The Broad is Back!

July 7, 2009

If a Job’s Worth Doing…

When I was a child, my mother drummed this saying into my head: “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

I was reminded of that today when I was writing for my other blog, Patchouli Haze, a place where I post affirmations and words of wisdom, among other things.  I’m going to do a little cross pollination and lift some of today’s post there for here.

If I gotta do what I gotta do, I’m gonna do it well with style and joy.

I don’t know if this is really an affirmation or more a rule to live by.  When I was growing up, I wanted to be a medical doctor.  My mother taught me that I would never make a good doctor if I couldn’t mop a floor well.

Her point was that if some jobs are beneath me, then all jobs are above me.  Job satisfaction comes not from having a great job, but from doing any job well.  If I do my job well, I can take pride in it and from that comes joy.

I was also taught: there are no small roles, only small actors.  This is an old chestnut for theater people which was a way of saying that people’s dignity comes not from their job titles, but from how well they do their jobs.  So not only was I never to look down on any job as “beneath me,” neither was I ever to look down on someone because of his or her job.  That was a total contradiction of every value in our home.  So a nice double-whammy of a lesson.

As I was writing this, I couldn’t help but think of the American society I’ve come home to.  What has happened to Americans’ work ethic?  I’ve written about this before in this column, but it’s something that bothers me more and more as time goes on.

Last summer I was looking for an apartment here in New York City, and I was amazed, no flabbergasted is a better word, at the level of “service” I received from people in “service” jobs.  Inept was the kindest thing I could say.  Rude and surly and downright mean spirited would be closer to the truth.

This was all the sadder to me as I had just read Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick with group of grad students doing a course on American Optimism.  We’ve all heard the phrase “a real Horatio Alger story,” but most of us these days have never read any of his books.  Alger wrote about poor boys who worked hard, worked well, remained cheerful and were ultimately rewarded, not with vast riches, but with a comfortable middle class life with warm water, warm beds, plentiful food and rewarding work.

The cheerfulness in the books was occasionally a little too relentless even for me, an eternal optimist, but Alger was trying to show his audience, working class boys and girls, and even the “street urchins” of his time, how hard work and dedication do pay off in this country.  They are part and parcel of the “American Dream”.

My students today tell me that the American Dream is dead.  There are no longer any opportunities for people no matter what they do.  I disagree.  Vehemently.  Every day I meet students who will succeed, who have succeeded against all odds.  The homeless shelter kids who are pulling straight A’s in my classes.  The war refugees flourishing in college while working “menial” jobs.

And pretty much I can tell you long before graduation who will make it and who won’t.  It’s not talent, not totally, nor is it family connections, really (though both help, of course).  It is attitude.  One of my amazingly successful graduates wasn’t the one who stood out academically in her class.  She was good, not great.  Now she’s a powerhouse in her chosen field, far out-succeeding some of her more academically successful classmates.  But she’s also one of the hardest workers I have ever met.  And she’s unfailingly positive in her outloook.

Those two qualities–hard work and positive attitude–are components of the American Dream that seem to be missing from too many of today’s youth.  Are they too spoilt by their parents?  Too dissillusioned?  I don’t know the answer.  All I know is that this rot is bringing down too many American kids.

And my outstanding student mentioned above? She’s an immigrant to these shores.  Is that why she still believes in the American Dream and follows it  for success?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I’ve met a few, sadly disproportionately few, non-immigrant students who still have faith in the Dream.  They usually don’t articulate it , but through their actions I can tell they were brought up with it.

So I continue to carry a spark of hope with all my despair.  The inept workers I’m meeting day to day? They are shooting themselves in the foot, I’m sure.  They will be passed over for jobs for harder workers, people with better attitudes, but someday they might realize they can help themselves.  But the high proportion of people like them are a drain, and that’s what worries me.

A worried optimist–now that’s funny!

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1 Comment »

  1. I totally agree. No one takes any pride in what they do any more. Oh I quite sure that there are a handful that do, but for the most part it is just a job that helps us pay the bills.

    Comment by Anita — July 9, 2009 @ 6:29 am |Reply


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