Why do people work?

Why do people work? The obvious answer is, because they have to – but for a happy working life, there should be more to it than that.

But do they have to work in the way that so many seem to, enduring stress and a sense of pointlessness throughout their working lives, only to retire when they are too exhausted to enjoy anything except television and the occasional pint?

Surely there must be more to life than dedicating ourselves to over 40 years of labouring just to pay the bills? This touches on the sensitive questions, ‘What is it all about anyway? Why are we here?’

Personally, I cannot imagine a life that is not full of curiosity, exploring the manifold wonders and complexities that make up civilisation. I prefer a world where I am free to express myself, and do not have to conform to systems with which I fundamentally disagree. These systems, which exploit people and the planet, come from a place of Fear and its constant companion: Greed.

Do those who scramble up the career ladder to reach the point where they can afford a more luxurious lifestyle thanks to more disposable income find this a reasonable compensation for all the hard work, bullying and stress?

There are many people for whom a traditional job is the perfect place to express themselves and who enjoy the hustle and bustle of the workplace. Some people find an identity for themselves at work, others may find their life partner there. But my impression is that, for most people, a regular job where they are part of a machine, part of someone else’s system, is not the place where they can grow or find meaning and fulfilment in their lives. Perhaps I am being too harsh. You decide.

In my work I always strive to do things in my own way and remain self-reliant. If I engage with ‘The System’, as I call it, I engage on my own terms. This, in a funny way, makes it easier for me to serve the world, to contribute my skills and experience where they are most needed. In so doing, I muse occasionally on the subject of work. Why do we do it? What purpose does it serve? How do I want to relate to it? Below are some of my conclusions. You may find them useful, confronting or bizarre. I hope you do!

Reasons to work

To make money
We need money and the simplest way to get it is by having a job. We all have obligations and responsibilities, to ourselves, to our families and to society. The money we make is closely related to our self-esteem. People who earn large salaries can sometimes feel good about themselves – but not always. And people who do not earn very much can sometimes feel not so good about themselves. But not always. I always wonder, when I see a sleek £400,000 classic car gliding through London, why the driver needs such a beautiful vehicle. Is it because of the beautiful design and the fantastic driving experience? Or is it a way of saying, ‘Look at me, I made it! I have everything!’?

To express creativity
Work, in its many forms, gives us an opportunity to be creative, either as an individual or as part of a team. It can provide a platform for our irrepressible enthusiasm for creating and doing new things, for making a difference through our skills and experience, and for indulging our imaginations.

To experience fulfilment
Doing something well, learning from experience and the joy of working harmoniously with others in a fully-functioning team, can be so fulfilling that it makes our hearts sing. We develop insights, experience and skills that we can transfer to other tasks. We can better grasp opportunities as they arise and we can use all our capabilities, engage all our interests and serve ourselves and the world.

To experience community
There are now fewer opportunities to experience community, to work with a group of like-minded people with a common purpose or to belong to a common cause. Humans used to belong to local or religious communities; now that our lives are more nomadic, a sense of community is mostly drawn from university or work. Work is often the place we meet our life partner, where we forge close friendships that will endure past retirement and where we learn the complexity of the human state (both its good and not so good aspects) and hone our social skills accordingly.

To gain status
Making a name for ourselves at work often gives us added status outside work too. Recognition boosts our confidence and, if we allow it to, enables us to do more and so gain yet more status and recognition. This can be a virtuous circle. Recognition and the respect that comes with it can bring greater meaning to our lives and greater fulfilment.

To exercise power
Those who feel they do not have power at home often exercise it at work. This can lead to an abuse of power, to bullying and to unreasonable and ineffective management practices. If we choose, we can also experience the power of not exercising the power we have but just being it – that is power indeed! Conversely, those who have no power at work sometimes seek to exercise it at home, and this can also lead to bullying and marital strife.

To serve
In this world there are many things that need our attention and energy. I see work, primarily, as a vehicle for service, for caring for ourselves, our fellow humans and other creatures, and for our planet, not – as is the trend just now – for exploiting it. In serving, in putting ourselves before others, checking before we do it that what we are about to do does not adversely affect society or the environment, I believe we are getting as close as we can to that indefinable purpose I spoke of earlier, the reason for us being here, in this wonderful, dreadful, ugly, beautiful, terrifying and inspiring Earth.

To hide from the awesomeness of our own true purpose
In his inaugural speech as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela said, ‘It is our Light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.’

People who have a project that they will never have to – or never want to – complete, find that it helps them get through the tedium of the everyday. In this way they never have to engage with change but are being pulled along with it. People delude themselves that what is burning away in their hearts, that thing which they invest with so much longing, is impossible, that they will never manage it; it is easier to stick with what is familiar, however horrible and stressful. These people avoid making a commitment and hide from what they are passionate about. But I know this to be a fact: if you dare to take the risk of going for what is in your heart, you may end up getting it. I have done this on a number of occasions, both in romance and in business. What is there to lose?

…Let me ask you a question. But do not answer it right away. In fact, do not answer it until you are safely in bed tonight. The question?

Why do you work?