September 24

What is Work



In this episode of Unique Careers, Unique Lives  I took the microphone and explored the meaning of work. 

Subscribe & Download

Want to make sure you never miss out on a new episode? Subscribe to the podcast using your favorite app!

Full Text of the Episode

What comes to your mind when you think about the word work?

Job, tiring, boring, suffering, money?

Most of us have negative associations when we think of work. For most of us this word is minimised to a job, which means doing a specific work given to us in exchange for money.

And this definition is also confirmed by the Cambridge dictionary which defines work as “an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical or mental effort to do, usually for money”.

The above definition lists the input as effort and output as money and work - the activity as the process. Not very inspiring, is it?

Our families, our societies, our generational history contributed to this negative connotation.

Roman Krznaric wrote about the semantics of the word “work" in various languages. In Russian work is robota and it comes from the word “rab” which means slave. In Latin the word is labour, which means drudgery - very very hard physical work, in French the word is “travail”, which comes from tripalium , the torture instrument made by putting three stakes together. 

Every definition, be it contemporary or historical mentions that there is an effort involved. In the old times the effort was given in exchange for “freedom” or food to eat, in the modern times for money.

When we arrive at the age of adulthood we ask ourselves : “How can I earn money?”  

Ideally we would want to maximise the money and minimise the effort. Because the reason we work is to live. We all want to lead happy healthy lives, therefore we want work to have the least interference with our lives. We want it to provide for us but not be a hassle. We want to do it for some hours but not take it home with us. We ideally want it to be fun while we are there because why not?

This idea of work being separated from life makes us look for work that is also separated from our lives. We usually find work alternatives that are related to our studies or similar to the work of people we know. And in the case where we have no idea, we take what we see as available to us.

For some of us, this type of work works: The time spent at work is not a torture and it provides for the life we feel at ease at. We have enough money to pay for our expenses, and enough time and energy to take care of our physical and emotional needs and the needs of others we want to take care of. 

Elizabeth Gilbert mentions in her book “Big Magic” that she never expected her writing to provide for her, she had always day jobs, she worked as a waitress, a bartender, and various other jobs until she had the breakthrough with her writing. I have a sense that her work even supported her writing as she was meeting all types of people from all walks of life and hearing lots of stories.

When you have a job that provides for what is important to you in life, all is well. 

But this is not the case for some of us.

Or should I say for most of us?

According to the writer and philosopher Roman Krznaric  "Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it.”  More than half of the workforce is unhappy in their jobs. And according to one cross European study 60% of people who are employed would choose a different career direction if they could start again.”

Are we not content any more with good enough? Or is our jobs even not good enough?

When we go to work, to the place where we use our effort in the way that is expected from us so that we can earn money for our lives, we expect that “using effort” is a neutral act. Or at least it is a profitable trade where the cost of the effort to us is relatively low: our time and a bit of physical and mental tiredness. (I leave it up to you to decide if this cost is actually low)

What we are not aware of until we experience it is that there might be other costs of our work: the overarching negative feelings we have about our work. They usually come as the screams of our soul like:

This is not who I am

I don’t belong here

I don’t do a good job

I have no interest in what I am doing but people are needing this work from me so I should do it but i really don’t want to

I don’t want to be here

i don’t agree with the way we work

I don’t agree with the way we talk with people

This is not fair, this is not honest, this is not nice

Sometimes the work conditions are good, the colleagues are good, the boss is good but we just don’t care about the matter of the work we are doing. It just doesn’t mean anything to us. It feels so difficult to care. But we want to care because we care about the people we work with and who expect work from us. We force ourselves to do a good job but it is very difficult to do a good job when we don’t really care. We judge ourselves for not doing a good job as we know we could but we also don’t want to really. Arghhhhhh!

For some of us it is a dread to do the job itself, we find ourselves doing activities that is so far from who we really are. We are creatives but we find ourselves in jobs about correctness, structure and control. We are introverts but our job rotates around meeting crowds and convincing them to take action. 

Sometimes it is about the work environment where we cannot relate to anyone or the standards of work is completely against our personal values and standards.

All these experiences create negative feelings that do not only stay at work but accompany us in our lives. We feel exhausted. We feel drained. Having to sustain ourselves at work with the presence of all these emotions uses up all our internal resources, our tank gets totally empty and we frantically try to fill it up as quickly as possible. The fastest boost of happiness: here is a huge cup of chocolate chip ice-cream, let’s pump up the tank of excitement with untill-the-morning-Netflix watching. Before we could come to our senses, find a sense of calm, have a rest and decide where to invest our leisure time, the morning comes where we need to go to work again. Days and days pass with the same cycle where things get worse. Our negative emotions pile up not only because of our work, but now also because of missing the things that are important to us: we did not spend quality time with our family and friends, we did not read the books we wanted, the side project we were having got lost in the dark, we neglected the exercise, going out, taking fresh air and being in the life. Now on top of our dissatisfaction at work, we also have feelings of guilt. We judge ourselves. We now have negative thoughts and emotions not only when we are at work but also when we are alone. We say we are not good enough, social enough, responsible enough. And guess what happens with the presence of these thoughts and emotions? We run to fill our empty tank immediately with the same things that were the initiator of these thoughts. Then we feel bad again. Then we do the same things again. Then we feel even worse. It becomes an endless vicious cycle.

Before the dots connected as a circle there was one dot: the work, the activity we use our physical or mental effort to do for money, so we can pay for our expenses, and enough time and energy to take care of our physical and emotional needs and the needs of others we want to take care of.  But the promise did not hold. We could not even take care of our physical and emotional needs, let alone the needs of others. On the contrary, our work added a huge additional need of healing to the equation which became the core need of our psyche, which ended up our system transfering all the energy resources to it, leaving only crumbs for everything else that is important to us in life.

An alternative definition of work

What could be the alternative?

Let’s go back to the definition of work by the Cambridge dictionary “ Work is an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical or mental effort to do, usually for money”.

Do you notice "Usually for money”?

It is usually for money, but sometimes for something else. And I bet it can be for money and something else. But we’ll come to that later.

Work is not only for money.

How would we otherwise explain the world famous billionaires who retired from their companies running big charities, speaking at big events, writing books, mentoring new generation of professionals, working as much if not more than before?

What is work if it is not for money? And why do we use our physical and mental effort for it?

By now you should have understood that I like to look up the definitions of words and when I scroll down a bit in the Cambridge dictionary definition of work, I find this:

to shape, change, or process a substance.

As in " Working iron requires higher temperatures than bronze.”.


Work is shaping, changing, processing a substance.

Shaping, changing, processing ideas.

Shaping, changing, processing data.

Shaping, changing, processing words.

Shaping, changing, processing movement.

Shaping, changing, processing visuals.

Shaping, changing, processing sounds.

Shaping, changing, processing houses.

Shaping, changing, processing nails

Shaping, changing, processing food

Shaping, changing, processing wool

Shaping, changing, processing numbers.

Shaping, changing, processing cultures

Shaping, changing, processing minds

Shaping, changing, processing hearts.

Work is creating this change on the matter of our work.

We work because we care about the matter.

We work because we love the act of shaping, changing and processing.

So work is an activity that a person uses physical or mental effort to do because they love putting the type of physical or mental effort required by the work and/or they love the subject matter of the work.

This definition reminds me of the words of Khalil Gibran : Work is love made visible

Anything can be work, cooking can be work, care-giving for a loved one can be work, raising children can be work, campaigning for a cause can be work. Whatever you call “my work”, which has a subject-matter and requires your putting physical or mental effort is work.

When you can call it “my”, work becomes an extension of who you are, it becomes an expression of your identity : it expresses your values, it expresses your choices. 

You become one with your work, you lose yourself in it, you experience flow, you feel the meaning and purpose, and you are energised just because you are doing it. Work is your unique energy being materialised in an activity and the activity in turn energises you.

Work feeds your life.

When you do “your” work, you have a different posture, a different aura. You bring this aura everywhere and touch everyone with it. You energise people around you. 

As your "emotional tank” is full, you are open to others and what life offers. You give your attention to people fully, you are kind to others and yourself, you notice and savour little moments of life. You are fully in the life and you feel fully alive.

In this new definition there is no clear separation between your work and your life because doing your work is a very crucial part of your life, as Marsha Sinetar calls it in her book Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, it provides us with a way of dedicating ourselves to life.   Work in this new definition is a big source of you feeling alive. 

Full Text of the Episode

Start doing "your" work. Discover who you really are and start offering your unique self as a contribution. Join me in the pilot program starting on October 20th.

About the author 


I am a LifeWork coach, the author of the book The Gift of Being Unfulfilled at Work, the host of Unique Careers, Unique Lives podcast, and the co-founder of BeCoach Academy. Learn more on

You may also like

Top 10 Pieces of Wisdom from 2022

Top 10 Pieces of Wisdom from 2022

Self in Service

Self in Service
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

free worksheet

Transform Unfulfillment into Self Discovery