Learning the value of labor

Throughout my life many people have been vital in teaching me how to do the various jobs I’ve held. A few stand out in an already outstanding crowd.  The mentor who taught me how to lobby; how to frame my argument; how to be pit bull relentless in getting an answer. Yeah, she rocks.

At my first “non-family” business job, my boss who shared my name showed me how a good boss protects her employees from bad management. (And from that bad management, I learned “Christian” bosses can be real jerks.) I also learned how fun it is to go Christmas Caroling with your co-workers.

A few jobs taught me the truth of the Peter Principle. But we won’t go there.

Far and away the most important people in teaching me how and why and in what spirit to labor have been my parents.  My mother is the most amazing woman I know.  Someday, I’m going to do a full post on her awesomeness. I’m a little reluctant, though, because you are all going to be jealous.

But when I think about “work ethic” and how to work, my daddy is the “picture in the dictionary.”  My dad is many things: a brilliant, kind, generous, hilarious, prank-loving, God-fearing man. But the description that comes first in that list is “hard working.”

He has worked since he was 14, not just for pocket change, but to help his family.   He started his own auto-electric business when he had a young family and worked long, hard hours to establish his business. He built it on a reputation of excellent work and fair business practices.  He started early in the morning, would come home for a family dinner (thank you for always doing that, Mom and Dad) and then often return to his shop to do more.  And when he works, he works — full throttle. In fact, for years anytime my dad sat down for more than a few minutes, he’d go to sleep. I’m convinced it was his body taking advantage of momentary stillness. “Quick, he’s not moving! Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!”  We always knew a movie was truly excellent if my dad actually stayed awake through it.

At about 12, I started working at the family business cleaning the offices and the bathrooms and sweeping the shop and warehouse.  Later, I did the books, delivered and picked parts when I could drive, and collected on bad checks, among other duties.  Knowing exactly where the money comes and where it goes and getting a glimpse of all that’s required to provide for a family is a very good lesson for a teenager. I know it’s not possible for every family, but I highly recommend it if at all feasible.

From this experience and from watching my dad work hard, even through injury and illness, I’ve learned the following lessons about work.

If you’re at work, you need to be working. Full stop.  Finished your job? Find something else to do. At a loss? Ask. But don’t be an idiot. “I’ve done X project, what do you want me to do next” is a far better thing to say than, “I don’t have anything to do.” Especially to a man who works hard 12 hours a day routinely and always has to leave something undone for the next day.  Seriously, you can look around and find something that needs to be done. (And never let my dad catch you loafing when you should be working. Just. . . don’t.)

The boss is the boss is the boss. Especially in a small business, it’s his blood, sweat, tears, and money on the line. You think you have a better way to do something? Sure, suggest it. But if he says no, then get on board or get out of the way.  Trust me, he’s thought more about his business than you can imagine.

If you want to succeed, you will always be learning.  I never realized how much of an autodidact my dad was until I was an adult. (Aside: much of parenting doesn’t sink in “until they’re adults.” Don’t despair!) My dad was always learning about his craft, about things related to his craft, and generally about things that interested him.

Be generous and always willing to help those who need it.  My dad frequently fixed cars for those in need for the cost of parts (and sometimes less, I suspect.) Growing up, I never knew that we ever struggled financially. Sure “not in the budget” was a phrase I heard, but that’s just part of family life.  I now know there were some pretty lean times through the years.  But never did my parents fail to help those who needed it.
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One last story, that really has nothing to do with work-ethic, but illustrates who my dad is.  My dad did not work on foreign cars. (Maybe not all foreign cars, but some — VW and Renault especially stick out in my mind.) Anyway, this man comes with his VW Rabbit and asks my dad to fix it.

Dad: “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t work on those cars.”

Man: “You will fix my car.”

Dad: “No, I won’t. And you will move your car off my property.”

Man: “No. Fix my car.”

Dad disappears into the back and then rounds the corner of the shop with the forklift about to remove the car from his property.

Man: Removes his car from my dad’s property.

My dad is awesome.

Work is ingrained in who my father is.  But of course, God put man in the garden to work it, and my father is just fulfilling his Father’s creative command. I’m so thankful for the example he gave me. And when I’m tempted to be lazy, I can hear his voice in my head, “Get to work, girl!”

Thanks, Dad.  Happy Labor Day.


mom dad me

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