Why Work Matters

This post is part of our Work Symposium. An introduction to the symposium can be found here; all of the posts written for the symposium can be found here.

I feel like the title of this post appears to be one of those painfully obvious ideas. Of course work matters. We need our jobs to fund our lives, provide security, health insurance (for most of us) and to also give us a sense of purpose. Do we really need someone to tell us that work matters? I did. For far too long I had a vague sense that my job was important but only in the last year have I realized why.

Last spring I wrote a series of posts about a major career setback that I was going through. I re-read through the posts in preparation for the Work Symposium and they took me back to some dark days. Ironically, they don’t capture anything close to the pain I was going through at the time but they are an interesting snapshot of a time in my life that I hope never repeats itself.

In February of last year I was nearly fired from my job. What I was too embarrassed to share at the time was that I had become a terrible employee. My work product was terrible. I was cocky about my value to the company and became an entitled jerk. I demanded a raise I didn’t deserve and responsibilities I couldn’t handle. When those rewards didn’t come I became bitter and started spending large chunks of my day socializing around the proverbial water cooler or worse. I spent hours writing blog posts on company time. I was stealing my pay from the company and to be honest, my dismissal would have been completely justified.

I was lucky though. I was spared the ax and instead they sent me into exile. I was sent back to the job I had left several years prior. I was hurt, resentful and went into a depression that took months to pull myself out of. Re-reading the posts from last year, I can see I was slowly starting to develop the idea of why my career setback was affecting me so deeply but I still had a lot of learning to do on the subject. I didn’t understand yet why my work really mattered.

My father was a welder by trade and if his coworkers that I met at his funeral are to be believed, he was a damn good one. Even though he didn’t want us to follow him into the construction industry I always knew he took pride in his work. I could see it when I watched him working on a project in his shop. For that reason there is a Toni Morrison quote that I have always loved (and have shared on this site before).

“I remember a very important lesson that my father gave me when I was 12 or 13. He said, ‘You know, today I welded a perfect seam and I signed my name to it.’ And I said, ‘But, Daddy, no one’s going to see it!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I know it’s there.”

I was helped immensely in my career setback by reading a couple of books by Jon Acuff called Quitter and Start. Both books are primarily dedicated to figuring out what your dream job looks like and making slow and careful steps towards that goal. This is valuable and why I have been focusing on my fledgling writing career in my spare time. What affected me even more deeply though was Acuff’s advice to ‘fall in like with a job we don’t love’. It was a concept I hadn’t ever come across but one that was important in my career recovery.

Work matters because we are creatures who need purpose.  Humans in general but men specifically seem to have a great deal of their personal identity tied up in our work, even if it is not our dream job. When I was working as an archaeologist my heart filled with pride every time I told someone what I did for a living and they responded with genuine admiration. When I left that job for a career in Corporate America that pride went away. It was a financial decision but not a happy one. I would tell people what I did for a living and then immediately tell them I was planning on doing something else eventually. It wasn’t exactly a lie but it was a dishonest way to view my work because the truth was that for most of my time with my company I was a pretty great employee. The problem was that ‘program analyst’ didn’t sound nearly as sexy as ‘archaeologist’ especially when I spent so long working on my bachelor degrees so I could do the latter.

At some point in the middle of my year of penance a switch flipped in my head and I began to take real pride in the work I was doing for the first time in years. I realized how lucky I had been to be given a chance to redeem myself instead of a pink slip. I began to climb out of the hole I had dug for myself by working my ass off. During the long road back I gave my company some of the best work of my professional life. That work paid off with a promotion to management and into a position I am enjoying immensely. It was a lesson in humility I am determined not to forget.

In one of the posts I wrote last spring I told the story of stopping at a service station to get some new tires for my truck. I was in the middle of a period of intense self-pity and as I sat there watching the mechanic I was struck by how happy he seemed. He was whistling to himself while moving around the garage. I watched him dribble two tires across the floor, exhibiting a bit of skill that clearly came from practice and also probably trying to make his work day a little more fun. I don’t know how he really felt about his job but it struck me that I hadn’t been that happy at work in years. I was ashamed.

The key lesson I took from my year in the wilderness is that our work matters because humans are not intended for a life of leisure. We need to go home every day and feel like we were productive. The problem is that too many people are engaged in lives of subsistence. They start watching the clock the moment they punch in and when they punch out they want to forget about it. Work is something they find no delight in. I wish I had a simple answer for how to overcome this but the only thing I can think of is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the concept of quality. The book contends that our work ‘may be be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on attitude’. In my experience this mental shift was the key to finding pleasure in my work again and perhaps more importantly, a pride that pushed me towards success.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky


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13 thoughts on “Why Work Matters

  1. I really liked this post and might even read some of the books you mention.

    When you talked about reaching a position in your job last year where you admit to slacking and not doing enough, I thought to myself, “there but for the grace of god/dess go I.” If, as may very well happen, I’m on the labor market in 6 months, I also fear that the jobless period will be longer and more unrelenting and unforgiving than previous ones. Speaking for myself, having a job is a great thing, and I’m fortunate to have one now.

    I also like the idea of “falling in like” with whatever one’s job is. That’s a healthy attitude.


  2. Zen and The Art of MM is, along with the follow up book Lila, my favorite set of fiction books of all time. In the early nineties I had Lila on my nightstand for a year or two and would reread it constantly when unable to sleep.

    Gumption. Dynamic quality. Static quality. The cutting edge of experience. Pirsig’s hierarchy of inorganic, biological, social and intellectual quality.

    I know it is all pop philosophy. But I got a lot out of it at the time.


  3. Mike, This is a really good post. I’m dealing with a lot of similar issues with my 29 year old son right now, who confuses the idea of having a dream job with the absence of having to do actual “work”. Work, in it’s best sense, is an internal property of people (it seems to me), a desire to accomplish stuff, either because you’re being paid to do it (which is a character issue) or because you have goals you want to realize. In either case, tho, the motivation to work – expend energy to accomplish the tasks at hand – comes from wanting to be productive, to do something useful, to see the results of your efforts, a property which I think (like you) is part of what it means to be human.

    {{Is anyone watching Ghana-Germany? Holy cows what a match.}}


  4. You see that many people are unhappy with working. Why jump to the conclusion that the the only problem with this picture is the people? Yes, people (at least some people) may be able to fix that by taking the proper attitude. But you can fix a lot of things by taking the proper attitude (if we’re talking about Zen, we’re talking about the belief that “attitude”, defined broadly, can fix all the suffering of life!).

    Given that work is necessary to live, as things stand now, taking the attitude described here may well be, as you’ve experienced, good for your mental health. But it doesn’t follow that work is inherently important to people, or that “humans are not intended for a life of leisure”, as long as leisure isn’t reductively defined as pure idleness.

    I agree that people need a purpose in life. I contest that work (in the sense that it’s used in this post and this symposium) is the best or only source of that purpose. The fact that you’ve observed that many people’s (especially men’s) identities are tied up in their profession is accurate, but that’s a fact about our culture; it doesn’t mean that’s an immutable part of the human condition.


    • I contest that work (in the sense that it’s used in this post and this symposium) is the best or only source of that purpose. The fact that you’ve observed that many people’s (especially men’s) identities are tied up in their profession is accurate, but that’s a fact about our culture; it doesn’t mean that’s an immutable part of the human condition.

      Can you offer a substantial example of a culture where this is not the case?


      • For most cultures through out history, for MOST people, work was necessary to live. But until relatively recently, one of the defining traits of aristocracy was NOT having to work to make a living.

        Of course, they still did something. And their identity was, no doubt, still bound up in the things that they actually did. Those things might even have been productive in the sense of being of value to society at large. But they weren’t (at least aspirartionally) the things that they derived their housing and food and so forth from.

        Which is my point. Peoples identities are bound up in what they do, to be sure. But there are more things to do in life than things that earn income.


      • But even for idle rich, their identities are often bound to the work they do, even if it is charitable volunteer work. It may not be work that covers the living basics, but it is still work. It takes some nominal effort & they gain benefit from it & part of them is bound to it, else why bother with the effort?.


      • Sure. As I said in my previous post, people need some purpose in life; naturally, their identity will be bound up in that purpose. And the charity or art or whatever is likely to require at least some effort.

        But even if “work” is sometimes used to mean “anything that requires effort”, that’s not really how it’s meant in the symposium (“jobs and the wages those jobs may (or may not) provide”). And it certainly seems like the “jobs and wages” meaning of “work” is what’s being discussed in the OP.

        The false equivalence between those two is the very thing I’m pushing back against. My entire point is that jobs-and-wages work is not the only way for people to have purpose and not the only thing that people can use to define their identity. If you want to talk about “The Value of Work”, using the expansive anything-that-requires-effort definition, that would be another discussion. My objection, here, is the attempt to argue for “The Value of Work” in specifically the jobs-and-wages sense.


      • I see your point, thanks.

        I didn’t quite get that feel from Mike’s post though, which is why I was pushing back. Falling in “like” with your income producing work kinda gives lie to that. I’ve known people who have liked their job well enough, but their life-defining work was more of a hobby.


  5. “I agree that people need a purpose in life. I contest that work (in the sense that it’s used in this post and this symposium) is the best or only source of that purpose.”

    Double ++1, or three snaps in Z formation (the Zorro snap!).

    The constant equating of a intrinsically capitalist definition of terms like “productive,” “industrious,” and so on with concepts like worthiness, value, and purpose across most posts and discussions in this symposium has been breathtaking and thoroughly depressing.


    • Wait just a moment- What makes industriousness intrinsically capitalitic? Hasn’t the concept existed long before anyone even came up with the concept of capitalism?

      I think you may be unfairly tarring the fine concept of industriousness with materialism and acquisitiveness.

      Industriousness- that is, participating in the construction and operations of our environment and society- can be completely in harmony with a world which rejects materialism and greed.


      • I can’t speak for Michael M., but I think the argument runs like this:

        “Industriousness,” whatever its other virtues, can quickly become code for “doing whatever the boss wants.” Therefore, valuing “industriousness” is part of a superstructure of the capitalist class, of those who own and manage the businesses and whose profits depend on convincing as many people as possible to work for lesser wages and to demand fewer beneficial working conditions.

        I’m not sure I agree with that view, and in fact in the last 10 years or so, I’ve gone to the other extreme of valuing industriousness as a virtue in itself. Still, I have a hard time ignoring the uses to which such value-laden ideas like “industriousness” can be put. I guess I have to keep one foot in the Marxist world if only to understand that there’s a flip side to what I endorse now.


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