For most of us, this question sounds ridiculous because we don’t have a choice in the matter. Paid work is essential to our survival. We work to eat.
But survival’s not the sole incentive. Survival doesn’t explain why we work when our refrigerators are stocked with food. And, it doesn’t explain why our society is so obsessed with work.
As a career coach, I often have the opportunity to ask my clients this crucial question, “Why work?” I’m fascinated by the stories I hear that illustrate the blurring lines between our professional and personal lives. And I’m struck by the number of people who work hard to make fast money to gain the freedom not to work. More and more today, it seems people work long hours and focus tireless energy on the pursuit of money – and a few do succeed.
In their book, “The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy,” authors Thomas Stanley and William Danko (Longstreet Press, 1996) report that many self-made millionaires launch their careers with the goal of accumulating enough wealth to quit working and enjoy life. One of the millionaires profiled called his stash “go to hell money” — a safety net that empowered him to walk away from work anytime he wanted. His money bought freedom.
This strategy fascinates and confounds me because I so often see wealthy people who do not know what to do with the freedom that money buys. In fact, many of the self-made millionaires studied by Stanley and Danko did not significantly change their lives or their spending habits after making their fortunes. The freedom to enjoy life eluded them.
Some people with “go to hell money” become so addicted to the money-making game – and the euphoria of winning — that they cannot stop playing. Generating wealth contributes a rhythm to their lives, a reason to get out of bed. Making money becomes a substitute for the personal fulfillment associated with family, friends, spirituality, and community.
The difference between making a living and making a life is immense. Sadly, people who focus their lives on acquiring “go to hell money” often end up living a life of regrets. More often than not, they lose sight of life’s greatest lesson.
Life Greatest Lesson
Not long ago, a 75-year-old mentor of mine gave me a small book, “Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lessons” by Mitch Albon (Doubleday, 1997). I read it cover-to-cover on a flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco and it touched me, like millions of other readers, in a deep place.
A true story, the book narrates the story of a middle-aged man who rediscovers a wise professor from his university days. The professor, Morrie, is dying. Every Tuesday, the former student visits his mentor to soak in lessons about life from a man who lived “richly.”
Morrie’s greatest Tuesday lesson brought tears of truth to my eyes: “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
We all want our lives to matter. We read countless stories about people who have made their “go to hell money.” But, as Morrie reminds us, we truly respect those few outstanding people who make their lives and work stand for something beyond self-interest. People who give their time, talents, and treasures to a cause larger than their own lives.
We admire Morrie, and other mentors like him, because he followed a simple truth that ensured a rich life: know thyself. Morrie took time to reflect on purpose — that special gift he could give back to life.
Each of us has a special gift or contribution to which we alone give life – that unique trait our family, friends, and community will miss most deeply when we’re gone. A gift is our something to give away to the world. It is a legacy. If we fail to share we will feel unfulfilled and ultimately disappointed in our lives. The richness we hope to attain with our “go to hell money” will elude us. We will miss out on life’s greatest lesson.