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. 

22 Responses

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  1. Cory Armbrecht said, on June 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I have often thought about this question as well and what I would say. Sure I’d love to just be with my family and do all my hobbies and visit many places- but where would my goals be? It comes down to goals. Work gives me goals to accomplish and I think that is an integral part of my life- I need goals. I’d probably become to restless without them!

  2. David Esrati said, on June 2, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Larry, I’m not sure I’ve ever worked a day in my life-
    I live with gusto. I have a passion for changing the world- so, no matter what I’m doing- from creating value for clients with great advertising, marketing, branding or web 2.0 goodness- or cleaning gutters on a rental in my neighborhood- I’m doing something to make the world a better place.
    Although I’m not religious, the saying that the supreme being never gives us more than we can handle, sort of resonates with me. When times get tough (like now) I just push harder to do more with less.
    Running for office 7 times hasn’t paid me a dime in the way of money. I do it because I believe that ideas can change the world. Call me crazy, call me happy, call me if you want to do something amazing- but, none of it is work.

    • larrycheng said, on June 2, 2009 at 4:56 pm

      Love it David! That’s a great attitude. I think the verse you’re referring to is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

  3. Ernie Johnston, iNet2.Tv said, on June 2, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    create a Sense of Accomplishment – Ernie Johnston
    earn Admiration – Willard Harley, His Needs – Her Needs
    Leave a Legacy – Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

    • larrycheng said, on June 2, 2009 at 4:57 pm

      Ernie – I read 7 Habits what seems like decades ago. What a shelf life for that one. I’ll check out the other ones.

  4. Edgar Arvizu said, on June 2, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    I regularly ask this same question, but more so to my friends and colleagues. It’s a great way to get to know them better.

    I also ask them this question:

    “If it didn’t matter, at all, what people thought, and if money was not an issue: Would you still be doing what you are doing? What would you really be doing?”

    You’d be amazed at the answers. People inhibit so many ideas, so much passion, and creativity.

    I believe the “sense of significance” that you point to, ultimately ties to people’s natural pursuits for living fulfilling lives, which I believe are earned through gratifying work, play, and positive relationships.

    Joshua Wolf Shenk just published an article on George Vaillant’s research on happiness, which I believe in some ways relates to your interview questions ( Two other books that may be of interest are: 1) “The Element” by Sir Ken Robinson, and 2) “Curious” by Todd Kashdan.

  5. John Greene said, on June 2, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    You know, you and I never talked about this, Larry, but the whole reason I quit my job last year was that I no longer felt significant within the organization. It wasn’t so much that I felt disrespected or unappreciated, though those were certainly major aspects of how I felt, but moreso, I just felt like I wasn’t living up to my own capabilities. In a sense, I felt like I was letting myself down by just sitting there and flipping spark spreads and dispatching power plants. So I quit.

    Certainly, I was lucky to have (and still have) a working (and very understanding) spouse with a very good job who afforded me the luxury of being able to quit and still be able to pay the bills, but sometimes I think that having that luxury contributed to my feelings of insignificance just a little bit, if that makes any sense.

    Nonetheless, I quit and started my own company, and even though the money isn’t quite the same yet almost exactly a year later, it’s getting close now and I’m much happier and feel much more fulfilled. Working really is work if it’s not enjoyable, no matter how much money you make.

    • larrycheng said, on June 2, 2009 at 9:57 pm

      John – thanks for sharing. I commend you for having the cajones to go off on your own and start a company. Working for yourself is like nothing else I’m sure. Reminds me of my parents actually. Kudos to you.

  6. Gene Schoepp said, on June 2, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Howdy! Long time reader, first time poster. 🙂

    I work because while you can play with technology forever in the lab – be that lab your home, a white board, or in your head – without every really testing it or generating a significant result. The proof of the pudding is in the taste, and in my line of work, the tasting occurs when the technology infrastructure produces a material business result. I once got thrown out of the interview process at a technology company because I told a very senior manager that technology for technology’s sake was worthless, that applying it to real world challenges was what mattered. That didn’t go over well, and twenty years later I’m going strong and they’ve gone Chapter 11 and disappeared. Hmmm….

    Enjoy the blog, Larry. Keep up the thought provoking discourse!


    • larrycheng said, on June 2, 2009 at 9:55 pm

      Hey long time first time! 🙂 Kudos to you for building technology that actually does something of value – and I can personally attest – it’s wicked good technology. Thanks for the feedback!

  7. Tan A K said, on June 3, 2009 at 12:53 am

    I don’t. I’m still looking for work. lol 😀

    Seriously though, I think you brought home a very important point Larry. The sense of being significant. And with it comes a string of various other reasons. So “being significant” might just be a good summary of why people work, of why I want to work.

    Throughout my time in school, my “work” has been defined by what I do for various school organizations as well as for the academe. I did “work” because I knew I was highly capable. I knew I could contribute. I knew I could add value. And all of that point to the idea of making things better, not only for me, but also to the other people who were a part of my work. Whether it meant raising funds for planned events, or spending days and nights working on my thesis, or trying to juggle both, for me it meant having an understanding of the bigger picture and the very reasons I decided to take on those work in the first place.

    If I was to speak strictly of corporate work or any other paying kind of work, then I don’t think I would be much different from the other people and their stated reasons for working.

    I am in it for the money because I want to live a comfortable life and travel and while the work I might get early on might not be as high-paying as investment bankers, one day, I’d like to believe I’ll get there.

    I am in it because it’s the work I want to do. It is my passion and it is the only thing I can imagine doing. I understand many people work simply to get by but I think more than that, it is important that people pursue what they love most because it makes for better work and a more satisfying life.

    I am in it because I hope to be able to one day contribute to the society, whether it is precisely through the work that I do or the monetary compensation I receive and am able to freely share without compromising or sacrificing my own lifestyle.

    And the many other reasons: I like being relied on, and accomplishing things, and being busy, even occasionally being stressed, and being professional, and being recognized, and pleasing people, and pleasing myself.

    Going back to your point of having that sense of significance, I believe it encapsulates all I’ve stated above. Maybe it’s only a matter of whose perspective you’re taking. 🙂

  8. Jeffrey Lu said, on June 3, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Great post Larry. I’ve been thinking about the same topic lately and your post inspired me to write one regarding the topic.

    I find it interesting that whenever I head back to NYC and get together with my fellow bankers, a lot of the analysts talk about how they wish they were laid-off like their other colleagues so that they can collect their severance and unemployment. I think this economy has made a lot of people think hard about their careers and the direction they want to manage it.

    I think that’s a great question to ask junior VC candidates. Junior VCs don’t bring enough experience, nor do they have a big rolodex to help portfolio companies. Where they bring value is being hungry and really get after it with sourcing deals and learning the ecospace.

    • larrycheng said, on June 3, 2009 at 11:29 pm

      Jeffrey – I read your post. Good stuff, thanks for following. Agreed that young VCs can bring a lot of value.

  9. Jay Levitt said, on June 3, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    “the better motivator is to give someone a sense of significance”: Yes, yes, yes!

    It’s not for the compensation matrix, it’s not for the IPO-financed BMWs, and thanks to shirt.woot it’s not even for the project-milestone T-shirts anymore.

    I work for one reason: I want to change the world again.

    • larrycheng said, on June 3, 2009 at 11:31 pm

      I love your answer – you want to change the world. But, I noticed the “again”. How’d you change the world the first time if you don’t mind me asking?

      • Jay Levitt said, on June 4, 2009 at 5:41 pm

        Well, I can’t take ALL the credit for changing the world… 🙂 Or any, really. But “we” did.

        In 1989, I somehow got myself hired at a startup whose audacious mission statement was “To create a global medium as central to people’s lives as television – but even more valuable.” And then we did.

        In fact, I think that led to our demise. For all the talk in Great Business Books about mission statements, I have never seen anyone address this one: What happens when you fulfill it?

        If I’m lucky, I’ll get to worry about that again.

  10. Desmond Pieri said, on June 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Larry, I guess I’m “normal” in that the first few answers that came to mind were those you mentioned: to pay the bills; to learn (which I get a lot of doing interim assignments in wildly different industries); because I enjoy it. And you’re right that “I don’t know” is probably the honest answer for most of us. But I like your “gives me a sense of significance.” People want to feel significant. I mentioned when we met that in the turn arounds I’ve done, the turn arounds are really achieved not by me but by key people — usually individual contributors — already at the firm who “rise to the occasion” and do wonders to fix the place. After reading your post, I realize that for most of them it was probably your “sense of significance” that motivated them. I’ll always remember how taking the factory floor at the medical products company n Belfast away from the guy who had run it into the ground and giving it to a mom returning to the work force after a dozen years solved all our problems. She was far better at juggling conflicting priorities than he! And for her I bet it was how important this turn around made her feel that caused her to work so hard. Des

  11. Eric Navales said, on June 4, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Let’s look at your question in a slightly different light by first defining “work”. In the pejorative sense, “work” provides large material benefit but very little psychological benefit… this is working for work’s sake, paying the bills, bringing home the bacon. This is the work that career advisors, mentors and Oprah urge us to avoid, the work that some of us, for better or worse, now have an opportunity to leave behind us.

    Then there’s the broader definition of “work”, which is essentially anything other than “leisure”. If you are working on a “labor of love”, answering a “call of duty”, or in some fashion “giving back”, then this is still “work”, although it has clear psychological / emotional / spiritual as well as material (maybe) benefits.

    Now draw a Venn diagram of these two definitions, where the first is purely enveloped by the second. I would label the inner circle “work”, while the donut could be labeled “Work”. Somewhere in this annulus area of Work is the sweetspot, the occupational Nirvana, where we are recompensed for our efforts with adequate material as well as psychological benefits. This is clearly Work, but it is no longer work.

    With this framework in mind, let’s revisit your question. “Why do you work?” now has a new meaning, and brings with it a corollary question “Why don’t you Work?”. If you want to spark some serious introspection, throw that doozie out there at your next interview.

    • larrycheng said, on June 5, 2009 at 7:02 am

      Eric – my head is spinning, and I needed to look up the word annulus. 🙂 You’re going to have to send me this venn diagram. !

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