Show Me the Meaning! A Review of Barry Schwartz’s Why We Work

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

The television show Mad Men gets much of its insight from holding up a bygone work era to spotlight just how much societal views have changed in a short time and how unenlightened those notions seem today in retrospect. But a thorny exception to our present day enlightenment is the notion that we work only for remuneration. How is this notion not as jarringly antiquated as seeing a pregnant Betty Draper smoking and drinking?

The idea that people only work for money is sadly persistent today—all the more so despite decades of research highlighting the variety of satisfactions people derive beyond the paycheck. What’s even more nefarious is how persistent the idea that people work only for pay is, even when it’s contradicted by introspection and lived experience. How did we get here and why is the idea that we work only for money so persistent? 

The puzzle and utter exasperation of this question animates Why We Work, the most recent treatise by Barry Schwartz. The release of this book is well-timed for Labor Day in that it’s asking important and fundamental questions about how our assumptions about work may be one of the biggest barriers to our collective and individual well-being. This is the most recent incarnation of a theme Schwartz has touched on throughout a career meditating on incentives and self-fulfilling prophesies.

Why We Work is an elaboration upon Shwartz’s most recent TED talk, which he gave in Vancouver in 2014. TED is providing this book format as a way for people to go deeper into the topic than the brief talk would allow. The short book format lends itself nicely to rooting the conversation more deeply in intellectual thought, fleshing out compelling examples of how, in what are seemingly routine and mundane jobs, individuals seek meaning in their work beyond a simply a paycheck.

The power of intrinsic motivation in the workplaces is well-documented by the scientific literature. I suspect many will come away from Why We Work with a greater insight into how the importance of meaning and intrinsic value people get from work can actually be leveraged to enhance the bottom line for many companies. Ironically, this is a critique squarely within the dominant economic logic that Schwartz is pushing us to question. If intrinsic motivation is truly better for the bottom line why hasn’t this spread like wildfire in a capitalistic system geared towards maximizing profits? The true value of this book is to push the reader to think deeper than this.

Indeed, the larger puzzle that Schwartz is attempting to tackle and the more central argument of the book is the powerful and nefarious role “idea technology” can have on human behavior. Here Schwartz is referring not just to the advent of the iPhone or any specific technological gadget that happens to take hold, but more broadly to the “use of human intelligence to create objects or processes that change the conditions of daily life.” Here the “ideology” that people only work for pay, then has implications for the manner in which labor itself is constructed (e.g., removal of the aspects of work that engender intrinsic satisfaction) in a way that becomes self-fulfilling (e.g., people work only for the pay because the intrinsic satisfactions of work have been removed). In this way, the aspects of human nature that are brought out are intimately linked with the social institutions that are set-up to guide work behavior.

How is the notion that we work only for money not as jarringly antiquated as seeing a pregnant Betty Draper smoking and drinking?

What is to be done? Here Schwartz’s diagnosis directs us to change the operating assumptions of our social institutions and calls for individuals to strive in their daily lives to get more in touch with the aspects of work that provide meaning and satisfaction. We are encouraged to think about maximizing well-being instead of efficiency or economic value. Here Why We Work falls a bit short in terms of providing a clear guide for how we can be more intentional about the social ecologies we create and choose to inhabit. The application of idea technology pervades almost every aspect of human life that social institutions govern (e.g., how we eat, our leisure, etc.). There are enormous and powerful policy implications here that the book could paint a clear path forward for those of us who are persuaded by the book’s diagnosis.

This is a wonderfully lucid and compelling book that should be required reading for those who want to take up the challenge of creating organizations that allow for the richer and more meaningful aspects of human nature to flourish. It’s also a useful tool to introspect on why you work and how, in everything you do, you might take steps towards cultivating a more meaningful and fulling life. Will the power of Schwartz’s prose be enough to for this insight to break through a culture where economic logic is so dominant and pervasive? I hope so—so much is at stake and anyone wishing to make their lives and the world a better place would do well to take this Labor Day to consider Why We Work.

Disclosure: Barry Schwartz is a member of The Psych Report’s Advisory Board.