When I was in college fifteen years ago, my father's advice that I structure my academic program in terms of a career plan seemed to me to betray the spirit of education, the spirit of understanding myself. "Making a living" and getting "a good job" were middle-class, ephemeral goals that held little attraction for me and thousands like me. But values change, and today's young people seem much more satisfied with the status quo and with filling the ranks of America's work force. A New York Times columnist reported on November 25, 1984, "If public opinion polls as well as the strong turnout of young voters to support the more conservative policies of the Reagan Administration are to be believed, there may have never been a time in the history of this country when young people were more preoccupied with the making of money." Fortunately, even young people interested in making money aren't disqualified from understanding their true identity if they accept the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master. If they neglect self-realization, however, even though they may gain the whole world, they will lose an opportunity to elevate their immortal souls.
According to the Vedic literature, people traditionally turn to religion for material gain. In many of today's affluent societies, however, people are realizing their material aims without the help of religion; therefore, religion is being neglected. People are more interested in shopping malls and office buildings than in the churches and temples their forefathers erected.
Materially motivated work, however, is not at all like working for self-realization. The happiness we appear to gain by working hard and spending our money on sense enjoyment ends at death. The end of self-realization, in contrast, is to reawaken our understanding that we are not these bodies but eternal spirit souls, the servants of Krsna, or God, the supreme proprietor. The happiness enjoyed in rendering unto God what is God's is unending, because it is spiritual bliss.
Ideally, all work should be service to Krsna. For example, in the Hare Krsna movement a devotee may work to convince people that instead of spending their money on sense gratification, they should spend it n books about Krsna or on building ample for Him. Or a devotee may work, without salary, in Krsna's temple. Devotees who hold regular jobs or who are self-employed, donate a substantial part of their salaries or profits to a temple. And those who can't be full-time devotees often become life members of the Krsna consciousness movement or donate some part of their earnings. One may be engaged in various activities, but no work should be done without some relationship to Krsna.
Ordinarily, in the struggle for existence, work simply ends in defeat. Work performed for sense enjoyment produces reactions, and any reaction, good or bad, entangles the worker in the web of karma. Thus the soul must accept another body to enjoy and suffer the good and bad reactions to work. This is something like contracting a disease. If a man contacts the smallpox virus, then under certain conditions after seven days he will develop the symptoms of the disease. And karma is just as real as smallpox. Our actions of today will produce reactions some good, some bad in the future. Ordinary work, therefore, binds us in the material world.
A devotee, however, rids himself of both good and bad actions (and reactions) by working only in Krsna's service, and he conquers repeated birth and death. This is the great art of doing work. It is a practical method of self-realization even for young people preoccupied with making money, who spend the largest block of their waking hours at a job, trying to get ahead. It will help them to go back home, back to Godhead.