There was a viral video over the weekend from a young lady complaining about having to go to work. The basic gist of the video was that work is a waste of time and stops people from doing things they’d actually want to do. This might be a long-ish post, but it’s deeply intertwined in economics, life and discipline so grab a coffee or click that exit button depending on whether you’re in the mood to listen to an old man rant.1
When I visited Japan for the first time 10 years ago I was introduced to the term “sumimasen”. The word was regularly used in the context of saying “I am sorry”, but in Japanese culture it has a more specific purpose that inverts the intended meaning. It’s not really “I am sorry”. It’s “I am sorry for bothering you“. It’s not about the person who is sorry. It’s very specifically about other people. I found this to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of Japanese culture as so many things were about respecting other people instead of the westernized view of the world that is so much more individualistic and, frankly, selfish.
One of the worst narratives to come out of social media in the last 20 years is this idea that when you look for a job you should “do what you love”. I don’t want to blame the late great Steve Jobs, but he famously promoted this view and it’s gone viral ever since. When young people ask me for career advice I always tell them the inverse of this – don’t do what YOU will love. Do something that other people will love YOU for doing. This is, after all, how all great fortunes are made. Steve Jobs happened to do something he loved, but the real value in his work was that he created things that people loved him for. And this is true of all labor value. When you solve other people’s problems (whether it’s inventing amazing products or providing simple services) people compensate you for making their lives better. It’s not about doing what you love. It’s really about doing things other people love you for doing.2
Having children rewired my brain in a profound way. When you have kids you quickly embrace the reality that life isn’t about you anymore. It’s about other people. This happens in a lesser way when you get married or have pets, but children are the big wake up call in my experience. It’s a little sad that having kids was what made me realize this because I could have benefited from learning this lesson long before I ever had kids.
This became especially true for me in the scope of work and health. My income and longevity isn’t about me so much anymore. It’s for the benefit of my children. I have a responsibility and a duty to them to provide and be around long enough that they can grow into good and upstanding people who contribute positively to our world. And yes, earning more or getting in better shape will directly benefit me, but the pursuit of these things is no longer a selfish endeavor. It’s a selfless endeavor that just so happens to have a selfish benefit. But this rewiring of my brain also helped me embrace the reality that my work isn’t about me. It’s about other people. I try to help other people understand and navigate the financial world so they can spend more time focused on other things.
Humans are unique in the animal kingdom because we use a medium of exchange (MOE) in an organized economy, but the medium of exchange is just a tool that gives you optionality. You obtain that medium of exchange because, at the end of the day, you want to consume things that will improve your living standards. You don’t obtain that medium of exchange only because you enjoy obtaining the medium of exchange. You obtain that medium of exchange because it’s how you obtain the things that allow you to survive and improve your standing in the world. Similarly, a lion doesn’t hunt because he enjoys hunting. Well, maybe they’ve learned to enjoy it, but they don’t do it for sport. They do it because it’s their purpose for survival. You might not call hunting “work”, but I am pretty sure the lions feel like it’s work. If the lions all tried to “do what they love” all day they’d just sleep their lives away. Instead, lions hunt because they have a responsibility to help feed their family and themselves more indirectly. It’s not just about the individual need for work though. It’s about doing work that benefits others and just so happens to also have an indirectly selfish benefit. Human work is really no different. And the better you are at certain things the more valuable you’ll be perceived by others.
Importantly, at an economic level, this process is also what gives the medium of exchange value. If lions could just print up antelope carcasses the process of obtaining carcasses would have no value. The carcasses themselves would be devalued because there’d be no scarcity. Similarly, when we create the medium of exchange and use it to build valuable products that make other people better off the medium of exchange retains value because this helps create value for it by increasing the demand for it as you use the medium of exchange to create things that other people want. If we just print up medium of exchange without the corresponding resources then we create the same sort of environment where lions can print up antelope carcasses. “Work” takes on no value and the supply of MOE outpaces the supply of resources in a way that results in devaluation. And as a species that relies on using the MOE we could all benefit from realizing that work isn’t really about pleasure, but purpose.
Of course, in a perfect world you find something you enjoy doing for work or at least something that interests you, but in the aggregate work exists because other people have problems that they either cannot solve or do not want to solve. And so we rely on other people to do those things so that we can focus on other things that we’re more skilled to handle. And when you invert this understanding I think you not only make other people better off in the long-run, but you also inadvertently make yourself more valuable in the long-run. And that not only gives us personal purpose, but adds value to the aggregate economy in a way that makes us all better off in the long run.
[OLD MAN ENDS RANT]
1 – I’ll let you search out the video if you’d like, but I don’t want to personally shame this person. This isn’t about any single person after all. It’s about a broader social narrative.
2 – Marx viewed labor as a commodity, which I’ve always found to be a flawed perspective. Yes, I think some capitalists view their workers as commodities, but that too is a flawed view. Workers are not just commodities. They are the people creating the goods and services that make people’s lives better. This isn’t some abstract existence. It’s a deeply personal part of our connection as human beings and I believe capitalists could benefit from recognizing that their workers aren’t just commodities, but integral pieces of this human connection that makes our society function better.
NB – All of this is especially important in the context of retirement. One of the hardest parts about retirement is that people will stop doing the thing that made them feel valuable to other people. This can be a very difficult psychological and financial hurdle and I always try to urge people to ease into retirement or perhaps not retire at all (or find some purpose that replaces their prior work).