Jay Leno on why he still works at 71: I don't want to be 'a rich guy that sits in the pool'

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Since his first appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1977, Jay Leno has more or less worked in showbusiness non-stop. Nearly 45 years later at age 71, he still hosts multiple TV shows and has a full slate of stand-up comedy dates booked.

His long-standing approach toward work was shaped by something his mother said to him once when he first moved out to Hollywood in the 1970s, Leno tells CNBC Make It.

"I was trying to impress my mother and I said, 'You know, Sylvester Stallone just got $10 million for two weeks' work,'" Leno says. "And she said, 'Yeah, but what's he going to do the other 50 weeks? What happens when that job's out?'"

That logic made sense to Leno. "Later on, I was literally in that position where I was making a ton of dough doing 'The Tonight Show,' but I had it in my head that if I didn't go out and tell jokes and earn money, it wasn't real. It was all in the bank somewhere."

Looking back, Leno admits that this thought process seems "ridiculous," but it accomplished something important to him: "It does keep you hungry. And hunger is what it's all about."

Even now, Leno says that he has no desire to put his feet up and rest on his laurels. In fact, he says that he hasn't been in the pool of his Beverly Hills home in 30 years because he can't shake the feeling that he could be working instead.

"Every time I get near it, I'll get that Boston voice in my head going, 'Really? Is that what you are now? A rich guy that sits in a pool?'" says Leno, who grew up in Andover, Mass. "There must be something I could be doing besides this."

Every time I get near [my pool] I'll get that Boston voice in my head going 'Really? Is that what you are now? A rich guy that sits in a pool?'
Jay Leno

Leno says he suspects his approach toward leisure was formed by having parents "who grew up during the Depression when everything was just awful."

That upbringing is also what helped him stay debt-free all his life, because it taught him to never buy anything he couldn't afford to pay for in full, even when he started hosting "The Tonight Show" in 1992 at age 42, a job that reportedly earned him as much as $30 million a year.

Even today, he prefers not to pay for anything in installments, he previously told CNBC Make It: "When you own something and you don't have to write checks every month, you're just better off."

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