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Live to Work

Or Work to Live?


Businessman with paperwork in office
David Lees/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Live to Work: Certain people, it is said, live to work. This 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.

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 a living. 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 in 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 a live to work or a work to live type person. This 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:

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

When Circumstances Dictate the Answer: Also 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.

Realistic Expectations: Not only is it important to know yourself, but also to understand the nature and demands of the career that you decide to pursue, as well as of any employer with whom you decide to sign on. Too many people with live to work attitudes unrealistically attempt to pursue work to live careers, often with disastrous results.

Likewise, family members with no real understanding of what a work to live type career entails may urge you to pursue one, based on the pay and prestige associated with it, then be upset that you have little time for them as a result. Indeed, in many live to work careers, your time is rarely your own. That may be equally true whether you are high or low in your firm's hierarchy. In such cases, you need to straighten out family priorities, and educate family members about the unavoidable tradeoffs in life and careers.

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