Recently, a woman a bit older than I am said, ‘“I never wanted to work.” She then went on to say that she decided at 12 years old that she only wanted to read, which made the former statement a bit easier to swallow; after all, reading is a goal for so many of us. This isn’t about reading though—because it’s clear that books need no defender. This is about the first statement and what I feel is so wrong with that idea and how, even though I am lucky enough to not need to work to support my family, the work ethic is ingrained in me.
In the last week, the universe has called my attention to the importance of work three times. Universe, I am listening. The above comment brought it all home to me, like a mother, or a school teacher gently grabbing your chin and saying, pay attention to this … bring it forth.
Work is where you learn that the world isn’t just one small way.
I grew up in a family that worked and built their wealth, modest as it was, through hard work. My father’s parents were self-made farmers, farming being the toughest job of all, who moved into home building. My maternal grandparents came to America and worked for a wealthy Chicago family. In their off time, these grandparents worked some more, building a small resort in Northern Wisconsin. My mother cleaned the cabins with my grandmother in the summer, and both acted as the welcoming committee. Eventually one of the vacationing families included my father. When she was 14, my mother showed him around and introduced him to waterskiing, and then at 21 she married him.
Both sets of grandparents made it to the migration stage—leaving the north for the south when the weather turned, and the south for the north when it turned again. My father’s parents also had a form of a resort for their winter home, a small apartment complex consisting of six apartments they managed on the beach in Florida. Even when they weren’t working, they were working.
What Work Brings
Here’s the thing, though, working did not compromise their intellect or joy. It brought them friendships, adventures, moments, and, as my grandmother told me, steps closer to who she was. Every job teaches you how to do something: deal with people, handle a handsy boss, handle a boss with a temper, learn from a great boss, change a diaper, break down a steam table, learn sign language, learn camp songs, save a life, lift boxes, count inventory, deal with customers, serve food, and clean up food, and all the while observing how people really are in a working environment, where pleasantries and familiarity don’t rule. This is where folks from a different background share their views and ideas with you and you share with them and where you learn the world isn’t just one small way.
I didn’t mind the work, being a worker, but I did mind that the process did not involve a human.
The universe first pointed out the work as an endangered option at a big-box hardware store as I went to check out today. One human checker, lots of folks in line, and then self check out. Folks not willing to wait grumbled and started the process of checking themselves out. I was one of those. I didn’t mind the work, being a worker, but I did mind that the process did not involve a human. My second job in high school (after Sammie’ s hot dog stand—such a great experience and so much fun; Sammie was a blast of a boss) was at a hardware store: Ace Hardware in Libertyville, Illinois. I learned so much and made new friends, and I still have the Panasonic cassette radio player that $72 from my own paycheck bought. It sits on my workbench in the garage, still cranking away decades later.
Now that I am on the other side of life, I am willing to bet it wasn’t easy to hire and train me. I am willing to bet I may have called in sick once or twice, and I may have made mistakes. Being young and naive, I had no idea how grateful I should have been to the owners who hired me. True, that was the way back then. There was no such thing as self check. There weren’t UPC codes and scanners. I still have memories of using pricing guns and ringing up customers. Thirty bolts and 30 nuts at three cents each? One hundred nails at eight cents each? Got it. That summer job, like all my summer and part-time jobs, taught me how to deal with people, how to count change, how to walk instead of crawl. All baby steps for the big world and the big picture.
Here’s the True Four-Letter Word
Upon graduating from college and returning to Chicago, I worked for Crate and Barrel while I searched for a full-time design job. The owners of Crate and Barrel got it. It was clear they loved what they did, and my time there was hard retail (I was seasonal manager, and I still dream about unwrapping individual christmas ornaments that came in boxes of 144) with some of the best people ever. We were all into design, and, honestly, I am not sure how they did it, but the manager and assistant managers hired only funny, witty, and super-patient design-loving help. We were all committed to helping our customers have the best set up, and, to this day, I use Henckel knives because a training session with the company is seared into my memory.
Creating a society that is capable, smart, and financially able starts with baby steps.
My second point out from the universe came via my husband. A hard worker himself, he went to a grocery store just yesterday, and I happened to call him as he was checking himself out. Not knowing my experience he started grumbling about the lack of human checkers. We discussed it later. We understand that times have changed, and honestly I don’t know how bosses deal with cell phone usage on the job anyhow, but my husband and I both agree that jobs—entry-level jobs—are important to one’s life journey. Getting paid—that feeling alone—is liberating. It’s just a win-win all the way: the life-changing euphoria of not asking your parents for help, of creating your own fiscal life, of learning that you are capable. The best is not feeling vulnerable to the whims of others who just give you money.
Creating a society that is capable, smart, and financially able starts with baby steps. Quite possibly it is not the easiest way to hire real people or give kids their first job, or force your kids and yourself to get a job, but in the long run, it’s most likely better for all of us. When did work become a four letter word? For me, it’s love. Teaching someone how to work says that you have faith in them and their abilities, and taking the time to train them is love. But it seems that as we become more and more automated, we will be creating a society that is less and less able to train people properly for productive lives.
Next time you see someone in a new position, give them words of encouragement (and maybe ask your big box store to cut down on the self-checkouts). One day he or she may be heading up U.S. policy or become president. How can someone possibly understand what makes this big blue marble spin without working? That’s one of those things you just can’t get from a book.