You Don't Work for the Money
July 14, 2014

You Don't Work for the Money

by Brian de Haaff

I grew up in Los Angeles where there were good-looking people, fancy cars, and big houses. And it cost a bundle to look your best and buy the “good things” in life. I figured that I better go to school for a very long time, earn lots of degrees, and then work really hard so I could afford the abundance of riches that the world had to sell. And then I went to Berkeley for university and learned that I had it all wrong.

Do not misunderstand me — you need to generate a certain amount of cash to live with good health. Satisfying your basic needs is fundamental to your well-being. And if you have family that depends on you — you need to provide a healthy environment for them too.

But you are not in fact working for money, you are working for a purpose that is beyond material gain.

Not surprisingly, goals that are extrinsically motivated and driven by material desire have been shown to be associated with lower happiness and greater ill-being.* So, if you think you are working for financial success, beautiful appearance, or even fame, consider this a wake-up call.

What I learned at Berkeley was that I was going to work for freedom, money was simply a means to an end to pursue my own path.

I worked at People’s Park in Berkeley (which was created during the radical political activism of the late 1960s) and spent hundreds of hours with countless homeless folks who hung out there. I started the job expecting lots of requests for cash. But even in that environment, it was clear that people were not simply interested in death-marching towards another dollar. No one ever asked me for a dime. The people I got to know were active and engaged and looking for a better way forward and more paths to walk down to get there.

We know that our finest moments come when we have achieved what our inner voice feared we could not, when we created a deep relationship with another human being, or we built something that mattered. The best moments never come when we close that big new deal or see that electronic funds transfer show up in our bank account. It only gives us a brief high and then we want more.

Even at this very moment you and I are like the kids we once were. That new toy is great for a few hours — but not fulfilling for the long-term. We do not really like to sit still and we are inquisitive and defiant.

We are at our best when we are doing something well that creates more opportunities for us and those we love. We maximize our performance when we are serving our internal desire to direct our own lives, practice and improve our skills, and contribute to a higher purpose. This is what we are are striving for on our way to freedom.

The following conditions are what truly satisfy us every day — even if we think we are working for a fatter paycheck. We are all working…..

To have autonomy

I suggested earlier that we are primarily working for our freedom. Freedom is closely related to autonomy but slightly different. Freedom is the long-term goal to do what we want when we want —autonomy is the space we need to solve a problem or work “our way.” Autonomy helps us pursue an objective in a way that suits our intellectual and moral sensibilities. The best bosses give us the support we need and the room we require to be our best.

To improve

We all want to get better and we need the autonomy and support to work to make it so. You get better by practicing and mastery feels good. It is straightforward. Even if you do something well you will never be great or better than the rest by sitting idly by. You must work and work and work some more. Even the world’s greatest athletes out-work their competitors to win — and they love doing it.

To contribute

When we build something that serves more than ourselves, we are contributing to a higher purpose. Supporting our family, helping someone recover from an illness, solving a science challenge, or teaching music to elementary school kids are all meaningful outcomes that we strive for. And when the results serve a larger group, we have even more motivation to be great. We receive appreciation for our efforts. And that feels good too.

In many of our minds, we are still pursuing money. This is due to our upbringing, social influences, and the risk/reward approaches that our employers take with ‘carrots and sticks’ that are used to ‘motivate’ us. It’s time to look further inside ourselves — money is not the gateway drug we need for higher meaning.

We are just starting to see clear signs that our traditional views of work are changing. Distributed teams, time shifts between personal and business responsibilities, and a strong consultant marketplace suggest that even more changes are coming to the workplace and what we value from the jobs we take.

If you only do one thing after reading this, write down what you are really working for and share your thoughts. I would be surprised to read the word “money” in your comments.

*Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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