How to Balance Meaning and Money

What the science says about your relationship with what you do

Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

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A businessman is sitting on the beach of a small fishing village when he sees a fisherman approach the shore with his daily haul. Impressed by the quality of the fish, the businessman asks the fisherman how long it took him to bring in his catch.

“Just a short while,” the fisherman replies.

“Why don’t you stay out longer to catch more fish?” the businessman asks.

“Because this is all I need.”

“But then what do you do with your time?”

“I sleep late, catch a few fish, play with my kids, take a nap with my wife, and then join my buddies in town to drink wine and play guitar,” the fisherman responds.

The businessman is shocked. He explains that he has an MBA, and that if the fisherman follows his advice, he could help him grow his business. “You could buy a bigger boat,” the businessman says, “and use the proceeds to open your own cannery.”

“Then what?” the fisherman asks.

“You could move to the city to open a distribution center.”

“And then what?”

“You could expand your business internationally and eventually take your company public,” the businessman says. “When the time is right, you could sell your shares and become very rich.”

“And then what?”

“Well, then you can retire, move to a small fishing village, sleep late, catch a few fish, play with your kids, take naps with your wife, and join your buddies in town to drink wine and play guitar.”

The fisherman smiles at the businessman and continues down the beach.

I love this little parable. It’s an adaptation of a German short story from 1963 and has since been translated and shared widely. 

I first came across it in a Facebook post. It wasn’t just the story, but the first comment that has stuck with me since. Under the post, someone wrote, “There’s nothing noble about a life of mere sustenance. His life of idyll is great until he gets sick, there’s an algae bloom that kills the fish, or his boat throws a rod. He needs the extra investment capital to weather the unknown.” 

I was tempted to roll my eyes. I knew that type of reply guy. He’s the one who raises his hand in English class because he “disagrees with the premise of the question.” 

At the same time, he had a point. The tension between the fisherman and the commenter’s retort represents one of the most important questions we face: how do we balance the pursuit of a secure living with a meaningful life?

What role should work play in our lives?

Two caveats before we get into it. First, I can’t answer that question for you. Your relationship to work is yours to determine. Though not everyone has the privilege to dictate what they do or how many hours they work, we all have the ability to form a perspective on work’s role in our lives. If you don’t set boundaries around your work, it can easily seep like a gas into all of the unoccupied spaces. 

Second, the role work plays in our lives is not fixed—nor should we want it to be. It’s by wrestling with work’s place that we figure out what we care about—how our careers stack up against our values, our loved ones, or whatever else we hold dear. There will be seasons when we’ll prioritize work and those when we’ll prioritize life outside of work. So I’m wary of any one-size-fits-all prescription or the idolization of “work-life balance,” as if there’s some mythical state to which we should all aspire. 

That being said, I’ve spent the past three years writing a book about how work has come to dominate our lives and how to reclaim our lives from its clutches. Here’s where I net out. 

I came into the book project thinking I was going to write a manifesto for the fisherman—a declaration of support for the simpler, less work-centric life. I had observed how central work had become to my own life, the lives of my peers, and the culture of our county. The balance felt off. We worshiped celebrity CEOs, plastered “Do What You Love” messages on the walls of our coworking spaces, and treated jobs akin to religious identities. But as a result, to paraphrase psychotherapist Esther Perel, too many people brought the best of themselves to work and kept the leftovers at home. 

Over the course of reporting and writing, though, my hot take tempered into something more lukewarm. (Mind you, I began the book pre-pandemic, pre-great resignation, pre-quiet quitting, and pre- whatever anti-work meme trends next.) I still believe we ought to design our work around our lives rather than the other way around. But I don’t think the “work sucks” view serves workers either. 

The truth is we work more than we do anything else—more than we eat, sleep, or see our families. How we spend those hours matters. Framing work as a necessary evil does not necessarily lead to fulfillment. Part of my critique of anti-work and anti-capitalist memes is that there aren’t many viable alternatives. We must all still pay rent. 

Sure, UBI experiments and countries with robust social safety nets show how it’s possible to make the consequences of not working less dire. But the reality is that the majority of us will work for the majority of our lives. The more interesting inquiry is not whether you are pro- or anti-work, but how you can fit work into your vision of a life well lived.

What does the science say?

If I can’t tell you how you should think about work, I can at least share some research that has helped me think through its place in my life. Here are three principles that might help you evaluate your relationship with what you do. 

Finding intrinsic motivation tends to be more fulfilling than extrinsic motivation

In one of the most famous psychology experiments on motivation, researchers observed how students at a local preschool spent their free time. After identifying which kids chose drawing as their free time activity, they divided the young artists into three groups. 

One group of students was shown a “Good Player Award,” a certificate with a gold star, red ribbon, and the student’s name. The researchers told the students in this group that if they drew, they would receive an award. Group two wasn’t shown an award, but if the students chose to draw, they were given one at the end of the session. Group three was not shown or given any awards.

Two weeks after the experiment, the researchers returned to the classroom to observe the students again. The students in groups two and three drew just as much after the experiment as they did before. But students in the first group—those who expected to receive an award after drawing—now spent less time drawing than they did before the experiment. 

It wasn’t the presence of the award but the expectation of receiving it that dampened the students’ interest in drawing. The researchers concluded that internal satisfaction from an activity may decrease when the promise of an external reward looms. The experiment has since been replicated many times with other groups of students and adults, yielding similar results. 

The career implications from this experiment are straightforward: working for extrinsic validation alone, like a high salary, fancy title, or the adult equivalent of a “Good Player Award,” is a less sustainable approach than pursuing work you enjoy doing. The experiment proved something we intuitively know: working exclusively for external rewards rarely brings lasting fulfillment. As the old saying goes, How much money is enough, Mr. Rockefeller? Just a little bit more.

Valuing time tends to be more fulfilling than valuing money 

In the mid-1970s, the average American, German, and French worker all worked roughly the same amount of hours per year. In the developed world, average working hours had fallen for the majority of the 20th century, thanks to technological advancements, labor organizing, and increases in wealth. Historically, the richer a person or a country became, the less they worked because, well, they could afford not to. 

But in the mid-1970s, a strange trend began in the U.S. While the average worker’s hours in our peer nations continued to decline, the average American’s working hours flatlined. And some American workers, namely college-educated men, started to work more than ever. Explaining this trend is another essay entirely, but suffice to say that rather than trade wealth for more free time, as was customary for most of history, American elites started trading their free time for more work.

It’s well-documented that increasing your wealth can lead to more happiness to a point. But once our basic needs are accounted for, a growing body of research has proven that prioritizing time outweighs prioritizing wealth. In thinking about work’s role in your life—especially if you’re relatively well-off—it’s worth considering that valuing more free time over more money leads to more fulfilling career decisions and higher overall well-being

Satisficing tends to be more fulfilling than maximizing

Imagine you’re buying a sweater. You find one that fits well and looks good for a fair price. If you’re what social scientists call “a maximizer,” you might ask the clerk to put the sweater on hold so you can spend the rest of the day going to other stores to ensure there isn’t a better sweater out there. On the other hand, if you’re a so-called “satisficer”—a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice—you’ll likely feel alright about buying the first sweater and move on with your day. 

A satisficer determines their criteria, and once they find something that meets their standards, they stop searching, whereas maximizers want to be sure that every decision is the best decision they could possibly make. In the words of psychologist Lori Gottlieb, “The satisficer is one who wants what she has, and the maximizer is the one who is always chasing, trying to have what he wants.”

While there are benefits and drawbacks to each approach, the research says that satisficers tend to be happier. Even if the maximizer exhausts all of the other options and returns to the store to buy the original sweater, they tend to be less fulfilled than the satisficer who bought the sweater right away.

From a work perspective, many of us have internalized the message that there is one dream job out there and we shouldn’t settle until we find it. We tweak our resumes and browse LinkedIn in the hopes that our next role will help us self-actualize. But perhaps a satisficer approach, where we determine what matters and recognize when we have it, is a better recipe for happiness.

I named my book The Good Enough Job as a nod to the satisficer approach to job-seeking. Compared to the perfect or dream job, “good enough” is a more forgiving ideal. It doesn’t idealize what a job can offer nor accept that work must be endless toil. Fundamentally, good enough is an invitation to choose what sufficiency means to you—perhaps it's a job that pays a certain wage, gets off at a certain hour, or gives you the time and energy to do what you love when you’re not working.

However you define “good enough,” though, I hope you recognize it when you find it. The fisherman may think you work too much. The reply guy may think you’re not being sufficiently responsible. But their opinion on work doesn’t matter nearly as much as your own. 

Simone Stolzoff is a San Francisco-based author, journalist, and designer.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy his course, “Designing Your Next Career Step.” The next cohort kicks off next week, and Every readers get 15% off with the code EVERY. If you have questions, feel free to email him. His book is also available for pre-order

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@gian.filice over 1 year ago

Useful to compare this thought experiment to this:

@abelbayre94 9 months ago

i love it i will support your work

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