Coffee House Readings #9:
Why We Work 1


I have been looking for a new job recently. I was about to freak out when “job-search fatigue” kicked in after just a few days (which made me realize that I apparently lack the required job-hunting stamina). But then I remembered that there’s a good side to everything, and I realized something: all these obstacles made me contemplate why I’m actually doing this, and what it is that I want to spend my future working life doing. And then I remembered that my Coffee House Reading was due, so I started reading this amazing book that will change your whole perspective on your career.

Why We Work by Barry Schwartz

Why We Work by Barry Schwartz

Why DO we work?

As Barry Schwartz explains, we mostly work for non-monetary reasons. We work because

  • we feel engaged by our work and lose ourselves in it,
  • we feel that we are in charge,
  • our work makes us achieve a level of mastery in our chosen field,
  • work is an opportunity for social engagement,
  • we find what we do meaningful.

Still, money is a factor. We all have to pay our bills. But – sadly for all of us – as capitalism evolved, it created a model for work in which the opportunities for these non-material satisfactions were almost totally eliminated. You can find people who don’t enjoy the work they do almost everywhere: not only in factories or fast-food restaurants, where one would expect work to consist of meaningless and isolated tasks. No, this attitude towards work has reached our law firms, our classrooms, our clinics, and our offices. And here are the stats:

  • 13% of workers feel engaged by their jobs
  • 63% are not engaged and are putting little energy into their work
  • 24% are actively disengaged and actually hate their job

How could this happen?

First off, the premise that people work for incentives and for money is fundamentally flawed. The “carrot and stick approach” Adam Smith had in mind, doesn’t work. B.F Skinner conducted studies with rats and pigeons performing simple, repetitive tasks for rewards of food, and somehow psychologists thought that it would be a good idea to do this with humans too. The concept of division of labor combined with compensation schemes was born. Its goal was to make us more efficient. As it turns out, it had the opposite effect.

In his book Schwartz cites a study that divides work into 3 main categories:

  • Jobs: people who work only for pay and can’t wait to retire
  • Careers: people who work for advancement and follow a trajectory that leads to better work
  • Calling: people who work for their work and believe their work makes the world a better place

There are many people who “craft their jobs into callings” because they just manage to find meaning in the work they do. Sadly, most management styles tend to do the exact opposite: Even “good work” can easily be turned into bad work, as soon as you add micromanagement, routinization, supervision and material incentives to the equation. This might sound unbelievable at first, but as it turns out extrinsic motivation, like money, actually undermines intrinsic motivation.

“Carefully crafted incentive schemes, designed to ensure top performance, can often produce the opposite – competition among employees, and efforts to game the system and look good on whatever metric is being used to assign pay and bonuses without actually producing the underlying results that the metric is meant to assess.”

The effects of these conditions we are creating for ourselves based on Adam Smith’s beliefs, are disastrous: What we are doing is nothing less than changing human nature.

The power of flawed ideologies

The underlying idea of this discussion, is ultimately the concept of human nature: What do we think people really care about?

“And like fish that don’t know they live in water, we live with such ideas about human nature that are so pervasive that we don’t even realize there’s another way to look at ourselves.”

Our current work environment is based on the ideology that people don’t really want to work and that they only care about money. Most working conditions that we design for ourselves are still based on that false assumption. Which leads us into a vicious cycle: because the ideas people hold about themselves and about others change people. And slowly, people who found their calling become people who, under these hostile conditions, simply do their job. In this regard, our work environment is nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Providing good work is not that complicated: efficient employees are people who follow their calling.  Good work is challenging, varied and aimed towards a goal. Good work gives you

  • the chance to use your skills and develop more,
  • the discretion over how you do your job,
  • and the feeling that you are part of a group.

After reading Why We Work my job search routine changed. I stopped looking for jobs where I checked all the criteria they were looking for, and started looking for a job that checked mine instead. I realized that “good work” is a good definitely worth looking for.

The best Viennese Coffee House to read this book in

When you are contemplating which road led you to where you are now professionally, and which road to take next, there could be no better place than the Cocoquadrat – a co-working café next to Wirtschaftskammer Wien.

If you’re lucky enough to have an employer farsighted enough to encourage mobile working styles, spend your next mobile working day at the co-working café instead of at your home. Book the work space that inspires you the most, treat yourself to a good cup of coffee, and experience the feeling of working more efficiently than ever before.

Working at Cocoquadrat.

Working at CoCoQuadrat.

Picture credits: All images by the author.

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About Verena Ehrnberger

Verena works as a data privacy legal expert and studies philosophy at the University of Vienna. Always juggling multiple projects, she is seriously addicted to coffee.


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Why We Work