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Why we work says a lot about who we are

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: September 4, 2006

It’s Labor Day, the traditional holiday that honors workers,and gives them a welcome day off. So while you’re taking a rest at a picnic or ballgame or BBQ, spend a few minutes thinking about why you work so hard! I spent the past week asking that question of all sorts of people: executives and entrepreneurs, waiters and sales clerks, young people and senior citizens. Try asking the people around you today, and you’re bound to start an interesting conversation. That’s what happened every time I brought up the question: Why do you work?

The obvious answer is: I work to pay the bills. Those bills seem to mount up every year as more and more purchases become expensive necessities of life. In spite of low official inflation figures, many things cost more these days. And the important things such as college, medical expenses and energy, cost a lot more. But the people I talked to were willing to add more of an explanation for why they work.

The challengeAn entrepreneur said he works to “win.” He went on to explain that every project he gets for his company is a victory. The challenge motivates him every day. My guess is that at his age and stage in life, he could stop working. It never occurs to him. Work is an important part of his life.

You’re lucky if you work at a job that gives expression to your passion. That’s a compensation that many find more important than money. Unfortunately, too many jobs that demand passion pay relatively little. Nurses should get our appreciation, as well as a larger paycheck. Professional athletes inspire our passion, but are their outsized paychecks commensurate with their contributions?

A group of executives and professionals gave me a wide range of reasons why they work.

One cited “the challenge of building something big, and working with people I like.” Another executive who surely makes more than a living wage said she keeps working because of the challenge of being part of a high performance team, a team built on trust and mutual respect.

Those who work in creative fields cited intangibles such as “figuring out the need and filling it” or “making a difference in people’s lives.”

A corporate lawyer works “to make a difference from the inside.” Another works for “the intellectual challenge of getting it right.”

A waiter said without hesitation, “I work to pay the bills, but I only work part-time because I also use the money to pay for my educa- tion.”

A senior citizen said he works for the health insurance. Medicare doesn’t cover everything.

An educator said she works “to help create a viable work force for the future to keep our city great, and to change the life of each child, making a difference in getting them out of the cycle of poverty.”

Would these people work harder for more money? I doubt it.

Money is the obvious way our society measures the value of work. The gap between executive pay and worker’s pay has been widely discussed.

The average CEO of a major corporation received $9.84 million in total compensation in 2004, according to an AFL-CIO study. Business Week found similar numbers in a 2004 study showing that the average CEO pay raise was 11.3 percent, dwarfing the average worker, whose pay increased just 2.9 percent, to $33,176 per year.

But do those salary figures accurately measure the value of the work we perform?

Does money equal happiness?And the big question: Does earning more money mean you’re contributing more, or even that you’re a happier person?

The answers are obvious: Absolutely not.

If you love your work, and if you get up every morning looking forward to the day, and if you’re paid enough to give you the things you value in life, then you can smile as you respond to the question: Why do you work?

And if you can’t smile, maybe it’s time to take a personal inventory of what you’re best at, and what you like best. Perhaps you can find, or create, another kind of work that not only pays the bills, but makes you happier and more fulfilled. Work is such a huge part of your life that it’s worth a try. And that’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.

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