“Why We Work”, by Barry Schwartz – What Motivates Us to Work, Jobs VS Callings, and Designing Human Nature

On my way to reading 1,000 books before I turn 30, this was number 389.

I take notes on everything I read, with my notes organized by book and by year. My most important notes from each book get added to one master document and I sell these to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, the international human rights and disaster relief organization.

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If you think about something all day every day, then you just have to write about it. That’s how I feel about books and literature, so here are some of my notes and thoughts on the book, “Why We Work”, by Barry Schwartz. All quotes below are either from my notes, or from the book itself, unless otherwise indicated. Enjoy!

“Human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design.”

— Barry Schwartz

From Amazon: Part of the TED series: Why We Work Why do we work? The question seems so simple. But Why We Work Business Human Nature Barry Schwartz Professor Barry Schwartz proves that the answer is surprising, complex and urgent.

We’ve long been taught that the reason we work is primarily for a paycheck. In fact, we’ve shaped much of the infrastructure of our society to accommodate this belief. Then why are so many people dissatisfied with their work, despite healthy compensation? And why do so many people find immense fulfillment and satisfaction through “menial” jobs?

Schwartz reveals exactly how the false idea that the goal for work should be pay came to be, how we came to believe that paying workers more leads to better work, and why this has made our society confused, unhappy and has established a dangerously misguided system.

Ultimately, Schwartz proves that the root of what drives us to good work can rarely be incentivized, and that the cause of bad work is often an attempt to do just that.

With great insight and wisdom, Schwartz illuminates the path for readers to take their first steps toward understanding, empowering us all to find great work. Schwartz is also the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, which has been translated into twenty languages.


If it’s true that we have nothing to lose except our chains, then a critical re-evaluation of the role and perception of work in our societies is an essential step towards designing an ideal human future.

And Barry Schwartz asserts that it really is up to us to design. We design human nature by designing the institutions within which people live, and that institutional landscape is constantly changing. Whether it changes for better or for worse is our responsibility towards the future.

“So is a theory about human nature a discovery, or is it an invention? I believe that often, it is more invention than discovery. I think that ideas, like Adam Smith’s, about what motivates people to work have shaped the nature of the workplace. I think they have shaped the workplace in directions that are unfortunate. What this means is that instead of walking around thinking that “well, work just is what it is, and we have to deal with it,” we should be asking whether the way work is is the way it should be. My answer to that question is an unequivocal no.”
― Barry Schwartz

We have to ask ourselves what kind of human nature we want to help design, and how we may need to shift away from the one we may be unconsciously designing now. A human nature which subserviently submits to demeaning work by no other means other than the promise of a pay check.

My own contention is that there is no such thing as demeaning work, apart from the value that one assigns to it. Example: without garbage men, our towns and cities would be filthy, monstrous places in which to live, and sanitation workers provide a vital service.

I’ve often wondered how cool it would be to hold on to the outside of a garbage truck while it’s whizzing down the street, and leaping off at each house to collect that day’s waste. Who can assign a value to that work besides oneself?

You’ll never meet most of the people whose houses you collect from, and if they look down on you because of your job, what does that matter to you? A faceless person’s opinion is going impact your own opinion of yourself?

Why We Work Business Human Nature Barry Schwartz

Work can be and often is crafted by the employee in such a way as to maximize satisfaction even though what they are doing isn’t necessarily part of the job description. Canadian Football League Head Coach Tom Higgins said that being a garbage man was the best job he ever had.  Stress-free, got to ride the truck, exercise…perfect job for a university kid playing football.

Our ideas about work change our responses to work and the errant thinking of centuries past has certainly contributed to our present state of affairs with respect to our attitudes about work. These ideas persist today, as studies show that even if some people aren’t motivated by material incentives, they tend to think that everyone else is.

In reality, what it takes to get good help is to give people jobs that they want to do. There needs to be something else that motivates them to spend their one and only life in one place rather than another. Most people don’t consciously design their lives in any sort of meaningful way, and so they accept these disastrous conditions.

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“If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.”

— Barry Schwartz

Jobs don’t motivate people nearly as well as a career or a calling will motivate people. Strangely, however, these are sometimes identical to an outside observer. A lawyer can feel like he has a “job” and hate every single day of his working life. Yet, another lawyer (a human rights lawyer perhaps?) can feel like he’s changing the world in significant ways and that person can feel like he doesn’t even HAVE a job.

I know that’s the feeling that I have when I go into “work”.

Jobs are done just for pay check; you go to the office, you perform the assigned tasks, you collect your money, and you leave. If you’re like many, many others, you then medicate yourself with hours of mindless television, and mind-numbing substances in unhealthy quantities. There has to be a better way.

Erich Fromm explains the development in these terms:

“Man had to be molded into a person who was eager to spend most of his energy for the purpose of work, who acquired discipline, particularly orderliness and punctuality, to a degree unknown in most other cultures”

Modern work culture is killing your spirit! In general, you want to avoid “jobs” and even sometimes “careers” and pursue something like a “calling”; something that you find intrinsically meaningful, or that provides many opportunities for “flow experiences”. Jobs will kill your drive, and careers can numb you into obscurity over the long-term if you don’t remain vigilant.

Why We Work Business Human Nature Barry Schwartz

There are jobs, careers, and callings, but I believe that it’s possible to stay in one job with no chance for advancement just for the sole reason that it’s enjoyable.

Life isn’t “going” anywhere, but most people seem to believe in this weird sort of “quasi-Hegelian” dialectical materialism. They think that there is an end point, rooted in the meaning of history, at which we “have to” arrive. That’s just goddamn stupid.

More of My Notes From “Why We Work”:

*Excessively managed workers rate much lower in job satisfaction and are unlikely to bring any sort of creativity to their jobs

*Teachers who are forced to teach from the book are driven out of teaching by this very fact

*People who bill by the hour tend to look at their other activities in the same terms


Why We Work Business Human Nature Barry Schwartz If society asks little of us, it gets little from us. We are living in the institutions of our own design, and we can choose to retain some measure of control over our human future. That much is clear from Schwartz’s penetrating work.

Not only that, but positive conceptions of work are likely to disappear if enough people get the idea that it is human nature that people only work for pay. This is a harmful idea, and it has to die. There are other reasons to work besides money, and there are so many options for paid employment available now that there is really no excuse (for many) to stay on at a job that they hate.

“Ninety percent of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.”
Barry Schwartz, Why We Work

Human beings are unfinished animals. Societal forces press upon us daily, often beneath our conscious awareness, and the insidious advance of the depressing work culture is being felt by hundreds of millions. Do you want to be part of the hundred million? Or do you want to be an individual?

Do you want to be part of the faceless, meaningless crowd? Or do you want to do work that matters?

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

“Why We Work” by Barry Schwartz: Complement it with “I Will Teach You To Be Rich”, by Ramit Sethi, Brain Pickings / Maria Popova’s examination of “Why We Work”Being Comfortable Is Actually Killing Your Spirit, and The Greatest Books of All Time.



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Why We Work Business Human Nature Barry Schwartz


Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, nightclub bouncer, and hardcore reader. He writes about books, self-discipline, and human rights at Godlike Discipline, and you can get his free ebook on how to radically improve your own levels of self-discipline. Between workouts, Matt is trying to read 1,000 books before he turns 30, and start a non-profit that allows volunteers to earn money just by tracking the hours they already spend volunteering. He would be straight-up honored if you would support the life-saving work of Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch. Here he is on a horse.

Why We Work Business Human Nature Barry Schwartz

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