Promoting Awareness and Appreciation of the Working Class

Virtues of Hard Work

Copyright 2010-2013 by Scot G. Patterson. All rights reserved.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  – Thomas Edison

Let’s talk about the motivation to do physical work. White-collar workers probably wonder why anyone would choose to work as a steel fabricator, fire fighter, or plumber. Their work is dirty and physically demanding and the rewards are not immediately obvious, particularly for those who rarely work with their hands. In this brief article I will attempt to describe what motivates people to do physical work for a living. This discussion will focus on the rewards of working in the middle-skill and professional working trades.

Let's begin by saying that it’s not just about money. I could do something else to pay the bills, but I choose to work on houses. Let’s step back and take a look at other aspects of the work that keep people like me going.

There are a lot of challenges to providing a service in the working trades. It takes self-discipline and physical stamina  to stay focused on the task and see it through. As a remodeling contractor, my job also requires constant problem solving. These characteristics and the dirt, dust, and sweat that go with it may seem intolerable, but it’s the challenging nature of the task that makes is appealing to me. Here’s why.

I have quite a bit of energy and a low threshold for being bored. Sitting in a chair performing a task with no opportunity for creativity or problem solving is the worst possible scenario for me. Even after twenty years, remodeling is rarely boring. I have to keep my attention focused on the job or I'll overlook something that will haunt me later. Anyone who thinks that construction is a mindless task should never pick up a hammer. The nature of the work forces me to be in the moment, and time passes quickly because I'm engaged in the process both mentally and physically. A successful project requires a good plan that is well executed.

I worked as a computer programmer in the 1970s. In hindsight, I was at the right time and place to launch a very successful career. Some of the students I trained with are working today as systems analysts at Hewlett Packard. There was just one problem. I found that it was stressful to be connected to a computer and there was little room for creativity as a batch programmer. It didn't take long for me to decide that it just wasn’t the job for me.

In contrast, I find it very satisfying to work in the physical trades. The daily accomplishments are both tangible and enduring. At the end of the day, I like to consider what I have accomplished. I prefer to do this alone so that I'm not distracted. I think about the problem-solving and hand skills that were required to achieve the end result. I savor the satisfaction of doing the job well and knowing that several tasks have been removed from the punch list.

The feeling of accomplishment often stays with me into the evening. That first glass of beer or wine tastes that much better when I have worked hard and really earned it. A hot shower removes the dirt and the sweat, leaving behind a delicious tiredness that lingers until bedtime. And getting to sleep is not a problem. Hard work is the perfect prelude to a good night’s sleep because your body is naturally ready to rest.

Many jobs today are boring, meaningless, and unhealthy. It’s unnatural to sit in an office cubicle and shuffle papers all day long. Our bodies are not designed for that kind of sedentary work. Recent studies have shown that sitting for long periods is very bad for your health, even if you exercise, too (see, for example, the New York Times article Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?, LifeScience Staff report on Are You Sitting Down? It's Slowly Killing You, and summary of studies by Sitting is Killing You). Our bodies are designed for hunting and gathering, which requires moderate activity for most of the day. Because people perform work that’s unnatural and unbalanced, they need to compensate for it by paying a fee to exercise at the gym, working out on a treadmills like overgrown laboratory animals. What a waste of energy. Why not do something useful instead, like working in the yard?

I get paid to exercise. It’s part of my job. Although my work doesn’t provide all of the aerobic conditioning I need, it’s far better than sitting at a desk.

Very little is said about the virtues of hard work in our modern society. Quite the opposite – advertising sound bites tell us that hard work should be avoided at all costs. The man pushing a lawnmower should be riding a lawnmower and waving at the neighbors. The woman weeding the garden should buy a bag of chemicals that will do it for her while she sits on the porch drinking iced tea.

Here's a news flash – it takes self discipline and hard work to achieve personal success and build a fulfilling life, regardless of the career you choose. Life itself is inconvenient. It’s a mistake to tell our children to embrace convenience and avoid work. It’s neither realistic nor productive.

Don’t get me wrong. As a contractor I fully understand the importance of having the right tool for the job. And we all appreciate the convenience of running water and cell phones, but let’s not lose sight of the work ethic that produced those conveniences in the first place. The bottom line is that there will always be a place in our society for people who are not afraid of hard work!