The value of work.

100_0105I’ve got a nice new divot in my left thumb, worn there by a hoe handle. Earlier this week my father and I spent about 90 minutes grubbing out weeds in a field of Christmas trees.

It’s healing surprisingly fast (thanks, Neosporin!). You should have seen it a couple of days ago. Despite the work gloves, I’d dug a hole deep enough to accommodate a hearing-aid battery.

If my hands were as calloused as my dad’s, the gloves might have been enough to protect me. But for years my swell indoor job has kept me from having to labor too hard. (Physically, anyway; writing for four sites, and being old-school-picky about my work, translates to a lot of hours.)

For my first couple of years as apartment-house manager I had to clean the building as well as collect the rent. At the same time I was back in college and doing a fairly strenuous work-study job. That was in 2005-06. My hands were tougher then.

As an 18-year-old I worked in a glass factory, where I declined to wear gloves. They felt wrong, somehow. My hands were already chore-toughened, since I’d been keeping house for my dad and brother. Factory work, however, gave my palms the texture of leather.

A few years later I was doing all my laundry, including the baby’s diapers, on a scrub-board. (After paying rent, child care and food, I just didn’t have the extra quarters for the laundromat.) No matter how much lotion I used my hands were perpetually dry and scented with chlorine.

I was oddly proud of that. Those tough, bleachy paws proved I was working for a living and taking care of business at home. They showed that I paid my bills and didn’t owe anybody anything.

Fall in love with hard

Last month I attended the Affiliate Marketing Summit, at which bloggers and online entrepreneurs network with companies that will help them earn money.

There’s a persistent mythology that you can make biiiiig bucks on the Internet: just slap together a free website, throw some ads on it and quit your day job. In rare cases that might actually happen.

Probably not, though. And as a very inspirational conference speaker named Wil Reynolds pointed out: Why should it?

He showed us an advertising photo of a man lying in a hammock. The caption: “Fall in love with easy.”

“We all think that we’re going to do our four-hour work week from (the hammock),” Reynolds said.

“Today I want to challenge that kind of thinking. I want you guys to fall in love today with the things that are actually hard.”

Reynolds’ speech focused on how to improve page ranking without taking shortcuts – or, as he called it, “without polluting the web.” He was generous with his expertise, and people were scribbling notes like mad.

But he offered knowledge only. The rest was up to the listeners. His information works only if you’re willing to work it.

And you should. Reynolds talked about “adding value” to the Internet by putting in long hours doing good work vs. spewing out lousy content larded with SEO shortcuts.

“You’ve got to believe in the value of a long-term asset,” he said.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I interpreted that to mean “the value of hard work and of taking pride in what you do.”

Help wanted

It’s ironic that we celebrate the history of labor by stapling on an extra day off. Labor Day has become more about barbecues and last visits to the lake or the beach than about remembering the bad old days of work in America: horrific working conditions, child labor, no safety net if you were laid off or injured on the job.

Wonder how those four-hour-work-week wonks would feel about a six-day work week? That used to be standard. We’re not talking eight-hour days, either.

Just in time for Labor Day we got to hear that unemployment is still at 9.1% because no net jobs were added in August. Grim stuff. A lot of people would gladly take any job, even that dreaded gig called “flipping burgers.” As I pointed out in last year’s Labor Day Post, fast food is culturally defined as the ultimate dead-end labor.

Yet everyone seems to want to eat burgers. So why don’t we value the work that goes into producing them?

Full disclosure: I don’t want to flip burgers either. It’s hot, stressful, poorly paid and requires standing on a hard floor for eight hours a day. If my day job at MSN Money were to go south, McDonald’s isn’t the first place I’d apply.

Making a contribution

But I’d have to apply somewhere if I couldn’t quickly cobble together enough freelance work. No one will pay my bills except me. Truth be told, I wouldn’t want someone else to pay the bills as long as I were capable of doing it myself.

So I work. Although I don’t carry cinder blocks or scrub floors for eight hours at a stretch, I’m still very tired at night. But I’m also satisfied, because I put in an honest day (or day and a half) of labor.

At the conference, Wil Reynolds asked us what we were doing to add value to the web. I’d like to apply this question to life in general. I’d also like to answer it: All who are able can add value to the world simply by going to work.

No, you won’t get the same props (or paycheck) for vacuuming an apartment building as you would for performing open-heart surgery. But that doesn’t mean a janitorial job is demeaning. It just means we don’t have the sense to appreciate it.

Understand: I’m not saying that we should be grateful for the chance to work hard as hell for low wages, or that we should never want anything more. I’m saying that sometimes a job is a job is a job, if it keeps your bills paid.

Remember that the next time you’re tempted to look down on the counter person at Taco Bell. Remember, too, that one layoff from now you could be wearing the same uniform. Would it mean that you were worth less as a human being than you are today?

You don’t have to want to do that kind of gig yourself. But you do have to be glad someone else is willing to do it.

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  1. I agree with you 100%. That’s why i love your site. Keep up the good work Mrs. Freedman.

  2. Elizabeth

    Very well said. Thanks.

  3. Yes, indeed.

  4. One of your best yet.

  5. Great post, Donna! The (lack of) work ethic of some people just leaves me in shock!

    My father worked 6 days a week in a factory (after his military service) and taught adult education 3 nights a week as well. I started working after school at 14 yrs old, having baby sat on the side since I was 11. At 16 I asked my father for a car. He said get a job. I replied that I already had two jobs (a flower shop and a news-stand) and he said “get another one.” So I did. I bought a 10 year old Grand Am that I was SO proud of! My father taught me that you get out of life whatever you put into it, hard work gives you more than paid bills or a 10 yr old car, it gives you PRIDE! I’ve carried that throughout my adult life.

    Thanks Dad!

  6. Great post!! I used to think fast food jobs were low paying dead end jobs until one of my really smart high school classmates informed me he quit college to work as a Manager at Taco Bell – his pay is about $75K/year.

  7. I was feeling sorry for myself and my rather sore wasp sting I got today whilst gardening until I saw your poor hand. Keep up the hard work and the fabulous articles!!

  8. Now A Country Mouse

    Great points. This article reminded me of a housework philosophy that a wise man shared with me. Pride and especially appreciation deserve more consideration these days. I gladly clean our toilets; many in the world do not have indoor plumbing. I enjoy washing dishes; not only did we just finish a good meal but I am thankful to have dishes, cups and utensils. The same goes for washing clothes, sweeping, dusting, etc. It is sad to hear others complain about housework when in reality we are so fortunate to have these tasks.

  9. Great article as usual! I was brought up to believe that no matter what job you do, you should do it to the best of your ability and take pride in the fact that you are working for your money. I have double respect for the folks that do the jobs that I would not want (ie: restaurant servers, I don’t know how they have the patience!), and I try to convey that respect whenever possible.

  10. I have to remind myself that I should be grateful to have a job that pays the bills, provides insurance (albeit at a steep cost), and contributes to a 401k account.. even if I do feel overworked & stressed most days.

  11. For some reason I am reminded of the young person who was cleaning out the garage for pay. Ah, think it was on Happy Days. “I did say I wanted a job, but I did not want to have to work.” Unfortunately, not only young people have this attitude. However, we all have our own definition of what is hard work. I would never look down on the persons working fast food. my friend’s daughter worked at Burger King. She worked more hours than the law allowed and still managed to the the salutatorian of her high school class, joined the Air Force and gained a security clearance. I was quesioned thoroughly about her. Now, she has a top security clearance or whatever it is called. When she was three, her mother took her to work cleaning offices and homes. The child was given a dust cloth and learned to thoroughly clean/dust the silk plants and the live ones. Unfortunately, the brother would work in a pie factory. Early training helps.

  12. lostAnnfound

    Excellent article! My father taught us to take pride in the work we do, whatever the job is. If we want to be a street sweeper, he said, be the best one you can be; if we want to be a doctor, be the best one you can be.

  13. This is one of your very best posts. Too many people have no pride in doing good honest work. thanks for your writing.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Thelma, and @everyone else: Thanks for your kind words. Viva the work ethic!

  14. Great post Donna. I think it’s one of your best too.

  15. “Viva the work ethic” indeed! I’ve never been too proud to do whatever was there to be done … I am, though, too proud to NOT do my best at whatever work presents itself. I’ve scrubbed public bathrooms, picked fruit & veggies, packed cedar shakes, shoveled out barns, delivered newspapers & flyers … if it was work that paid – however much or little it paid – I’d do it.
    I think one of the sweetest moments of my life was when DD26 said to me “I never would have made it through school (culinary) and working at the same time if I hadn’t learned such a strong work ethic from you.”

  16. Donna,

    You truly have such a special gifted way of writing; it gets right to the point without being condescending, banal or elitist.

  17. Well said but that is why you are at the top of the heap.
    Don’t put a battery in your wound.

  18. Excellent post. Perfect for Labor Day weekend!

  19. Donna,
    This is my first time reading your post, but what an impression you’ve made! The older I get, the more I appreciate how hard my parents and grandparents worked, not just for “nice things”, but for the basic needs in life. I think that society has negated the value of handcrafted, manual, or technical work and placed too much value on making a quick buck in order to get “more stuff.” Hopefully, my children will have a strong work ethic, love what they do, and be successful.

  20. Wonderful post. How about this for disappointing and discouraging…you interview someone and hire them for the job, they show up for orientation, then quit, saying they make more on unemployment. Where is the work ethic these days?!! Grrr

    • Donna Freedman

      @Cathy: Oh boy…Couldn’t that person have done the math before accepting the job?
      I understand that some people are temporarily better served by unemployment — for example, a single parent who is only a few weeks into joblessness should probably keeping looking for a job in (or similar to) his or her current field, vs. taking that fast-food job that pays a lot less than unemployment. After paying for child care or after-school care on minimum wage, you’re going to have trouble making the rent.
      But to accept the job and then back out…That is disappointing. Hope you can find someone who wants to work.

  21. What you say is so true. Nowadays it seems that when people hit a rough patch, or even think they might, the first thing they do is check to see how many benefits they can get. It would be better for all concerned if they went out and looked for as many part-time jobs as they can handle. Sure, there are many people who REALLY, REALLY need benefits to keep body & soul together but an able-bodied person with an adequate mind should be paying their own way, not finagling their way onto disability or staying on unemployment. There ARE jobs. They just don’t pay six figures a year and they don’t involve sitting behind a desk in a nice air-conditioned office. Sometimes they are in parts of the country where “there’s nothing to do.” So stay home, save your money to pay the bills and rest up for the next day’s work. (Yeah, I live in one of those places, & there’s always something to do if you look for it, legal things that is.)

  22. thanks for the article

  23. Food for thought (couldn’t resist the pun), my 18 year old daughter chooses to work at McDonald’s. She is going through management training and then McDonald’s will pay for her college education. Flipping burgers isn’t as dead-end as some may think. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      @Laura S.: Agreed. There are people managing fast-food places that do quite well for themselves. But I bet a lot of people didn’t know about the potential for tuition reimbursement.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.


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