why we work
We know why we work: it’s the money, stupid! But why do some of us work so hard?
Why do people bother to work hard, to achieve and, in some cases, overachieve? That’s the question researchers at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago set out to answer in an experiment run in 2013. Volunteers were rewarded with chocolate: they were asked to alternate between listening to music, representing leisure; and noise, representing work. The more time spent listening to noise, the more chocolate earned. When the experiment ended, they were asked to eat as much chocolate as they could. Those who earned too much to eat were classed as over-earners or “mindless” accumulators. The study found plenty of over-earners, but couldn’t really answer why.
Melanie Perkins knows why she is ambitious. She could have finished her studies like her peers, and found work as a graphics designer. Instead, as a student at the University of Western Australia, Perkins started not one but two companies. The first, a yearbook publisher, was not a commercial hit (although it still exists). But dreaming bigger, Perkins went on to found Canva, an online graphics platform, one of Australia’s fastest growing start-ups. She says setting ambitious roles and actually accomplishing them “is one of the most satisfying things in the world”.
“This is such an important aspect of our company: having crazy big dreams, that are challenging and inspiring, and then figuring out the steps to make that happen,” she says.
It is a challenge that appears to have paid dividends: last month Canva raised $15 million in a funding round led by US venture firm Felicis Ventures, valuing the company at $165m.
It is a similar story in the arts. Brenna Hobson sits on the board of trustees for the Sydney Opera House and has been the executive director of the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney for seven years. She says her ambition is linked to the type of work the company produces and the impact it has.
“I gain enormous pleasure from giving an artist an opportunity to take their work overseas or ensuring that an ambitious work can be staged,” she says. “Knowing that you are the difference between that happening and it not is pretty amazing.”
No matter what the reason for striving for achievement, it is largely connected to leadership, according to Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne.
“Neither work nor ambition are compulsory, yet nothing worthwhile happens without either,” he says. “Work is central to achievement; we couldn’t aspire to be a better university, for the benefit of students and broader society, without people willing to strive towards this. It is why work needs a purpose, a goal that goes beyond a pay packet or comradeship.” However, Davis says leadership is a “temporary blessing, changing at the whim of an organisation’s desires”.
For Mike Kane, chief executive of building materials firm Boral, good management does not necessarily include leadership, but good leadership must come with good management, especially of people and their talents.
“You have to be able to build mutual trust with those you work with, it’s the only way you can unlock that additional 10 per cent of discretionary effort we all have inside us, which can often mean the difference between success and failure,” Kane says. “Great things happen in an atmosphere where fear is diminished and trust is enhanced.”
So why is it important to work? And why is leadership as important, if not more important, than management?
“Leadership is seeing what can or should happen and then bringing people together so that you can achieve that vision, management is the mechanics of getting there,” Hobson says. “Management is incredibly important, but it’s not why you get out of bed in the morning.”
Belvoir Theatre's Brenna Hobson says knowing you are making a difference is “pretty amazing”