Americans endure one of the longest workweeks in the world.

From the moment we enter school, we’re told to work hard in hopes of attaining good jobs when we’re older. For many of us, the American school and work systems pounded our dreams and creativity into complete and utter submission.

Growing up in New York, I never really understood why everyone looked so angry all the time. As an adult working in New York, I finally understood. We work ridiculously long hours, “enjoy” short lunch breaks, and we are grossly underpaid.

But hey, at least we get 2 weeks of paid vacation every year, right? Wait, what’s that? If we decide to actually use those 2 weeks of vacation, some of us risk losing our jobs? I forgot about that.

Before I made my break for it, I gained first-hand experience of the soul-crushing feeling of fighting through traffic just so that I could drag myself to a job I hated every day. I was a card-carrying participant in the rat-race.

Every day was similar to the last and there was no perceived ending in sight. Quite frankly, I can’t believe I lasted as long as I did.

The question remains – why do we work?

Living to Work

For some of us, we work out of necessity. We know that if we don’t work, we don’t eat and that simply won’t do. Perhaps others of us work because we enjoy it. We believe that idle hands are the devil’s playground, so we do whatever we can to stay busy, and work doesn’t bother us all that much.

Whatever your reason for working is, have you ever stopped to ask yourself whether or not you’re simply living to work? How would you even know if you were?
For a time, I had no direction in my life and I was merely existing. I had a degree that I couldn’t use and no idea of what I should do as an alternative. All of my eggs had been placed in the go-to-college-basket, so when that didn’t work out how I wanted it to, I had no idea what to do.

I was drifting in and out of dead-end jobs because I thought I was supposed to be working. Even if I didn’t do anything else, I should be working. It didn’t matter what kind of job it was so long as I was working. That was my mindset at that particular point in life. To hell with happiness, because I needed to work.

I found all types of jobs. At different times, I was a club bouncer, a store security guard, a promoter, a stockbroker trainee, a door-to-door salesman, a telemarketer, a loan officer, a debt settlement agent, and I even worked in maintenance. I took all of those jobs knowing they wouldn’t make me happy and that they held no real future for me, but I had no purpose in life, so the only purpose I knew was work.

I didn’t know what I was working for, but I knew the work needed to be done. That is how I define living to work.
It’s different if you’re working with a sense of purpose. When you’re working towards a goal, work doesn't feel like work anymore – it’s paying dues. When you’re working towards someone else’s goals because you don’t have any of your own, that’s a sign that you’re in serious need of a self-evaluation.

Working to Live

Living to work can lead to a miserable existence on this planet, but what about working to live? Is that any better?

Imagine the pressure of knowing that if you miss a day of work or if you get sick, you might not be able to eat or pay your rent. If that isn’t the proverbial man having his foot on your neck, then I don’t know what is.
Millions of people live with that reality on a daily basis, and thankfully, I’ve never been that bad off before. I’ve been in a financial bind in which I had to take any job I could find, but that was only for a short period of my life.

Back in my mid-20’s, I needed to have knee reconstruction surgery, but I couldn’t afford health insurance. Anyone who remembers can tell you that the cost of insurance was astronomically high pre-Affordable Care Act in America. At that point in time, coming across a job that offered benefits wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, and if you did find one, you had that whole pre-existing injuries clause to deal with.

To make matters worse, we were in the midst of a recession, so jobs were scarce. Since I couldn’t find a job that offered health insurance coverage, I had to figure out a way to work with and around the system. I had to find a job, save up enough money to pay the premiums for the first 6 months, and then have the surgery. I’d worry about the cost of the surgery later. All I knew was that I had been walking around on a knee being held together by a knee brace for about 2-years, and enough was enough.

Once I finally found a job – an hourly position cleaning airplanes and tarmacs at JFK – I started saving every dollar I made. Every day, regardless of the weather conditions, I dragged myself into work at 1 am to work the graveyard shift. Sometimes, they’d make us stay past our shifts and told us that we’d be fired if we left before being given permission to do so. On some days, I was able to double up and work as a substitute teacher after my shift. Those were some tough times!

Believe me, I know what it’s like to work an unsalaried position in which your income depends completely on your ability to show up for work.

When you’re in that position, you’re going to work whether you’ve got the plague or you’ve got the sniffles, because you can’t afford for that paycheck to get any smaller.

You’re working because you have no choice. You don’t have the luxury of deciding to change jobs at the drop of a hat. You take what you’re given and you make it work. To hell with happiness, because if you don’t work, you might not eat.

That’s how I define working to live.

I would argue that working to live is even worse than living to work. At least when you’re living to work, you’re working because you’re addicted to work or because you have no purpose of your own. When you’re working to live, you aren’t even afforded that much. It’s almost like you can’t even have time to think about having a purpose of your own.

Enjoying Your Life

If living to work and working to live can both be detrimental to our personal well-being, what should we do? How do we get the most out of our lives?
In order to escape this vicious cycle of self-destruction and meandering through life, I had to take a serious inventory of my life choices. I had to make a conscious decision and effort to stop wasting my potential, so I decided to create some goals for myself.

Here's a list of some of the goals I made for myself during that tumultuous time:
• Lose 20lbs
• Say yes twice as much as I say no
• Learn a new skill
• Stop downplaying the skills I already have
• Research and choose an attainable career and make a plan for how to get started (no more dead-end jobs)
• Write all of my goals down on paper (this was probably the most important)

In short, I gave myself a purpose.

Once you have a purpose, no one can take that from you. However big or small that purpose may be, it’s yours. You are the master of your domain and you are ultimately in control of your happiness. Find yourself a purpose, set some goals, and work toward them.

Author's Bio: 

Derek is a world traveler and English teacher who encourages self-reflection through travel. You can read more of his work at

Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @jaded80sbaby.