why we work

We know why we work: it’s the money, stupid! But why do some of us work so hard?

The Australian - The Deal - - First Up - KYLAR LOUSSIKIAN

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”

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