The myth of hard work and wealth

I think there’s been more harm than good done by this statement: “If you work hard enough, you’ll be wealthy.”

I recently met a man named Charles who’s a chef, been working in restaurants since he was 16-years-old, and owned his own restaurant and his own catering business. But he can’t keep up anymore—working from 4am to 11am at the restaurant, catering on the side, and getting to bed by 10pm if he’s lucky only to get up again at 3:30am. He’s stooped over, walks slowly, but still smiles, albeit wearily. He’s 68 years old and doesn’t want to retire, but needs to slow down. However, he worries about the many people who rely on him and his industry. His past generosity means he doesn’t have much saved up, either.

Sara, in her 40s, has a husband is trying to finish his college degree. To help him, she’s now working full-time as a teacher’s aid in a school, and works an additional 20 hours/week at a hotel. In the few hours in between she helps her five kids with their homework so that her husband can study. She has a college degree, but couldn’t find full-time work anywhere in her field, so she’s burning the candle on both ends. Both Charles and Sara work very hard.

How often have you heard this statement? “Get a college degree, and your earning potential will increase.”

I know of far too many people to name with college degrees, with years of experience in management, training, HR, and sales who are currently working part-time jobs–which require no degree–and offer no benefits (we won’t get into the irony of the Affordable Health Care Act right now). There simply aren’t enough full-time jobs, and while a few of these people have considered moving to find work, they’re trapped by houses with no equity in them. Every month they sink deeper into the hole. 

Then there’s my friend with degrees in a hard science and a foreign language, but works as a seamstress. She said “Professional Alterations” was the most useful course she completed in college. And then there’s the friend who finished a graduate degree widely touted as the key to success, but neither he nor the twenty others he graduated with can find work making more than $14/hour. The market’s been saturated with people graduating with that same advanced degree.

I think this one gets under my skin the most: “Work smarter, not harder.”

I read this on an acquaintance’s website. Back in college he drove twenty-year-old German luxury cars, because he vowed he’d always drive new ones in the future. He does, a new model every year, as the head of a company that peddles a “forever young tonic” to vain and aging people. A blogger on his company’s site claimed, “Some people think luck just happens. We make it happen.” Then she went on about how much money one could make selling their snake oil. But I never believed one should become rich by manipulating the vulnerable or stupid. This rouse has been around for generations. It’s not working smarter, it’s working meaner.

How about this one: “Work hard enough, and you’ll get your piece of the pie.”

Or so claims another get-rich website, which buries the actual product they sell but talks all about the vacations their marketers take. The problem with this mantra is that there is only so much pie to go around. But those sitting at the top of a pie kingdom believe in the myth of “spontaneous pie generation,” that they won’t need to share some of the pie they snagged, but if others simple worked as well as they did, another pie would magically appear for them too–and they’re willing to sell you the secret.

As the discussion of the “haves” vs. the “have-nots” comes around again, there’s a prevailing notion of, “I deserve this, and you don’t, because you’re just not good/smart/hard-working enough.”

And this notion is a lie. I’ve always suspected that, but now I’ve seen proof.

Lately my eyes have been opened to how many people in America are hard-working and are just getting by. I thought it was just us, but I suspect it’s the majority. Forget wealth; we’re just trying to cover the mortgage. Like the nearly 70-year-old woman I know who lives with her struggling sister and her family. She works 30+ hours a week in manual labor to help cover half of the very modest mortgage. Hard working? I was by her side for four hours recently, and this so-called “elderly” woman worked circles around me! I was exhausted at the end of the shift and was going home to take a nap. She was going home to bottle several bushels of peaches.

I cringe when I hear disparaging comments about the working poor. And even though what qualifies as “poor” in America is still richer than the vast majority of the rest of the world, there are still millions of good, working adults just getting by month-to-month. Try being a janitor for a week. That’s hard work.

Yes, a great man . . . but he didn’t accomplish it all on his own. No one really does.

If hard work was all it took to become wealthy, there’d be a lot more living in luxury. Take a deep, searching look at the level of hard work many people in third-world countries accomplish, day after day. No one would argue they’re wealthy. So what gives?

The fact is, a great many that have wealth didn’t get there on hard work alone. Quite often we point to Benjamin Franklin as the epitome of working one’s way to the top. But Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Gordon Wood pointed out that Mr. Franklin was the beneficiary of numerous “patronages”: wealthy Pennsylvanians who donated him funds, set him up with those of influence, even paid many of his expenses to get him started with his printing business. “In the end Franklin was never quite as self-made as he sometimes implied or as the nineteenth century made him out to be” (The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, page 27).

Many of the “greats” have to admit they stood on the shoulders of others, got started with the seed money of friends and relatives, received an inside tip, was in the right place at the right time, even got a bit lucky. Some have attained their positions by manipulation through a product—such as my acquaintance with the anti-aging cream—or have exploited a resource that wasn’t really theirs to begin with.

I love what Brigham Young said, over 150 years ago:

“People think they are going to get rich by hard work—by working sixteen hours out of the twenty-four; but it is not so. . . .
There is any amount of property, and gold and silver in the earth and on the earth, and the Lord gives to this one and that one—the wicked as well as the righteous—to see what they will do with it, but it all belongs to him.” (emphasis added)

Think about that—God’s given more to some than to others, to see what they will do. I sincerely doubt He’s expecting those with more to indulge themselves, but instead to “. . . have mercy on the poor,” as Proverbs 14:21 suggests, for “happy is he” who does.

Now, consider this notion of hard work, from Professor Hugh Nibley, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century:

“What are the qualities that make for success in the business world? Hard work, dependability, sobriety, firmness, imagination, patience, courage, loyalty, discrimination, intelligence, persistence, ingenuity, dedication, consecration—you can add to the list. But these are the same qualities necessary to make a successful athlete, artist, soldier, bank robber, musician, international jewel thief, scholar, hit man, spy, teacher, dancer, author, politician, minister, smuggler, con man, general, explorer, chef, physician, engineer, builder, astronaut, scientist, godfather, inventor.

. . . You don’t have to go into business to develop character . . . There are over one half million millionaires in the country [in 1979 when he delivered this speech]—but how many first-rate composers or writers or artists or even scientists? A tiny handful.” (emphasis added; “Gifts,” Approaching Zion, pages 102-3).

I fear that many in our society don’t hold in any esteem those who truly work hard. Instead, we’re envious of those who seem to get away with working less, yet still get more. That’s what the 1% vs. 99% protests of last year were about: people wanted the magic spell to spontaneously generate their own pie, and if given that magical pie, the cynic in me suspects it wouldn’t be shared either. That’s why we uphold the corrupt system of some getting more only because we hope to rise to that level of luxury and leisure ourselves.

But that’s not how it’s meant to be.

Giyak exhaled. “Colonel, I appreciate your sense of fairness. Very few men have that anymore. That’s what makes you an excellent commander, I’m sure. But politics is different. More delicate. Those that live in the Estates are, are . . . more achieved. More deserving of their station in life. They worked harder, are smarter . . . I don’t know. Perhaps the good doctor could explain to us the differences in achievement in one’s life . . . but you see, those who nature have favored . . . nature has favored. That’s all there is to it. We, as a political entity, must also recognize that nature has chosen some for success rather than others.”

But Perrin wasn’t convinced. “I just worry about a society that deems one person more worthy than another. I believe in the Creator, and I believe He created us all equal. To see us deferring to some and neglecting—I’m sorry, not ‘neglecting,’ but marginalizing others in order to favor another? They’ve already been ‘rewarded’ with more by their status. Is it truly fair or right that a builder of a school makes three times as much as an eggman? Don’t children need food as much as they need education? Or why should I as a colonel make more than my major? We work the same hours, at the same fort, doing each other’s job most of the time . . . If extra silver’s to be given, it should be given to him with the greater need—”   ~Book 3, The Mansions of Idumea

This isn’t the last you’ll hear from on this issue of money, sharing, and worth. Oh dear, not at all. I’m just getting started . . .

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