The Reasons We Work


In a previous article “Finding Consulting Niches” I described a model for finding consulting opportunities based on personal interests and existing skills. Lately I’ve been thinking about the reasons that motivate and inspire people to work. I’ve always believed job satisfaction is about more than just money, however it seems that we’ve lost the bigger meaning of developing mastery in a skill.  In this article I thought it would be interesting to examine why we work from the perspective of Austrian economics.

The Misean Perspective on Working

One of my favorite economists is the great Ludwig von Mises, considered one of the founders of the Austrian School of Economics. The Austrian school in general and Mises in particular have some unique perspectives on human labor and the time-value of money.

Fundamentally work can be thought of as trading labor for leisure time. In other words holding a job is a means to and end, the end goal being to enjoy leisure time. In a developing economy where productivity is increasing, people benefit by having more leisure time because machines and new processes reduce the overhead required to produce goods and services. This process is referred to as raising the standard of living. The topic of automatons taking everyones jobs I’ll leave for later articles…
In his seminal work Human Action, Mises describes the four main reasons people exchange leisure time for labor. (Note: the term ‘disutility of labor’ is synonymous with sacrificing leisure)

The reasons a person works are:

1. He may work in order to make his mind and body strong, vigorous, and agile. The disutility of labor is not a price expended for the attainment of these goals; overcoming it is inseparable from the contentment sought. The most conspicuous examples are genuine sport, practiced without any design for reward and social success, and the search for truth and knowledge pursued for its own sake and not as a means of improving one’s own efficiency and skill in the performance of other kinds of labor aiming at other ends

2. He may submit to the disutility of labor in order to serve God. He sacrifices leisure to please God and to be rewarded in the beyond by eternal bliss and in the earthly pilgrimage by the supreme delight which the certainty of having complied with all religious duties affords.

3. He may toil in order to avoid greater mischief. He submits to the disutility of labor in order to forget, to escape from depressing thoughts and to banish annoying moods; work for him is, as it were, a perfected refinement of play. This refined playing must not be confused with the simple games of children which are merely pleasure-producing.

4. He may work because he prefers the proceeds he can earn by working to the disutility of labor and the pleasures of leisure.

Obviously people work for a combination of these reasons but arguably #4 (aka getting paid) is the issue we focus on the most. It is easy to lose sight of the greater meaning of job satisfaction and become bored or stressed when the only reason to work is money.

Mises goes on to explain that we work to attain gratification of one type or another:

1. The expectation of the labor’s mediate gratification, the anticipation of the enjoyment of its success and yield. The toiler looks at his work as an means for the attainment of an end sought, and the progress of his work delights him as an approach toward his goal. His joy is a foretaste of the satisfaction conveyed by the mediate gratification. In the frame of social cooperation this joy manifests itself in the contentment of being capable of holding one’s ground in the social organism and of rendering services which one’s fellow men appreciate either in buying the product or in remunerating the labor expended.

2. In the pursuit of his work the worker enjoys the aesthetic appreciation of his skill and its product. This is not merely the contemplative pleasure of the man who views things performed by other people. It is the pride of a man who is in a position to say: I know how to make such things, this is my work.

3. Having completed a task the worker enjoys the feeling of having successfully overcome all the toil and trouble involved. He is happy in being rid of something difficult, unpleasant, and painful, in being relieved for a certain time of the disutility of labor. His is the feeling of “I have done it.”

4. Some kinds of work satisfy particular wishes. There are, for example, occupations which meet erotic desires–either conscious or subconscious ones. 

Working is how most of us spend significant portions of our lives. It doesn’t hurt to stop every once in awhile and think about the true meaning of our labor and how it creates value for others.

What three new skills will you acquire in 2016 ?

How can you double the value of your contribution to your employer ?

Can you find someone just starting their career and volunteer to mentor them ?