What It Means to Live to Work

Businessman seated in office with view of city
••• Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

It is an old expression about some people who are highly motivated about work in itself, with the opposite view being that of someone who works to live. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of which attitude is better or more appropriate, but answering it honestly and accurately is critical to making intelligent career choices, and to your ultimate happiness in life. Unfortunately, many people lack the self-knowledge and realistic expectations necessary to address this vital issue properly.

Those Who Live to Work

Certain people, it is said, live to work. It is shorthand for saying that their lives center on their work or careers and that achievement in their professions is a major source of satisfaction and meaning in their lives. Money may or may not be a major motivation for these people. In some cases, achieving huge levels of pay (as is the case with many senior corporate executives, such as CEOs) is coveted more as a means of keeping score and proving your relative worth versus other people, than it is for the money itself.

Those Who Work to Live

By contrast, other people work to live. These people view their work or careers largely as toil whose purpose is to earn the money necessary to support themselves and their dependents. Their real interests lie elsewhere, and their work or careers are only means to an end, not an end in itself. Some of these people try to cut corners, to gain the maximum pay for the minimum amount of effort. Others do indeed take great pride in their work and put great effort into doing their jobs well, but their jobs simply are not the centers of their lives.

Know Yourself

It is critical to understand whether you are fundamentally alive to work or a work to live type person. It will allow you to develop realistic expectations about yourself, and to choose career paths and employers accordingly. For the most part, high achievers who excel in demanding careers such as these are people who live to work:

  • Financial Advisors
  • Investment Bankers
  • Money Managers
  • Stock Analysts
  • Securities Traders

The same tends to be true of people who rise to high levels of management.

When Circumstances Dictate the Answer

Recognize that the answer for a given individual may differ based on his or her circumstances. Examples abound of individuals who lose their native passion for work because they cannot find an adequate position or pay in their preferred fields of endeavor. When they settle for jobs in other fields, they often do so strictly for extrinsic benefits, such as compensation. Meanwhile, just as many examples exist of individuals who used to work to live, but after a change of career start living to work.

Oftentimes, such a change is facilitated by retirement and/or by reaching a level of savings that greatly relaxes the imperative to follow a career primarily because it pays well.