• Tom Rath is an author and researcher who has spent the past two decades studying how work can improve human health and well-being; his 10 books have sold more than 10 million copies and made hundreds of appearances on global bestseller lists.
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, “Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute To The World.”
  • In it, he writes that “working to live” is not a sustainable way to think about work today — bad jobs leave tangible negative impacts on people.
  • To find meaning in your work, reorient yourself and figure out how you want to be contributing to something larger, and determine how that can fit into your work.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If I pay you to do something and you do it solely because I am paying you, that is not a partnership or relationship. It is an economic transaction. There is simply no reason why you should have to work indefinitely for a paycheck alone. Sure, there are times when making money to get by is necessary in all our lives, but over time you must push beyond the paycheck.

When I was in my 20s and the early stages of my career, my wife’s grandfather explained to me the old maxim about how “everyone works to live and no one lives to work.” After he passed away, I asked my wife for more background about her grandfather’s career and perspective. She told me he worked as a civilian engineer on a military base all his life. On many mornings, he would have to stop on his way into work to vomit; he dreaded going to work each day so much that he felt nauseated by the prospect. But like most people in his generation who had lived through the Great Depression, he kept doing it every day to care and provide for the family he loved. 

My learning from this is that while “working to live” may have surfaced in the early evolution of the relationship between people and organizations, it is not a sustainable way to think about work today. You deserve a job that serves your life. You deserve a life that serves a job, career, calling, or higher purpose.

Finding unique ways to contribute need not be difficult, especially once you adopt a new mindset about what work is. The process starts by changing the way you think about work; redefining the way you approach what you do each day. I want to challenge you to think about how your daily efforts can be far more than “just a job.”

Tom Rath

Tom Rath.

Courtesy of Tom Rath


Work today is structured around a fundamentally flawed assumption: that you are doing something because you have to. And many organizations are, in fact, demonstrably bad for your health and well-being. A recent study that tracked people’s moment-by-moment well-being throughout the day found that just one of 39 experiences was rated lower than time at work: being home sick in bed.

On average, work is killing people when it should be making them healthier.

This is a topic researchers have been studying intensely over the last decade. My friend Jeffrey Pfeffer, a long-time professor at Stanford, recently published an aptly titled book, “Dying for a Paycheck,” that details how workplaces are ruining people’s health over time. Having studied this topic myself throughout much of my career, I am convinced that bad jobs are shortening human life expectancy. According to some research, a poor-quality job could be even more detrimental for key biomarkers of health than unemployment.

A purpose beyond a paycheck

The fundamental concept of a job needs to evolve. First, a job should not be considered the sum of the responsibilities outlined in a sterile job description. We can think of doing our job as so much more than performing the tasks we’re assigned in trade for receiving a paycheck.

Jobs can be great opportunities to answer Dr. King’s call of doing more for others. In place of the notion that we work primarily for pay, we need to start thinking about how we work to create improvement in other people’s lives. This is what the vast majority of us would like our work to be about.

In 2017, I surveyed 1,099 people and asked them if they would rather be remembered for “the contribution you made to others/society” or “the amount of financial wealth you created.” Of that group, 960 people (roughly nine in 10) reported they would rather be remembered for their contribution. So why do so many of us think our work is mainly about making money?

Even when money and your finances are an acute priority, it literally pays to focus on the value you’re bringing to others. When researchers followed a longitudinal sample of 4,660 people over nine years, they found that having a sense of purpose in the first year of the study (based on a standard assessment of purpose in life) was associated with higher levels of both income and net worth over time. What’s more, even when they controlled for other variables like life satisfaction and socioeconomic status, people with a sense of purpose at work also had significantly higher incomes at the end of those nine years.

)Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to the World

“Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to the World.”

Courtesy of Tom Rath


Purpose can (and should) accompany a paycheck. For all of these reasons, everyone deserves the opportunity to optimize the contributions they’re making in their work. It’s not only better for individuals, it’s better for companies. Yet the current relationship between people and organizations is flat out broken.

The problem, to a large degree, is our own wildly low expectations. We go to school and gain the skills to find jobs in the most lucrative areas, even if they don’t fit who we are or what we care about. We enter these jobs with the expectation of a paycheck and not much more. It is usually only after a few years (or sometimes decades) that we start to think about whether our efforts and lives are contributing to something larger.

Instead of waiting until retirement to ask ourselves questions about how our efforts serve the world, we need to start doing this as early as possible. Life and work are as closely intertwined as a couple in a marriage or partnership. If one side feels like they are not getting enough out of the partnership, they need to remedy the situation as soon as possible, or find a new partner. You deserve a job that serves your life. The key is to make a little progress every day as you continue to hone how your efforts can serve an organization and the world.

Finding the solution is your job

Figuring out how you can make a greater contribution through your work has to be driven by you. I don’t think any of us can expect someone else to do this for us. After two decades of working with organizations and leaders on this topic, I see clearly that we cannot rely on companies alone to help us maximize our contribution and improve our well-being.

In my best estimation, there are a lot of managers and leaders who want people to have more meaningful jobs and personal lives. However, organizations are primarily held accountable for near-term financial results. Most organizations do not (yet) have a comparable mandate to foster employee well-being.

Therefore it is up to each of us, individually, to rewrite our definition of work and rewire the way we work. You do not, however, have to figure out the way forward all alone.

The task may sound daunting, but it’s not. Reorienting your efforts to focus on contributions can start small and develop over time. Even identifying how your work can have a more positive influence on one other person will help.

Reproduced from “Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to the World” by Tom Rath, 2020, Silicon Guild, Arlington, VA. Copyright © 2020 by Tom Rath. 

Tom Rath is an author and researcher who has spent the past two decades studying how work can improve human health and well-being. His 10 books have sold more than 10 million copies and made hundreds of appearances on global bestseller lists.

Tom’s first book, “How Full Is Your Bucket?” was an instant No. 1 New York Times bestseller and led to a series of books and activities for kids that are used in classrooms around the world. His book “StrengthsFinder” 2.0 is Amazon‘s top-selling nonfiction book of all time. Tom’s other bestsellers include “Strengths Based Leadership, Wellbeing,” “Eat Move Sleep,” and “Are You Fully Charged?”

During his 13 years at Gallup, Tom was the program leader for the development of Clifton StrengthsFinder, which has helped over 10 million people to uncover their talents, and went on to lead the organization’s employee engagement, well-being, and leadership practices worldwide. Tom has served for the past five years as a Gallup senior scientist. He also served as vice chair of the VHL cancer research organization and has been a regular lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.

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