How many reasons are there to stay on the job or, instead, to quit after winning a mega Power Ball lottery—say, $100 million?

Those who believe that we are all special, different, etc., will say “as many reasons as there are people”. The more scientifically, statistically or category-minded will say “not that many”. Dodging that squabble by setting it aside, it may nonetheless be illuminating to ask oneself whether and why the choice would be to quit or continue working.

A  June 2, 2011 Christian Science Monitor article, “Powerball numbers: Why do lottery winners keep working?”, citing a 2004 study, reported that “of the 185 winners’ surveys examined in the study, 63 percent continued working full time at the same company after they won the lottery. Others started their own business (10 percent) or cut back to part time (11 percent). In all, 85 percent stayed in the workplace.”

The study focused on “work centrality” and prize size as the key variables determining the “work or walk” choice, with quitting correlating with high winnings and greater emphasis on the importance of work in one’s life.

So, what would you do—work, or walk?

Without knowing each and every one of you, I am nonetheless willing to have a stab at a list of reasons—some deep, maybe deeply unconscious, that are likely to be offered by or affect a lot of you or us.

Why Still Work and Not Walk?

Let’s start with reasons for continuing to work after the big win. (In Part II, reasons for quitting instead will be presented and examined):

1.   Work-based identity: If you define yourself by your work (as a manifestation of work centrality), quitting may seem like self-annihilation. Like a concert pianist who develops severe arthritis and can no longer play, someone whose life is his work and whose work is his life may find it very difficult to imagine such a drastic change in identity as well as in lifestyle.

Even though, unlike arthritis, a winning lottery ticket expands one’s choices, the grip of a work-based self-definition can be as powerful a deterrent to quitting as arthritis is to playing.

Staying at the job is especially likely when the web of one’s life’s rewards is spun with the job as the sole or main thread, e.g., financial, social, moral, intellectual, creative or status. It is also extremely likely in the case of a “mono-career”—a resume with only one job on it (or at least for the bulk of one’s working life).

Someone with a mono-career is more likely to resemble a circus ring-master with only one act, e.g., a dog-and-pony show, which then not only exhaustively defines the circus—and by implication the circus-master, but also can rattle both if it folds.

Job-masters with more than one ring—like a circus with lions, tigers, clowns, acrobats and fire-eaters in addition to the dogs and ponies—are almost certainly not going to define themselves in solely canine-equine terms or feel lost, helpless or useless if the pups and ponies run off.

Whatever risks of “poly-careers” duly noted, having more than one act in one’s career circus, like having more than one arrow in one’s quiver, makes losing the one at or in hand much less likely to escalate into a financial or existential catastrophe.  

2.   Narrow stimulation bandwidth: When the most stimulating thing in someone’s life is work, it is tempting to cite that as a sufficient or at least an excellent reason for continuing to work after winning the jackpot.

But that leap is a tad too quick and too far, because it vaults over the question why nothing else—including nothing new or familiar—could match or surpass the stimulation of the job, or even of any job.

It also ignores the possibility that the only reason the job has been the sole or main source of “stimulation” is that its demands left no time or energy for anything else. Hence, continuing to work at such a job can be tantamount to continued job-imposed limitation of awareness, interests, energy, time and opportunities.

This is to say that, in some cases, a narrow personal range of experienced, understood or desired stimulation is in fact a consequence of having a work-based identity.

This is especially likely to be the case with lifetime grueling jobs, e.g., manual laborer or assembly-line worker, that allow and leave little energy, opportunity or imagination for (alternate) stimulation—apart from the common compensations of TV, dinner, beer and bowling night.

Because many, if not most, such after-work episodic rewards can’t fill the entire day, every day (with the common and unfortunate exception of TV), “I’d be bored” is often the most predictable response to “Why wouldn’t you stop working?”

 3.   Work-ethic induced guilt: “Justify your existence”, Fabian socialist and playwright George Bernard Shaw demanded in a scratchy 1931 newsreel. His heavy-handed “produce-or-die” speech (regarded by some as a quintessentially-Shaw, witty parody of extreme eugenicist views, but hammered by his critics as being no joke), although extreme by comparison, is a spooky version of the Protestant work ethic, which is better encapsulated as “produce-or-at-least-feel-guilty”. 

Some people, even when they are “entitled” to stop working, e.g., at retirement age, simply can’t stop thinking a bit like Shaw (or those he is said to have been parodying).“I’d be useless…without purpose” (as though life’s only purposes relate to paid production of goods and services for others, to the exclusion of the likes of home gardening, painting, learning, travel, teaching a grandchild how to build a tree house and even volunteering).

You’d think that winning a mega-lottery would provide $100 million mini-reasons for quitting; but, because the money isn’t earned, it somehow seems tainted—or at least taints the idea of quitting work in order to put the money to use or under one’s pillow for comfort and fun.

That’s one downside of the Protestant work ethic. Quitting one’s job after winning the jackpot would presumably free up a lot of time to think about and find even more such downsides.

4.  Fear of the unknown:  Have you never heard anyone say, “But this job is all that I know!” (where “know” means  both “master” and “feel comfortable with”). This was encapsulated in a great line in a movie I saw recently, where a grit-for-spit veteran marine, resigning at the twilight of his career says, “Everything I know is in there…” (pointing to his dossier), with precisely that dual nuance.

Most susceptible to this kind of thinking are those who, if not temperamentally predisposed to keeping things routine, well-circumscribed and undemanding, find themselves in lifetime jobs that make them live as well as think inside the safe confines of “the box”.

It’s only speculation, but reasonable to suggest that any such generalized, diffuse fear of the unknown may very well be fed by the same fears and needs, e.g., about “safety”.

5.   Some irreplaceable “hook”: “All of my close friends are co-workers. I’d miss them too much.” That’s a hook—especially if you’re not good at making new friends or don’t expect any opportunities to make them if you quit. From the standpoint of lottery winner studies, this would also constitute a form of work centrality as a cardinal value.

Before stomping on this reason to work rather than walk, consider how you would feel about your prospects of making new friends to replace your work circle. All that lottery loot dooms any certainty that new “friends” would not rather bond with your bonds than with you.

Of course, old friends at work may turn on you too—but at least it’s possible that they (still) really like you as well as your money, even if not as much.

There are countless other possible hooks: Your job as director of a world-hunger NGO provides you a unique platform from which to do more good for the poor than you imagine your new cash could, despite the staggering amount. 

Or, like Mick Jagger, who could fund, without having to win, that lottery, maybe you think your job and its spinoffs provide way more fun or “satisfac-shun” than whatever any amount of money (left to acquire) could buy.

The scope of the hook doesn’t have to be as colossal as ending world hunger or going on a world RB tour; it could be as simple as wanting to be with your friends.

Or to be able to go dibs with them in the office pool for the next lottery draw…

…once you certainly can afford to.


Next: In Part II, “Why Quit Working After Winning a Mega-Lottery?”, subtle reasons some lottery winners (would) quit.


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