Why Work?

There's a German word I learned many years ago that I think you need to know. It's zeitgeist. It's a word from philosophy that helps draw your attention to a force of human existence you normally don't focus on. Roughly translated it could be interpreted as the, "spirit of the age," or more verbosely as a way of characterizing the dominant social narrative of an epoch in history. A deep flowing undercurrent on which everything in discourse and culture is built.

I think it's important because I've been seeing a trend in discourse around work that kind of bums me out. To lay my context out, I've been a professional software developer for over a decade now. I've been programming and tinkering with computers for something like two and a half decades. I'm one of those naive people who followed the awful advice to, Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life.

For the record, my experience is that advice is a road to destroying something you love if you don't know what you're doing. Unfortunately you generally don't know what you're doing until you accidentally burn your passion to the ground, realize it's called burnout, then begin the long process of figuring out how to deal with the ashes.

Doing anything for money universally perverts that thing. You may still find enjoyment in it from time to time, but it's not like your passion generates any money on its own. You'll be forced through things you'd normally just get bored of and you'll often be forced to compromise in the name of profit and mass appeal. In any venture larger than self-employment or perhaps a family business, you'll be forced to work with people with awful taste and substandard skill who consider themselves your superior, constantly subverting and debasing your most creative and passionate work. We have a good idea from psychology that when you feel forced to endure something without control you enter a state of learned helplessness.

The hidden truth of the statement is that to be a leader in any career you need to pick something you want to practice in your spare time. It leaves out that you should pick something that affords a wide range of pay based on skill (not luck), preferably one that requires licensing, in a boring field, that sees routine capital investment even in downturn. Think of it like an old fashioned marriage without divorce. You're going to end up bound to something you've lost the passion for. See if you can pick so even that's not a problem.

The Current Zeitgeist

The problem with the current zeitgeist I mentioned earlier is that we may have entered a feedback loop. The internet has brought many people into contact with the understanding that the world is deeply unfair. It's controlled by a tiny number of people who control most of the power and that power is used to exploit most people only to amass yet more power. You're not going to get to join that club because your parents, and their parents, and so forth weren't in it.

After the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement became backlash fueled by a roughly 50x growth in Twitter usage and Twitter Places. The results were opposite and both regressive. In one you had states that lacked institutions robust enough to impose control which lead to instability, violence, and one of the largest refugee crises in history. The other, with vast resources capable of containing the situation thanks to an ever growing arsenal of surveillance capabilities managed to douse the situation and suppress it. Like many forest fires these were either out of control or extinguished leaving the dead wood around to fester.

In countries that avoided revolution, these events fundamentally altered the zeitgeist. A decade later you'd get the Great Resignation, Tang Ping (lay flat), the sense (both real and imagined) that aspirations like home ownership are impossible, and that your actions basically don't matter.

In short, you too may as well exploit the system because hard work's for suckers.

I don't think a system trying to be built entirely on exploitation is likely to produce enough for everyone to exploit. This leads to decreasing productivity which results in further falls in living conditions, which exacerbate disillusion, increasing exploitation, and so on. On the bright side, it is a feedback loop that can't go on forever. At some point enough people give up trying to improve things and at that point something else kicks in to correct it. Could be mass famine, foreign invasion, internal revolution, who knows.

What are you getting at?

What was that about burnout? Well that's what my thesis is getting at, why work? More precisely, why do you work? There's a reason every company has a mission statement. It's because defining why you are doing anything is more important for long term success than the fact that you are doing something.

To avoid the nihilism you need to begin to understand why you're working in the first place. Like any mission statement, there are no right answers. I think too many people work for the same reason they have kids or get married. It's just a part of the expected ladder to life. Many people have lost touch with what can really align their interests with society. There's real power in having a feeling of progress, self determination, control, and improvement. Getting there is going to require a lot of change though.

There's this idea I hear from time to time that assumes culture is something imposed. It often comes up in the context of corporate culture, but it's far broader. It's this idea that fundamentally, your actions don't matter. Yet again and again, in the many social circles I frequent, I see demonstration that your actions matter far more than you think. From the most isolated shut in, to a public figure with a following of billions. Your actions matter.

A culture is the product of the observations other people make about your actions and the observations you make about the actions of others around you. The actions matter but are indirect. Like seeing someone walking around town cleaning up cigarette butts or someone else yelling at people. Both in their own way nudge the culture. They reinforce preconceptions about what it means to be in that community. They encourage similar actions and discourage subversion of the trend. The more often you encounter something, the more normal it seems. Normal is how most people try to act in the presence of others. Normal is based on experience though. Normal and thus appropriate are in flux thanks to fashions, taboos, rituals, and beliefs.

Reason to Work

This is what I'm getting at when I say you need to think about why you work. What is it that makes you want to get out of bed every day and work? Everyone needs money, but money for money's sake is not going to make you happy. So why are you working? Let me give you some examples of why you might work.

Maybe you work to improve the world for future generations. There's a poem I love called The Bridge Builder by Will Allen Dromgoole that captures this beautifully.

Perhaps instead you just like solving problems for other people. Making people happy makes us happy.

Some of us want a bid at immortality. To "leave your mark" and legacy. Many great works were built for ego and prestige, both good and bad. Maybe career success is the measure by which you judge yourself. Achievements and accolades to line your wall and testament.

Others work for the necessities of survival. Work is but a means to an end like travel, hobbies, family, volunteering, building, art, relaxation, and retirement.

Some people work for the same reason they rent, to amass enough capital (social, financial, etc.) to afford to gamble on their own venture. Start their own business and work at building their own dreams rather than the dreams of others.

For some people, work is a place they make friends as an adult. There can be a real sense of family at some companies. A place where tough times bring on self sacrifice instead of self preservation. Just be careful of those who'd use your loneliness for their own gain.

There are some jobs that bring with them a wealth of opportunities for new experiences and possibilities. You could work to explore and grow. To spend your time amassing fascinating stories, and memories that last a lifetime. To challenge yourself and push your boundaries.

It doesn't matter why you work, only that you have a reason that you actually want to succeed at. Something beyond the control of your employer or those around you. Something self-actualized in the world.


Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.