3 Things We Work For

Work by Sean MacEntee

28 Jan 3 Things We Work For

Our concept of work is to be employed by an organisation. This history of work is quite a recent invention; it happened during the Industrialisation Period where it was made famous by Henry Ford, who must have read The Wealth of Nations and have mastered Adam Smith’s concept of division of labor. Henry Ford built a never-be-seen assembly line split into 84 steps to make the Ford Model T. Workers are trained to specialise in one step. They do that and nothing else. They became very proficient and the assembly of the entire car was achieved at the shortest time possible.

Fast forward to today, such assembly lines still exist, but with robots replacing most of the manual labour. Education level has risen and more workers prefer to work at service industries. Unfortunately, the workers cannot escape the Adam Smith’s clutches; organisations are structured in departments and hierarchy, each specialising in a specific part of a work process.

In fact, Dan Ariely discovered through his experiments that humans are more motivated to work when they are involved in the whole process of the production (his work can be found in The Upside of Irrationality or this short Ted article). He argued that Adam Smith made sense in the Industrialisation Period, but irrelevant in the Knowledge Economy. This might be the reason why most employees seem to be unhappy at work, because they couldn’t see the meaning in what they do. The following 7 points from the Ted article highlighted his findings

  1. Seeing the fruits of our labor may make us more productive
  2. The less appreciated we feel our work is, the more money we want to do it
  3. The harder a project is, the prouder we feel of it
  4. Knowing that our work helps others may increase our unconscious motivation
  5. The promise of helping others makes us more likely to follow rules
  6. Positive reinforcement about our abilities may increase performance
  7. Images that trigger positive emotions may actually help us focus

I love to simplify things. To sum it up, I will categorise work into three levels.

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Level 1 – Working For Money

This is the lowest level of work.

Come on, we all need money to survive in this world. Hence working for money is a valid reason! The problem for people who work for money is that they do not really enjoy what they are doing. They tend to be the ones who would dodge work and do the minimum to stay on the job. They have other priorities in life and work is not one of them.

This observation is consistent with Dan Ariely’s discovery – Many knowledge workers are not seeing the big picture and how their work can impact the society. Hence, they are less motivated. And it takes two hands to clap – bosses who are not appreciative for the work done would leave the employees less appreciated, and the latter tend to want more money for what they have done. The employees would be upset because they felt they have not been compensated enough. Bosses on the other hand think of the employees as ungrateful brats. That reminds me of the following comic.

Birds Shithead and Assholes

Level 2 – Work is Passion

I wrote about passion in a few articles before. I even devised the Passion Virtuous Cycle.

Passion Virtuous CyclePassion is about doing things you enjoy and still get paid. Wow! Sounds great right? However not everyone can monetise their passion but there are a lot who can. It just takes courage to do so, and some soul searching to find their passion.

It is also likely you are good at what you do if it is your passion. You willingly put in a lot of effort in the process which makes you good at it.

Warren Buffett still enjoys what he does even at 84 years old and he said he “tap dance to work”.

Some say they work to pass time or freedom or self development. I would still classify them as passion.

You do not want to retire and do nothing. You can’t be sipping cocktails at Bahamas forever. You will grow sick of it.

Level 3 – Work for a Purpose

I thought I was smart to come out with the Passion Virtuous Cycle until I saw the following diagram.

Purpose Diagram


This brings work to the highest level! And I love how the venn diagrams intersect.

  • If you are doing what the world needs and something you can be paid for, it is your vocation. (Level 1)
  • If you are doing what you are good at and get paid for it, you are doing it as a profession. (Level 1)
  • If you do what you are good at and it is also something that you love, you are doing it for passion. (Level 2)
  • If you are doing what you love and it is a service or a product that the world needs, you are doing it as a mission. (Level 2)
  • But if you are doing it for all the above, you are living a purpose! (Level 3)

Working for passion is probably selfish to a certain extent. It is to centre yourself as the focus. Whereas working for a purpose elevates work to the highest level, it serves yourself as well as the world.

I guess the best way to make more people happy in this society is to put people in the jobs they find passion and purpose in. I do not believe people want to skive the rest of their lives. We need something to do. It is about finding that meaning and fulfilment will come.

It is Utopian thinking. But there’s no harm trying. No?


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