Barry Schwartz: The way we think about work is broken
What makes work satisfying? Apart from a paycheck, there are intangible values that, Barry Schwartz suggests, our current way of thinking about work simply ignores. It's time to stop thinking of workers as cogs on a wheel.
Barry Schwartz - Psychologist Barry Schwartz studies the link between economics and psychology, offering startling insights into modern life. Lately, working with Ken Sharpe, he's studying wisdom. Full bio
Today I'm going to talk about work.
And the question I want to ask and answer is this:
"Why do we work?"
Why do we drag ourselves out of bed every morning
instead of living our lives
just filled with bouncing from one TED-like adventure to another?
You may be asking yourselves that very question.
Now, I know of course, we have to make a living,
but nobody in this room thinks that that's the answer to the question,
"Why do we work?"
For folks in this room, the work we do is challenging,
it's engaging, it's stimulating, it's meaningful.
And if we're lucky, it might even be important.
So, we wouldn't work if we didn't get paid,
but that's not why we do what we do.
And in general,
I think we think that material rewards are a pretty bad reason
for doing the work that we do.
When we say of somebody that he's "in it for the money,"
we are not just being descriptive.
Now, I think this is totally obvious,
but the very obviousness of it raises what is for me
an incredibly profound question.
Why, if this is so obvious,
why is it that for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet,
the work they do has none of the characteristics
that get us up and out of bed and off to the office every morning?
How is it that we allow the majority of people on the planet
to do work that is monotonous, meaningless and soul-deadening?
Why is it that as capitalism developed,
it created a mode of production, of goods and services,
in which all the nonmaterial satisfactions that might come from work were eliminated?
Workers who do this kind of work,
whether they do it in factories, in call centers,
or in fulfillment warehouses,
do it for pay.
There is certainly no other earthly reason to do what they do except for pay.
Barry Schwartz - Psychologist Barry Schwartz studies the link between economics and psychology, offering startling insights into modern life. Lately, working with Ken Sharpe, he's studying wisdom.
Why you should listen
In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice , Barry Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before — are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression? Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today's western world is actually making us miserable.
Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness.
Schwartz's previous research has addressed morality, decision-making and the varied inter-relationships between science and society. Before Paradox he published The Costs of Living, which traces the impact of free-market thinking on the explosion of consumerism -- and the effect of the new capitalism on social and cultural institutions that once operated above the market, such as medicine, sports, and the law.
Both books level serious criticism of modern western society, illuminating the under-reported psychological plagues of our time. But they also offer concrete ideas on addressing the problems, from a personal and societal level.