I have worked for many years all over the world. Ten of those years, I spent in Japan. Work there was always different somehow. It seemed more exciting and fun. I had wondered why. I also saw that the Japanese had a work ethic second to none. After my time was up there, I left, having never really understood why they worked so hard and so well.
After a decade, I returned. This thing called work still plagued me. Was it because of their Buddhist and Shinto cultures? I wondered. It had something to do with their culture and beliefs. But I could not put my finger on exactly what it was.
Then one day I was receiving my change from a convenience store attendant. The attendant was bowing and somehow I could tell she wished me well. It was not a job thing. It was not something she was doing for her. She was doing it for me.
I thanked the attendant and looked at her.
I turned to my wife, who was Japanese. “Can I ask you what your definition of work is?” She laughed, as sometimes I asked unusual things about Japan. I then said that actually I had wanted to tell her what I thought their definition of work was.
She nodded. I then explained the following. “Work is an opportunity, to give back to society, from which one has been drawing upon since birth. And for that, you get paid.” My wife looked at me strangely as if I had said nothing unusual. “Of course,” was all she said.
Then after we left the convenience store she asked what I had thought work was, if it was not giving back to society. I just shook my head. I did not really think we had a real definition for work in the West. It was about bettering self, or something. There was nothing noble in its definition, and as a social function, it often failed.
Later I thought of all the parks I had used, all the roads, hospitals, schools, beaches, clean air, the views from mountains, and a whole lot more. I realised I still had a lot to give back to make up for the wonderful use I had made of this world. This really affected me. I also realised that my work was putting a future society here, so that others not-born-yet, could later pay it back. I somehow feel good about that.
I tell this to almost everyone I meet in the West now. Work is not some self-betterment exercise. It is an opportunity to pay back those who had worked so hard before, putting our society together, here for me, my friends, family and the rest of us. I feel happy that I finally I understand that work is my chance to discharge this great obligation.
I also found something else interesting. I was no longer upset if work took longer. And the money I received for my work seemed far less as important as the work itself. It was all in the definition.