What Are You Really Working For?
Don't let money get in the way of family and especially of doing something that really matters.
Now that we're past the holidays and hopefully beyond all the stress and angst of the always painful year-end compensation discussions, I wanted to bring up a far more important conversation that also arises around this time of year. It's the one we have immediately prior to solemnly making those annual "work less and spend more time with the family" resolutions, with accompanying promises and commitments to our partners and our kids.
Every entrepreneur (and everyone else building a business) knows how these things go, especially today when we're all working longer and harder, spending time with our families and loved ones, and feeling somewhat rotten and very guilty about it. The fact that there are really good reasons for the extra time away or because the jobs we're doing are important not just to ourselves but to others as well doesn't make that discussion any easier or less emotional. As I usually say: there's always more work, but you've only got one family.
In these family meetings and other conversations, we find ourselves explaining and excusing and generally trying to justify our efforts and our absences, especially to our kids. And, unfortunately, for lack of a better or more straightforward explanation, we often seize upon a particularly unfortunate turn of a phrase and a pretty lousy excuse. We say, in so many different ways and words, that:
I to make to buy you (); or
I to make to provide you with (); or
I to make so we can do or go ().
You get it, right? Sounds familiar? Maybe it's a spouse, but most often it's our kids. And just what are we telling them?
We're telling our kids that we work for money-- that money is what matters-- and that money is to buy things, places, people, etc. That "getting" is really the be-all and the end-all. And that's too bad. Because it's a lame explanation, a dishonest excuse, and an awful message--probably the worst message possible. This explanation is quick and easy and we all fall into this trap from time to time. But we can do better and, frankly, we better do better because our kids are already drowning in media messages that say -- a million times a day-- that life is all about the bucks.
So, I have a modest suggestion for the next time you find yourself in this particular fix. Let's try to change the context --change the conversation--and tell our loved ones the truth (or maybe what we hope the truth should be) whenever we're asked about why we work. You might want to spend a little time thinking about a better answer before the fat's in the fire.
What is the truth? What's the honest answer? Start by being honest with yourself. When you're dragging, feeling a little sorry for yourself, can't take another day of work (and it's only Wednesday), and you find yourself mumbling and grumbling to yourself that "we need the money" or "I have no choice" or "I've got bills to pay", you're just kidding yourself just like we've all been kidding our kids for years.
If you don't know why you're working and what you're working for, or you can't think of a good reason to come to work, then do yourself and everyone else a favor and find something else to do. I tell all our 1871 companies the same thing: "we act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life when all we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about." If you don't love it--most of the time-- leave it.
O.K. you say, but what is the right answer when the kids ask, as you're sneaking out the door on Saturday morning to spend the day at the office: "Hey Dad, how come you never come home?" Or maybe: "Why is work so important all the time, don't we come first?"
The truth and the best answer is that we work for two basic reasons: (A) to make ourselves proud and (B) to help other people. We don't really work for money. We work to be productive and creative. We work to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. We work because we secure real satisfaction from what we achieve with our hands, our hearts and our minds.
There's no price tag on the stuff. Money isn't even a good way to keep score. Does anyone really think that a rock star's contribution is millions of times more valuable than a teacher's? That's just more media bullshit. We work to accomplish things that move our lives forward, that matter in meaningful ways, and that we can feel honestly and sincerely good about it. There's no shame or false pride in that. There's nothing to be embarrassed to tell your kids about. If you love what you do, let them know and pray that someday they'll have a similar experience and privilege.
Is it foolish, or do we sound selfish, if we admit that we work because it makes us feel good and fulfilled? I don't think so and I think it's a much more constructive, effective, and appropriate answer for everyone-- kids and grownups too. Don't tell your kids you work because you have to, or worse, that you work to buy them Christmas toys or other goodies. We work because work is important and that's what grown-ups do. Your career is something to be unashamedly proud of and to share with kids and others. We're building things to make the world a better place.
And that's where Part B comes in. We're not isolated islands and in this thing all by ourselves. Everything we do or don't do impacts many others-- especially those of us who teach. So, it's just as important to understand, acknowledge and have our kids appreciate that, apart from the selfish motivation of making us feel good, we all work as well for a greater good and to help others by making their lives better and fuller as well as our own. Hard work and commitment is how life moves forward and how the world gets better. A lot of tiny steps by millions of people, a little bit at a time, and mountains move.
And that just leaves the matter of money. What should we say about money? I hope that the message I've shared with my kids is pretty simple. Money, beyond life's necessities, is for charity and for giving back. Money is not an end in itself or a game of running up the score. Money is not a worthwhile goal because there's no finish line and there's always someone with more. At best, it's an enabling and an ennobling tool to make valuable, important, and charitable things happen.
The bottom line: work hard and be proud of the work you do; love what you do or do something else; try to make a difference in this world every day in large and small ways; and use all of your talents, energy and resources to help others to better their lives. And lastly, hug your kids much too much, far too often, and until they squeal.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.