Why Are You Working So Hard?

Why Are You Working So Hard?

I generally don’t spend a lot of time pondering existential questions, but lately I’ve been struggling with a big one. To put it concisely,

“What is it that makes us work?” 

There are some easy, obvious answers like “to earn money” or “to find fame” but those only get at the superficial part of the question. They don’t begin to explain the amount of time and energy we invest on the job – where most of us will spend the majority of our lives.

I worked at Microsoft for over 22 years and was fortunate enough to contribute to the growth of one great business (Microsoft Office) and lead the creation of another (Xbox). I worked long hours, traveled way more than I would like, and missed important family and life events as a result. And while I was certainly well compensated for my work and achieved some notoriety in certain business communities, there was definitely a great deal of tension around my work-life balance. Logically, once I left Microsoft (and the salary and prestige that came with the job), you would think my work pace would have declined.

I am here to report that some 6 years after retiring from Microsoft, I’m still working very hard, traveling more than I’d like, and have to plan my personal life very carefully. I am still motivated to put in the hours and effort required in a variety of different ventures and activities. In a world in which much of my work involves no compensation, I am left asking myself 

“why do I do it?”

In my book Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, I talk at great length about the importance of defining Purpose to create a north star for an organization’s strategy. When it comes to the “why” of work, I believe there is an analog to Purpose which I will call Impact. Beyond the money and status that comes with successful work lies a deep set need to believe

we are having an Impact – on our family, in a business, or across society.

 If we want to understand our work habits and manage our work-life balance, we must understand the need for Impact.

What Is Impact?

There is no simple definition that adequately describes impact. Each of us experiences it in a different way based on our own particular talents and opportunities. For those who are artists, impact is creating something that moves people’s souls. In the science community, impact is changing the way we understand our world and how it works. Business leaders create goods and services that benefit consumers and other businesses. And civic and government leaders impact us by making our communities better.

So perhaps the best way to understand Impact is to ask ourselves a simple question: 

Have I utilized the best of my talents, time, and treasure to improve the world around me?

And the corollary follow-up question is: 

Have I maximized that improvement given the opportunities provided?

Where Do We Find Impact?

It is relatively easy to fall into the trap that somehow equates impact with fame, notoriety, financial success, or other obvious measures. While those are nice tangible goals, not everyone (or even most people) will be rich or be famous – and even those that achieve some tangible success will tell you that it is not totally fulfilling. Moreover, as we move through early, middle, and late stages of our professional lives, our motivations do shift. So we all must search for impact in many different ways:

1. All in a Day’s Work: The truth is that almost all adults are going to a job each day (including some weekends) because that is how they earn a livelihood. We certainly have to find impact in this daily (mostly unglamorous) work. We have to see the small, incremental wins for what they are – actions that we pursued that moved the ball down the field in the right direction. Finding satisfaction in the daily grind is not always easy or obvious, but it is an important secret to longevity and self-fulfillment.

2. Glory in the Crooked Path: At various points, we all have life plans that define what we want to do and where we want to be in five years. Visually, I think of this as the prototypical line that goes up and to the right in a linear way. The challenge, of course, is that life intervenes and takes us on a serendipitous path that wanders all over the graph paper. And there is nothing wrong with that, because during that journey we will find plenty of new ways in which we can make things better. We should all have a plan but then see new Impact opportunities as the adventure unfolds.

3. Don’t Polish the Trophies: We all have egos and recognition is gratifying – so when someone gives you credit for something positive, enjoy the moment. But don’t let that take away from the joy and pleasure of all the other Impact moments you create that others never notice or recognize. The reality is that most of the positive things you do won’t get seen or measured by others – and yet that in no way diminishes their importance or meaning. If all we valued was the trophies in life, we would miss most of the Impact opportunities we have.

4. Leveraging the Second Derivative: While I passed calculus in college, I’m not sure I really understood the entire point of it in the end. But I did learn the importance of second order effects, and impact certainly works that way. In many respects our achievements in one area – such as a well-compensated career or a position that gives us additional influence – enable us to have real impact in another area. “Paying It Forward” is all about taking some form of success and utilizing it to make things better for someone else. If we all did this, the collective Impact would have an exponentially favorable effect on our communities.

  • 5. Life’s Work: By using the word “work” in the title and body of this blog post, I’ve actually laid out a great source of confusion. So often we think about our “work” as the things we do when we earn money for our efforts. But if we limit our Impact to when we “go off to work”, we will have missed much of the point. Our “life’s work” is not circumscribed by what we do “at the office”. Instead, Impact is about the accumulation of things we do on a job, at home, and in our communities. Each of us may add value in different proportions across each of these areas, but our Impact is the collection of our efforts across all of them.

It is worth noting that if we can’t find Impact in what we are doing personally or professional in these areas or in some other way, perhaps that is an indicator that we are actually focused on the wrong “work”.

Why Does Impact Matter?

Don’t be confused – I understand that money and recognition are important both as motivators and as measuring sticks. This is certainly at the heart of a capitalist, achievement oriented economy and culture. We talk about metrics, accountabilities, and KPIs on the job as if they are part of our God-given, genetic building blocks. Ironically, in the non-profit world, they use these terms to “measure impact.”

But I also know that sustained, enthusiastic effort must be fueled by other energy sources. I concluded a long time ago that I enjoy work – whether that is a traditional corporate job, volunteering for a non-profit, or doing chores around the house. I love the challenges it creates for me physically and/or intellectually, and I genuinely enjoy “finishing”. And even though I get frustrated upon occasion like everyone else, I’m slowly realizing that the real goal is Impact. And I can find meaning and self-worth in that in both the great and the small of my daily “work”.


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