It is an old expression about some people who are highly motivated about work in itself, with the opposite view being that of someone who works to live. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of which attitude is better or more appropriate, but answering it honestly and accurately is critical to making intelligent career choices, and to your ultimate happiness in life. Unfortunately, many people lack the self-knowledge and realistic expectations necessary to address this vital issue properly.
Those Who Live to Work
Certain people, it is said, live to work. It is shorthand for saying that their lives center on their work or careers and that achievement in their professions is a major source of satisfaction and meaning in their lives. Money may or may not be a major motivation for these people. In some cases, achieving huge levels of pay (as is the case with many senior corporate executives, such as CEOs) is coveted more as a means of keeping score and proving your relative worth versus other people, than it is for the money itself.
Those Who Work to Live
By contrast, other people work to live. These people view their work or careers largely as toil whose purpose is to earn the money necessary to support themselves and their dependents. Their real interests lie elsewhere, and their work or careers are only means to an end, not an end in itself. Some of these people try to cut corners, to gain the maximum pay for the minimum amount of effort. Others do indeed take great pride in their work and put great effort into doing their jobs well, but their jobs simply are not the centers of their lives.
It is critical to understand whether you are fundamentally alive to work or a work to live type person. It will allow you to develop realistic expectations about yourself, and to choose career paths and employers accordingly. For the most part, high achievers who excel in demanding careers such as these are people who live to work.