We are not paid to have fun

Executive summary: The key to motivating your knowledge workers is to provide them a context, the meaning for their efforts.

We are not paid to have fun. Artwork by my son, Lorant Farkas (9)

We are not paid to have fun. Artwork by my son, Lorant Farkas (9)


I remember a meeting I attended as an engineer quite a few years ago. We talked about a project that was stuck and due to some organizational barriers we were forced to implement a — from the engineer’s point of view — mindless “workaround”. It simply looked inferior to our standards. So a fellow young engineer cried out, “I will do it, but just for you to know, it’s not going to be fun.” A manager replied, “We are not paid to have fun.”

It struck me immediately, that I must be in the wrong place. I was indeed putting all the effort and money into my studies in order to be able to do something I enjoy. Besides a great source of challenge and experience, I thought of my education as an investment worth to be made in order to have a meaningful career. After all, we all know from the beginning, that half of our adult lives we spend at the workplace, and I was not ready to become a slave of my wrong early decisions and laziness. Of course, I knew from the beginning, that as a technically adept person I’ll probably never have to starve. But the wealth one can generate in some other fields was for me way less alluring, than the sheer act of creation and intellectual depth, the kind of which you only get in science and technology [1].

For children, work is obviously something cool — otherwise, why would adults leave their children for it for so many long hours almost every day? Then children grow up and start to work, only to find themselves in uninspiring, sometimes directly hostile work environments. A few years later, shaped by their bad experiences they start to believe that this is how it all has to be, that there’s no other way. Want to enjoy yourself? Wait until the weekend when the daily grinding ends, go home, and find fulfillment in your friends, family and hobbies. Or even worse, wait until you grow old and get pensioned.

Letting off work as a source of joy is a steep slope. For me it’s like throwing half of our lives out the window; a semi-suicide.

Work neither has to be easy nor always brilliantly creative. It just have to have a clear, meaningful, challenging goal, for which it’s worth to trade one’s leisure time for sweat and the unmistakable feeling of achievement. Sportsmen climb mountains and run marathons for joy. Just the same way engineers, scientists, businessmen and other highly qualified men and women are working day by day, because they like what they are doing.

As a manager, you need to provide a context, the meaning for their work, and your employees will have fun. Fun is not something one shall be ashamed to have at work. Quite contrary, it’s the only way an organization can innovate and produce true value.


[1] More precisely in the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I acknowledge of course, that others might find fulfillment in other similarly complex fields.

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