Naomi Simson on human desires and the reasons why we work

Naomi Simson pic

Recently I met two young men in the Amazon. Okay, so this sounds like the beginning of a fable – but in fact it is true. I was at an entrepreneurs ‘meet up’, The Unstoppables event, which was the brainchild of the incredibly energetic Julio De Lafitte. He invited 45 founders, start-ups and investors to the week-long event to see if we could create business or social change together.

Saxon Phipps, Will Stubley and I met there. They are both closer to 20 than 25; they shared with me their passion for why they created with their other co-founder Jordan Phipps; and we explored the question of “why do people work?”

Will and Saxon had been high school buddies, one had gone off to university and completed a degree in a discipline that he now thinks he will never practice in, the other started working in bars as he worked out ‘what he wanted to do with his life’. They found the decision of choosing what they were going to do with the next 50 years of their life daunting at best. During their first years out of school they found that most of their friends either did what they thought they should (i.e. what their parents expected of them) or they tried many things drifting from one thing to the next.

Tragically one of their close buddies – confused, lost and pressured by the big decisions she faced – took her own life. Will and Saxon were left bereft, not least because their friend appeared to ‘have it all’ – an education, loving family and friends. However, she had struggled to identify what was next for her and tragically gave up trying to work it out.

Will and Saxon gathered some other friends around and asked: how can we help school leavers’ navigate ‘Year 13’ – that is the year after school is complete?

They created a portal to assist school leavers compare their options – a trade versus university, travel versus work – and their business Year13 was born.

Meeting Will and Saxon challenged me to consider, having worked for more than three decades, why do people work? Is it a means to an end, or is it what life really is? Does toil make us who we are or does it simply provide the finances to survive? Is our work fundamental to who we are and how we see ourselves?

Simply put: why do we work?

Why do some people work jobs they don’t like? Why do others work when they don’t need the money (lucky them!)? Why are people scared to retire and afraid of not working? Fundamentally, it comes back to human behaviour; at it’s core it is what drives us to do the things we do. If you can understand what really drives you there is a greater chance of understanding your life’s purpose – what is important to you.

Having written a book all about finding one’s purpose Live What You Love, people have asked me ‘but what if I still don’t know what I want to do, what my purpose is?’ The answer to this is simply to be incredibly and relentlessly curious. If you explore diverse and varied fields, read endlessly and go to seminars and listen to speakers (including online), who knows what will pique your interest and where it will take you?

Accept that often we find human behaviour puzzling. Humans are not always rational, or logical!

What interests you or drives you could change one day to the next. Our desires, whims and aspirations may seem to float in the wind. Life is not linear, everyday we experience new influences, have new thoughts, learn new things, not least of which might come via social media. And if you are seeking your purpose and being curious then these influences will continue to increase.

We don’t do anything in our lives for just one reason. Everything we do is dynamic, messy, contradictorily, changeable – and this can greatly influence our careers, and how we perceive our work. In particular, there are things to do with work which may impact our behaviour and knowing them could help you manage and address their potential impact.

Perhaps review the eight human desires below and work out which is more important to you.

1. The desire to be taken seriously

We need to know we exist, that we’re valued, that we’re being listened to. This desire is why good listeners are so valued in the workplace. And why you feel so bad when you realise someone is looking over your shoulder when you’re talking to them, rather than listening to what you have to say.

2. The desire for ‘my place’

We all need places that feel like ours, places that symbolise who we are. This is why, for some people, hot desks and open plan offices create a certain amount of disconnect and dissatisfaction at work. Do you need a ‘home base’?

3. The desire to be special

With 7 billion people on the planet we all want to ‘stand out’ and be special and unique (which we are), yet we all want to ‘fit in’ as well. Being ‘special’ then is about being noticed, recognised, or acknowledged for who you are and what you do.

4. The desire for something to believe in

We all desire a framework of values in our lives, values we can live by. If the organisation we work for has integrity, it can form an important part of our value set. Clearly Will and Saxon have a deep sense of belief for what they do.

5. The desire to connect

Not only do we feel connected to people around us at work through everyday interactions, we also use work to connect deeper to ourselves. For some people, their work is an expression of their self.

6. The desire to feel useful

The one thing we least want to hear ourselves described as is ‘useless’. Wanting to be useful is fundamental to being part of society. This is the reason that people pull together in times of disaster to help complete strangers: to feel they are doing something useful.

7. The desire to belong

Fundamentally humans want to be both part of a ‘herd’ (i.e. a small group), as well as a ‘tribe’. We like to feel part of a group, as well as part of something bigger. The best workplace contains rich gratification through both a small team (work group) and the sense of being a part of the company (the tribe).

8. The desire for control

The only person we can control is ourselves. We have the power of choice; one can influence others but to control them can be thwart with danger. The desire for ‘power’ has many other implications. You may desire to be a ‘boss’ because you think that will give you control or influence yet the outcome might in fact be the opposite. Seeking leadership for the sake of control rather than purpose, vision or a calling may well cause upset. The boss who tries to control his or her team, or a parent who tries to control his or her child, are fighting a losing battle. So a first-time parent returning to work often feels relief at coming back to an environment where they have influence again: ‘control’ over his or her own workflow and tasks.

Maybe one or some of these human traits resonated with you, I’m sure there are many more – these came top of mind. The point is if you feel you have something useful to do, you’re connected, and you have a close work group then you’re doing well.

There are some more fundamental reasons why people work:

  • Because of their family and friends, not just necessarily to support them, but to be near them. To do something that they think is important, that will make them feel proud, that they can go home feeling like a winner;
  • For the betterment of his or her occupation. That is you have a calling, a purpose, you feel excited by your chosen field. You are likely to work because of what you can learn and to be exposed to new ideas. If this is you, you might feel like you’re on a mission – and work does not really occur as ‘toil’;
  • As a means to an end, like Saxon who worked in bars while he worked out how he wanted to apply his ‘gifts’ to the greater good. Work at that time was a way of earning money to support his interests. This might also be the case for (would-be) professional sports people, thespians, or musicians. They work to support their ‘habit’ or what they really want to do financially with another job (or hobby, but it is more than that); and
  • For the money… and money alone. These are people who do not really feel connected to their work, have a sense of purpose or even pride in what they do. They simply work for the money. They will be always looking for the next job that might pay them a little bit more.

It does not really matter which reason you relate to. It may not be a question that you have often considered: “why do I work?” However, if you take the time to consider it, understand yourself a little bit more, then you are far more likely to love what you do, or start your ‘non-linear’ journey of discovery.

It is a long life – we may as well enjoy as many minutes, hours and days that we can, having a spring in our step and loving our work.

Naomi Simson is the founding director of Australian online tech success story RedBalloon and Redii. She has written more than 950 blog posts at, is a professional speaker, author of Live What You Love and is one of five “Sharks” on TEN’s business reality show Shark Tank to return in 2016.


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