Why work?

6 min readMay 7, 2021

We all work. In or out of the home, or both. Paid or unpaid work, or both. But why? Like a curious toddler, I’m asking an annoying, even banal question. And I know it’s not one that we can necessarily answer well. But it’s still one it’s worth thinking about, and thinking about well.

How might we think about the “why” of work?

Some of the words that might be bubbling up, as you think about this question, could include “pride”, “dignity”, “passion”, “interest”, “service”, “independence” and “family”.

It’s important to hear these and not just push them aside because (1) they’re revealing intuitions about the values we attribute to work, and (2) words create worlds.

Our world(s) of work are created by the words we choose to associate with it. If you immediately thought “dignity”, then you probably value perseverance, self-reliance, and independence. If you immediately thought “service”, you probably value community, support, and collaboration. Neither one is better than the other. They’re all good things, right? Perseverance and supporting others are both qualities we’d encourage in our children. But these words form little webs that hold meanings, identities, and relationships.

The associative world of work that you hold internally might differ a lot from the work culture in which you find yourself. You can be a high-powered banker working 100 hours a week in a highly competitive team with a ruthless, do-or-die culture and still immediately associate the word “work” with “service”, for example. Tensions or differences in how we think of and experience work are important for helping us think about it as both concept and way of life.

For example, I have a conflicted relationship with the word “service”. When I was at Harvard, “service” went hand-in-hand with “leadership”, and the university cultivated an environment where every student could find a way to “incorporate service into their lives” (as the website still says). But I also spent years working in the House of Lords in the UK, where “service” went hand-in-hand with uncomfortable expectations of staff who were “servile”, and members “treating us like servants”, as I heard from staff at all levels as I went about trying to start a culture change programme that could make the organisation truly…


HE operations manager; Coach; Writer of many things; Runner. In no particular order.