Why do people work?

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As I am awake as six o’clock in the morning preparing to drive pedicab for the Saint Paul, St. Patrick’s Day Parade this question is on my mind. I’ve received Social Security for my multiple disabilities for fifteen years now. There is no expectation that I have a job and for the first six years of being sick there was no way that I could work. My job was figuring out how to live but as soon as I could do anything I started working. One benefit to this is that I qualify for a Medicaid program in Minnesota designed for employed people with disabilities. Having medical coverage is essential to me and Medicare doesn’t really cover it but that’s another story.

Obviously the need for money is why many people work. It’s the driving assumption behind efforts to raise the minimum wage. People with a job should be able to survive in this modern world. For most people their job is their primary source of income but it’s hardly the only way to get money and perhaps not even the most efficient. You certainly can make more money panhandling than you can working at McDonald’s. The idea that if you work hard you will be financially rewarded for your efforts is a myth. In this modern age, for most people, working hard is essential for survival but it is no guarantee of great wealth.

Since money is essential for survival, if money is the only reason people work then the modern job is only one step removed from slavery. If money alone will get someone to do something that they wouldn’t do for any other reason, I don’t see how that is any different than bribery. That’s how I felt the other night when I had four stippers climb into the back of my cab all waving twenty dollar bills in my face. Believe me, I really wanted to help but as I explained to them, the law only permits me to transport three adults and even more important to me than the law was that I could lose my job. They were very disappointed that no amount of money could get me to give all four of them a ride. They also didn’t want to wait for another cab to arrive. They wanted what they wanted when they wanted it and thought that money was all they needed.

It is my belief that meaningful work, far more than money, is essential for human happiness. The work we do helps us form connections with other people and gives us an opportunity to make a difference in the world. Work is what gives us purpose. ┬áMost of the work I do I don’t get paid for at all. Writing this blog is work for which I don’t get paid. Being a parent is work for which I don’t get paid. Being a friend is work for which I don’t get paid. I get paid for performing music but not any more than it costs me to be a working musician. Driving pedicab is the only work I do which makes money but if money was my only motivation, I wouldn’t do it.

So what do you think? Would you do the work you do if you didn’t get paid? If you didn’t need the money?

Pay it forward

Since I started driving pedicab back in March I’ve been trying to figure out an economic model that works for me. I do the job because I love it, it’s good for my body and good for my soul. I need to make money doing it but if money was my sole motivation I would never do it.

My favorite rides are the ones I give for free, or at least not expecting any money. My second favorite are the ones where people totally over tip. That makes me feel good too. I usually I get a good balance of the two but one day a couple weeks ago I had a day where no one over tipped, but no one got a free ride or under paid either. Everyone paid their fair share and I made as much as I usually do. For some, that would be the perfect system and something to replicate but it didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t seem real. I want greater diversity. I want people to get rides even if they can’t afford it and I want people to feel good about paying more if they can.

What I really want is to be able to do my job without thinking about the money. What I really want is to be able to make a living by just being me and doing what I do naturally. I don’t feel comfortable accepting payment for services rendered because I consider the service to be priceless. The idea that you can get someone to haul you around on a bicycle if you give them enough money feels like bribery to me.

So I decided that no one would get to pay for their ride. I’ve saved enough money that I can do this, at least for a little while. In essence, that ride has already been paid for through the generosity of riders before them. My hope was that even though nobody had to pay me anything they would still want to. Since they couldn’t pay for their own ride I would let them pay for somebody elses. The belief being that we are all in this together and everyone does their part to support the community. It’s like I could never charge one of my friends for a ride but at the same time they have been some of the best tippers. I would just treat everyone like my friend. I thought it was a brilliant and original idea, but would it work?

Actually it’s not that original and it has worked. It’s basically the principle of “pay it forward”. Karma Kitchen and Seva Cafe work that way. There are numerous other examples of people paying it forward in real life.

Since I’ve been doing this for the past week and a half I’ve found it to be a pretty sound business model – at least for me. I’m getting the diversity of riders that I want and my income has stayed pretty much the same. Everyone who wants a ride can get a ride and everyone feels good paying what they can pay, even if that is nothing. Those that can’t pay it forward with money I ask to pay it forward with an act of kindness. Everyone has something to give and if we all do our part we can make the world a better place.

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