Why do we work?

I’ve seen a lot of writing and listened to many talks recently about the Future of Work. Technology and shifting patterns of employment have surfaced some very deep questions about how the world of work is transforming.

However, the conversation seems more focused on the way we work rather than why we work. Personally I find the latter more interesting.

Inspired by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs I thought to answer the question “Why do we work?” in this way:

  • To put food on the table
  • To live comfortably
  • To increase social status
  • To become an expert
  • To do what we love
  • To create positive impact

This is my story of work in a way that makes sense to me. I hope it makes sense to you.

To put food on the table

My grandfather was a shepherd. He was born in 1912 on a mediterranean island called Sardinia. Life was hard. As my father tells me, he wasn’t an educated man and so made his living through manual labour. Money was scarce and so food was scarce. He worked to put food on the table. It was such a struggle that my father had to leave school aged 11 to go and work too. This experience greatly influenced my father’s perception of work and has consequently influenced me. To work is to survive.

To live comfortably

I was born in the Philippines. I came to the UK when I was 3 years old. I’ve occasionally been back (not nearly enough) and have seen how hard it is for many people in my home country. This is starkly evident in Manila where you see gleaming shopping malls surrounded by shanty towns.

When I was 17 years old I went back to the Philippines to see my relatives. For a short time I stayed with my auntie in Manila. I loved to play basketball and would spend most of the day playing in the streets of her local neighbourhood.

It was dusty and dirty. There would be a makeshift backboard tied to a tree in the middle of the street. The ball would regularly fall into an open sewer at the side of the road or bounce into someone’s tiny hut. When going to fetch the ball I’d glimpse into the lives of people living there.

When eating breakfast I would regularly see rats scurrying across the shelves. At night I’d hear the cockroaches scrambling around floor. One night I even found one on my face!

People here (and many other parts of the world) work not only to survive but also in search of a more comfortable life. Having had that experience I truly value the privileged life I lead here in the UK. To work is to provide a more comfortable life.

To increase social status

In contrast to my Italian grandfather, my grandfather in the Philippines was a successful businessman. He was well respected in his town and was very close friends with the mayor. Everyone knew him. At his funeral I remember the streets filled with hundreds of people coming to pay their respects.

Now, while I don’t know what work meant to him, I saw how achieving that kind of status in the community could be a real motivator. To feel that sense of respect and admiration must have felt good.

Unfortunately we also see a more superficial approach to social status in our modern world of pop culture and reality TV. Whatever the root of this motivation is, the feeling of being respected and admired is a strong influence on our attitude to work. To work is to generate respect.

To become an expert

Expertise comes from years of deliberate practice. There’s the “10,000 hours” meme. But deliberate practice requires time and discipline. It requires regularity and effort.

At one time in my life I had thought about becoming a scientist. And so I did a PhD. I wanted to answer deep questions and understand better how the world really worked. That time was amazing. I experienced real joy in learning and it felt powerful to feel like I was helping push forward boundaries of knowledge.

I met people whose life’s work was about deepening their understanding of how the universe worked. They had spent decades researching, trying, failing and teaching. It took effort and sacrifice. It took work. But the joy of uncovering new things and mastering their field was what drove them forwards. To work was to become a master.

To do what we love

From an early age I always thought that “if my hobby could also be my job” then I’d be happy. I instinctively gravitated to the idea that you should do work you enjoy or else you won’t ever be good at it.

One summer I took a job in what was essentially a call centre. It was horrendous. I had been driven by the belief that “to work is to survive” and so you accepted any job you could so you could make money as soon as possible.

I wasn’t good at that job.

I felt rubbish because I wasn’t good at it.

It wasn’t a great time.

At another point in my working life I worked as a developer at a boutique digital agency in central London. We were based in a loft in the middle of Soho, surrounded by bars and clubs. It was cool.

I also loved the work. I learned so many new things. It stretched me creatively as well as technically. I’d spend time tinkering on my own and playing around with code. I found joy in my work. That was a good time. To work is to be happy.

To create positive impact

I always thought I wanted to become a teacher. I’ve done a lot of maths and physics tutoring and for a few years I also taught Kung Fu. Part of my motivation to teach came from “wanting to be an expert” but a significant part came from feeling valued.

I found it rewarding to see others make progress and achieve breakthroughs as a result of my effort. The immediacy of seeing something positive come from my actions felt good.

I’ve been a cofounder of an organisation called The Happy Startup School for nearly 5 years now. Before that I also ran a digital agency with my current cofounder.

As an agency working with startups we met many people trying to get an idea off the ground. Too many fell into the following camps:

  • They had the money but the wrong idea
  • They had an amazing idea but no money to make it happen

We thought we could help with this.

And we tried many different approaches. But at the core of what we did was to ask the simple question, “Why are you doing this in the first place?”

Asking that question led us on a journey. We started with teaching people how to build a startup and are now growing a global community of people who want to create a positive impact both in “the” world and in “their” world.

Doing what we do is challenging.

Doing what we do is uncertain.

Doing what we do won’t necessarily make us rich.

But over the past 5 years the positive feeling and energy we’ve experienced in doing this “work” has been overwhelming. That’s motivating. That’s a great reason to work. To work is to positively impact others.

I don’t believe any of the above reasons are better than the others. I don’t think any one reason needs to be present to support the other. However, I do believe it’s important to be honest about which reason you’re using to do the work you do. Because once you’re clear as to why you’re working then how you work and what work you do will come naturally.

So tell me. What drives you to work? (…other than a bus)

A big thanks to the following gurus and big thinkers from our community that have influenced my thoughts on this topic. In no particular order:

At The Happy Startup School we run programs that help people get clear on why and how they work.