeling of working together with others to create something that we can be proud of that can give us a sense of enjoyment.

There’s also this thing with having something to fill up your time with. Many people get restless from not working. Whether it be a long time voluntary or involuntarily unemployed, going into retirement, or a very long vacation. And even if we have hobbies or enjoy watching Netflix, most people don’t find it very enjoyable to “have to” do their hobbies for 10 hours a day, or watch Netflix for 10 hours a day, every day. At least not after a few weeks.

So, work can also be fun in the sense that it helps us kill time, and occupy ourselves. 

3. Helping people

Another common purpose of work is the personal satisfaction one gets from the feeling of helping other people. We enjoy feeling like we are good people, who do kind and good things, which puts us in a better light. And the reason for such values can be both evolutionary (altruism in groups helps humans survive better) or an effect of current societal ideologies.

But then there’s also the question of if we are helping the maximum number of people as we possibly could, with the work we are doing? Or is there a more impactful way we could spend our time, resulting in even more people being helped? 

For example, I think it’s interesting to think about how many of our modern-day jobs and work duties (especially in the tech industry) don’t give direct help in other people’s lives. Yeah, designing and building new software, application, or expanding the internet may have many positive effects in other people’s lives in the long term, but could we be spending our time working with things that offer more immediate help to others? And do we want to? Do we need to?

4. Purpose & Meaning

In our western world, a lot of people get their sense of purpose and meaning in life from the work they do. This is probably in large part because of secularity, whereas if you believe strongly in religion you might instead find your life’s purpose and meaning from god or something other-worldly.

And so if you don’t believe that your life has a higher purpose (in a religious sense), you may instead find that purpose and meaning from helping other people and contributing to building a better world. The easiest way of doing that is through just getting a job and working, building something that other people seem to value (because they give you money for your work). And so if you both feel like you are helping people through your work, at the same time as you feel like the people around you agree that you are doing something meaningful, then you’ll experience meaning from your work.

In addition, work can make you feel like you are progressing and growing (in your skills and for example by gaining higher work titles). If you don’t have something else you value in life, then that sense of progression and growth can become the central focus of your existence.

5. Social Status

Unfortunately, in our modern capitalistic world, a lot of people judge others based on work titles, material possessions, and capital ownership. Especially if they themselves value those things. And so, to look good and gain higher social status in the eyes of those people, we may feel like we need to have a nice-sounding career title and wear our success on the outside to gain respect.

And that I think is a very real purpose of work for a lot of people. 

Having a “good” job in our society may make other people treat you better, with more respect, and listen to you more. You may immediately be more included socially and people close to you may feel a sense of pride for your achievements (especially parents in some cultures).

But I think that this is changing, at least for the younger generation. I feel like more and more people are seeing that we are not our jobs, we are not our titles or materialistic possessions, we are just human beings, a part of this universe as everything else is.  And work should not define the value of a living being.

What do you actually want to do with your life?

So, how can we decide on what we want to work with and what we want the purpose of our lives to be? I think the best way is to answer hard questions about ourselves and our deepest wants and values. Here are a couple of questions that help me get more clarity in my ideal life and work:

  • What does your ideal self look like? What does that person do from day to day? How does that person act?
  • What does your ideal ordinary week or day look like?
  • What do you want to be remembered for on your deathbed?
  • If money and education didn’t matter, what would you do?
  • If you were fully 100% financially independent, what would you spend your time doing?
  • What are your values? What do you think is important in life before we die?
  • What people do you admire? Living or dead. What is it with those people that you admire?
  • If you knew that you would die in two days/two weeks/two years from now, what would you start spending your days doing?

Perhaps, after answering these questions, you’ll have a clearer picture of what you would do with your life if you didn’t purely work for money.

What do you think? Do you think our purpose in life should come from our work or not?

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