Thinking About Thinking

Why Do You Work?

Posted in Philosophy, Pop Culture, Venture Capital by larrycheng on June 2, 2009

This is a simple question that I started asking in interviews, especially with aspiring young VCs, a few years ago.  Most people come prepared to answer the question about why they want to work at this firm or why they want to work in this industry or in this job.  Those are important topics to discuss, but I am really asking a more fundamental question.  Forget this firm for a second, forget this industry, forget this job – “Why Do You Work?”

I first asked this question somewhat randomly, but found the answer so interesting, that I continued to ask it going forward.  I can’t say it’s one of those questions where I’m looking for a particular answer.  I ask it because I generally learn something about the person that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  I have also come to appreciate that it can be a deceptively tough question because it’s hard to pin down an answer that weathers even a little pressure testing.  For example:

Some will say that they work because they have to pay the bills.  This is clearly a fine and practical answer – and for many people it may in fact be the complete answer.  The obvious next question I ask is if they were independently wealthy, would they stop working?  For many people, after they think hard about it, they realize that they would still work.  Certainly our ecosystem has many examples of folks who could afford to stop working (or certainly stop working so hard), but don’t.  So, maybe money is not the full answer for them. 

Some people will say that they work because they like to learn.  This is also a reasonable answer.  The obvious next question is wouldn’t they learn more by doing something completely different in a different geography among different people, rather than staying on this track of building their resume along a logical and homogeneous career progression doing what they happen to already know they have competence in?  This response most people find hard to argue with.  So, maybe learning is not the full answer. 

Some people will say that they work because they enjoy it.  This is probably what I would have said if asked on the spot.  The obvious next question I ask is tell me all the things that you enjoy doing more than work.  Inevitably, most people have a list of a number of things they enjoy more than work (family, hobbies, service, recreation, etc.).  If it’s about enjoyment, then I ask why they would choose a demanding field like this which will require some real sacrifice of the things that they enjoy more?  It’s not really just about enjoyment is it? 

One of the most honest, self-aware answers I have heard to this question is, “I don’t know.  I have worked since I was a kid.  I worked as a teen.  I worked in school. I have never had a chance to even contemplate the idea of not working.  I don’t know anything else.” 

After hearing this and many other answers through the years, I am left with the impression that there’s a reason people work that sits above all of the specific reasons they give and ties them all together.  While at any given moment, answers like money, learning, enjoyment, or others may feel like and may in fact be the dominant reason – I think they all tie into a more subtle, constant, overarching reason why people work.  The impression I have is that people work because it gives them a sense of significance that would not otherwise be there. 

I think many times in my career, I have forgotten this point.  We think by organizing the right comp structures, the right bonus plans, etc. we are “motivating” people.  But, really, I think the better motivator and long-term retention vehicle is to give someone a sense of significance.  If someone feels significant, many other “important” things become secondary.  Given that, maybe I should change my question to: What gives you significance?  Never mind, that’s way too hard to fit that into an hour interview.