How to Think More Deeply About Work

If we want to work better, first we need to think better

Will Buckingham
Human Parts
Published in
9 min readMay 10, 2021
“The Seasons” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder from the Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection. Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We spend much of our lives working. And much of the time we are not working, we spend talking about work, recovering from work, fretting about work, or wondering if we should work more or work less.

But less often do we stop to think more deeply about work. What, after all, is work? Why does it loom so large in our lives? And when it comes to questions like these, philosophy can help throw more light on what work is and why it matters.

What is work?

In his book on the philosophy of work, Lars Svendsen says that work, at the most fundamental level, is about acting on the external world so that “one can get the necessities of life.” You work hard in the garden, turning over the soil and planting your seeds in neat rows. And, sometime in the future, you will be able to feast on the crops you have planted.

Melon farmer, circa 1370. Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Work is not just about getting the necessities of life here and now. Rather than just shaping the world in the present, work is also about our relationship with the future. It is about making sure we continue to have access to what we need in an uncertain world. As the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament says, it is perhaps wise to put in work now so that our future will be one of greater ease: “He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that followeth vain persons is void of understanding” (Proverbs 12:11).

But work is not just about attaining external goods — both now and in the future. Many of our preoccupations around work are related to internal goods. These are the kinds of questions that worry us: Is our work meaningful? Is it satisfying? Is it enjoyable? Does it meet our desire for status? What does it do for our identity, our particular role in the world? And is our work useful to others?

External and internal goods do not always align. And this often makes our relationship with work complex. Do we take the higher-paying but lower-status job? Or do we take the…



Will Buckingham
Human Parts

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham