Friday, June 19, 2009

Why Do We Work?

I have been unemployed for six months now and I am OK with it. Why? Because I have achieved financial freedom. Not true financial freedom because I lack the funds to be unemployed forever, but I have achieved enough financial freedom to be unemployed for six months, so far, without worrying about money.

I achieved my temporary freedom by saving aggressively, living frugally, and avoiding debt. For example, I've been crashing with my parents for over a year because they don't charge me for rent or food. Because of their graciousness, I saved 70% of my after-tax salary at my last job. I paid off most of my student loans, dropping my monthly cash outflow by nearly $650. I drive a seven year old car I paid off years five years ago. I haven't bought new clothes in months. I rarely eat out.

It sounds like I live a crappy life, right? I don't see it that way because I don't feel as though I am depriving myself of anything. Drastically reducing my cash outflow means I can get by on less money going forward. This means that I can work less stressful, less intense jobs than the jobs I previously worked at. More imporantly, drastically reducing my cash flow means instead of working, I can spend my time doing things I enjoy like traveling abroad or catching live music shows. For a while, anyway. And that's what I really want these days...the time do what I enjoy.

So if work means swapping our time for something, what is that something? Why do we work? I used to work at high-pay/high-stress jobs 1) for the social status that comes with making a lot of money and having an office, a staff, and heavy responsibility, 2) because I desired material things like expensive clothes and luxurious housing, 3) to pay my student loans, and 4) because I believed that responsibility, power, and hierarchical progression would eventually provide an intangible benefit like happiness.

My values have since changed. I don't desire social status anymore because I would rather spend my money buying my free time back than impressing strangers with a $40,000 car and a pricey condo. In fact, I barely desire material things at all anymore because everything I own is something I have to purchase, store, maintain, think about, and take with me when I move. I am happier spending that money and energy on fun things like this. I have paid off most of my student loans and I feel great about having fewer financial obligations. And I see now that the stress, heavy obligations, and intense pressure of previous jobs were destroying my physical and psychological health.

So tell me...what keeps you going into work for 50, 60, or more hours a week? Do you enjoy what you do? Are you good at it? What trade-offs or compromises have you made to keep on your career path?


  1. Henry, this is a great story about finding what is truly important in life. For some folks, it may be the "stuff". For folks like you and me, though, it's more about the experiences. Contrary to popular belief, money CAN buy a certain amount of happiness, because it presents you with options. You seem to have found that out. Keep going!

  2. Thanks Jason. I appreciate your comment. I agree that money can buy a certain amount of happiness because money can buy options, and those options can lead to happiness if exercised wisely. But yes, the realization that money for money's sake wasn't making me happy was both difficult and freeing.