What do you want from your work?

My partners and I have a running joke. One of us will pose the question “how much would someone have to pay you to do ___?” Most of the time, we just fill in the blank with the most obscene things our minds can conjure up, and then vehemently debate just how much money you’d need to humiliate yourself. It makes for some entertaining discussion.

Sometimes though, we’ll pose a business related question. Like “how much would someone have to pay you to teach basic computer skills to the elderly every day for two years?”, or more realistically, “how much would Google/Facebook/Twitter have to pay you to relocate to Silicon Valley and work for them for ___ years?”

Most people would jump at an opportunity like that. This is only an interesting question to us because we all value the lifestyle that our business has created. I generally assume that if you move into an important role with a fast growing, competitive, high-tech company like the aforementioned, that you’ll be working a lot of hours, traveling a lot, and be working in a more stressful environment.

I – like my partners – certainly have my price, but it’s very very high. Almost no company could match the quality of life that I have right now. Consider:

  • I have great flexibility with my time. I work two days a week from the warehouse from 9 AM to 3 PM. Otherwise I control when, where, and how I work, and how I balance my work with my personal life. Even the warehouse time can be shifted around – Mike was able to take a month-long trip to China and we simply shifted our resources to accommodate that.
  • I have great flexibility with my work load. I can control what I work on and when I work on it. If I’m having a super busy week personally, it’s generally no big deal to push my work back a week or two, so long as I do my day to day tasks and communicate my plans with the team.
  • I get to work on exciting, innovative, and challenging projects, which means I’m often choosing to work instead of do other things because I am truly more interested in, say, building a new feature on LockerPulse than I am playing the latest video game.
  • I find it highly rewarding to work with great people who are also good friends of mine. I want success for them as much as I want it for myself.

In almost every way, I’m working in my ideal situation. If I was handed a ton of money tomorrow, not all that much would change with how I lived. I mean, I might go on a crazy spending spree for a little while, but I think I’d settle back into a lifestyle very similar to what I’ve got now. In a sense, I’d probably “retire” to what I’m doing right now.

When I think about this, I’m always reminded of the parable of the Mexican fisherman from The 4-Hour Workweek (I posted the full excerpt back in 2007) Once you have all of your basic needs met, you have to ask yourself – what do you want to accomplish with your work? Do you want to make as much money as possible? Do you want a high-status job? Do you want a flexible lifestyle? Do you not want to have to answer to anyone else? Do you want to have a large impact on the world? Do you want to be famous?

There’s no “right” answer, and none of those necessarily exclude you from doing any of the others. I look at 37Signals as the prime example of a company that I’d aspire to own. They’re “small” by many standards. They’re bootstrapped. They don’t have a lot of employees. They’re flexible in terms of work hours and locations. Yet, no one can deny that they’ve had huge impact. They have an immensely popular suite of web applications, a blog with over 140,000 subscribers, a NY Times Best Selling book, they do seminars from their new offices, and oh yeah, they started Ruby on Rails, the open source programming framework that has been the foundation for the success of many other web startups.

I feel like from the time we’re little kids we’re conditioned to pursue the highest paying, highest status jobs. Companies are supposed to be grown to be as big as they possibly can be, in every sense of the term. But if you value your time, your relationships, your health, the enjoyment that your work gives you, and the impact that your work has on others, it becomes a much deeper question.

8 comments on What do you want from your work?

  1. Tim says:

    Another interesting post, for me this is definitely one of those posts that is more than meets the eye. It leads me to think in several different directions all at the same time.

    The first direction is the status quo, the life you are brought up to think that you want. As most people who read this blog know that is total BS, living your life to apease the standards set by people who cannot be defined is the recipe for a pretty miserable life.

    I have a friend who is constantly chasing money through entrepreneurial paths, but he never sticks with things or drives them home. He comes out of the gates with the guns blazing and fizzles out before he makes it to the first turn in the race. He currently has two projects he’s pouring his time, energy and money into and has coined the term to what he’s doing as “Zuckerburging.” What he misses is Zuckerburg wasn’t chasing money or trying to follow the footsteps of someone else, that’s not how someone achieves greatness, it’s done by following passion and forging ahead in your own unique way. The reason there is only one Bill Gates is because if you did what he did now it wouldn’t work! Time changes, society changes and technology changes, if you can’t cater to all of those you are not competitive and will not succeed. So while the path to greatness may work today, that same path will not work by the time someone else tries to use it. That’s the problem with the status quo, it sets the bar at an arbitrary point that is irrelevant as soon as it’s set.

    Before I ramble for too long I’ll close my comments with one final note. In life the journey and experience is 99 times out of a 100 more important than reaching the destination or goal. This holds true for virtually every aspect of life, yes there are large pivotal events, but the bulk of real experience and life is in what you learn leading up to these events. A college degree is just a piece of paper, but is a pivotal moment because you join the “real world” and are applying a life time of formal education up to that point. That said, a college degree is JUST a piece of paper, the journey that led you to that point is the important part not the framed document. Many people lose track of the journey in their race to live up to the status quo.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Good stuff Tim. Along those lines, Adam Gilbert wrote a great post recently on the My Body Tutor Blog about why losing weight is hard:

      “6 words: It’s a process. Not an event.

      Dating is a process. Building a company is a process. Establishing trust is a process. And getting the body we want is a process.

      Events, on the other hand, are easier to manage, pay for and get excited about.

      Processes, though, build results for the long haul.”

  2. Rob says:

    Oh but honestly. All you’ve got is a lifestyle business. Don’t you want to be working on the latest Web3.0 social local-crowd sourcing RFT with FFD9 and hoping for a liquidity event?

    Totally agree on the path vs. destination thing. Also that often by taking a particular path you can make it so that others can’t really take the same one (at least in the tech industry). Equally, the paths aren’t really laid out before us. We’re pretty much just hacking about in the jungle really..

    So, which of those “life goals” (money/high status/flexibility etc.) do you wish for? Do you think that changes over time? Rich or King?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      As of now I’d say that the flexibility is #1 to me, followed by meaningful/challenging work, and then money. Again, this is all assuming that basic needs are met…obviously I’d re-prioritize if I needed more money to live or if something major changed.

  3. Neville says:

    Totally agree. I have many friends with “large” companies, but they lose agility in the process.

    Having a small & tight knit company….maybe with a lot of CONTRACTORS but not employees seems ideal.

    • Rob says:

      I think I’d probably agree, again given basic needs are met. How secure in your business do you feel at the moment? I still have this impression that people working for a large corporation must feel a level of security that I don’t.

      • Adam McFarland says:

        I think they feel a level of security, but that in many cases it’s a false security. They can lose their job without any warning. It can be totally out of their control – even if they have great performance, if there are broad layoffs they can get caught up in it.

        At least with a business, you have your stock in your company so in the event that you leave or your partners “fire” you, you’ll still get something for that. Or if you all decide you want out, you can sell the business. You’ve also got your customer base, each of which is a separate tiny income stream. Especially in your business, it’s tough to lose all of your clients/customers at once. It might feel like it’s less secure because of the unpredictability or volatility, but I firmly believe that running a profitable business is more secure than having a job.

        Now, almost nothing is completely secure. I personally have never felt that secure with anything – I’m always trying to work my ass off on any given day to give myself the best chance for success in the future. At least with a business I can control that success to some extent. At my job I never felt that way.

        I suppose if I reached a point where say Mark Cuban is, with billions in the bank spread across multiple investments in multiple companies I’d feel completely secure…but who knows 🙂

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