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The value of work

Do the best job you can at whatever your job happens to be.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 5, 2011 3:02PM
I've got a nice new divot in my left thumb, worn there by a hoe handle. Earlier this week my father and I spent about 90 minutes grubbing out weeds in a field of Christmas trees.

It's healing surprisingly fast (thanks, Neosporin!). You should have seen it a couple of days ago. Despite the work gloves, I'd dug a hole deep enough to accommodate a hearing-aid battery.

The work gloves might have been enough to protect me if my hands were as calloused as my dad's. But for half a decade my swell indoor job has kept me from having to labor too hard. (Physically, anyway; writing for four sites, and being old-school picky about my work, translates to a lot of hours.)

For my first couple of years as apartment-house manager I had to clean the building as well as collect the rent. At the same time I was back in college and doing a fairly strenuous work-study job. My hands were tougher then.

As an 18-year-old I worked in a glass factory, where I declined to wear gloves. They felt wrong, somehow. My hands were already chore-toughened, since I'd been keeping house for my dad and brother. Factory work, however, gave my palms the texture of leather.

A few years later I was doing all my laundry, including the baby's diapers, on a scrub board. (After paying for rent, child care and food, I just didn't have the extra quarters for the Laundromat.) No matter how much lotion I used, my hands were perpetually dry and scented with chlorine.

I was oddly proud of that. Those tough, bleachy paws proved I was working for a living and taking care of business at home. They showed that I paid my bills and didn't owe anybody anything.

Fall in love with hard

Last month I attended the Affiliate Marketing Summit, at which bloggers and online entrepreneurs network with companies that will help them earn money.

There's a persistent mythology that you can make biiiiig bucks on the Internet: Just slap together a free website, throw some ads on it and quit your day job. In rare cases that might actually happen.

Probably not, though. And as a very inspirational conference speaker named Wil Reynolds pointed out: Why should it?

He showed us an advertising photo of a man lying in a hammock. The caption: "Fall in love with easy."

"We all think that we're going to do our four-hour workweek from (the hammock)," Reynolds said. "Today I want to challenge that kind of thinking. I want you guys to fall in love today with the things that are actually hard."

Reynolds' speech focused on how to improve page ranking without taking shortcuts -- or, as he called it, "without polluting the Web." He talked about "adding value" to the Internet by putting in long hours doing good work vs. spewing out lousy content larded with SEO shortcuts.

"You've got to believe in the value of a long-term asset," he said.

I don't know about everyone else, but I interpreted that to mean "the value of hard work and of taking pride in what you do."

Help wanted

It's ironic that we celebrate the history of labor by stapling on an extra day off. Labor Day has become more about barbecues and last visits to the lake or the beach than about remembering the bad old days of work in America: horrific working conditions, child labor, no safety net if you were laid off or injured on the job.

Wonder how those four-hour-workweek wonks would feel about a six-day workweek? That used to be standard. We're not talking eight-hour days, either.

Unemployment is still at 9.1% because no net jobs were added in August. A lot of people would gladly take any job, even that dreaded gig called "flipping burgers." As I pointed out in last year's Labor Day post, fast food is culturally defined as the ultimate dead-end labor.

Yet everyone seems to want to eat burgers. So why don't we value the work that goes into producing them?

Full disclosure: I don't want to flip burgers either. The job is hot, stressful, poorly paid and requires standing on a hard floor for eight hours a day. If my day job at MSN Money were to go south, McDonald's isn't the first place I'd apply.

Making a contribution

But I'd have to apply somewhere if I couldn't quickly cobble together enough freelance work. No one will pay my bills except me. Truth be told, I wouldn't want someone else to pay the bills as long as I were capable of doing it myself.

So I work. Although I don't carry cinder blocks or scrub floors for eight hours at a stretch, I'm still very tired at night. But I'm also satisfied, because I put in an honest day (or day and a half) of labor.

At the conference, Wil Reynolds asked us what we were doing to add value to the Internet. I'd like to apply this question to life in general. I'd also like to answer it: All who are able can add value to the world simply by going to work.

No, you won't get the same props (or paycheck) for vacuuming an apartment building as you would for performing open-heart surgery. But that doesn't mean a janitorial job is demeaning. It just means we don't have the sense to appreciate it.

Understand: I'm not saying that we should be grateful for the chance to work hard as hell for low wages, or that we should never want anything more. I'm saying that sometimes a job is a job is a job, if it keeps your bills paid.

Remember that the next time you're tempted to look down on the counter person at Taco Bell. Remember, too, that one layoff from now you could be wearing the same uniform. Would it mean that you were worth less as a human being than you are today?

You don't have to want to do that kind of gig yourself. But you do have to be glad someone else is willing to do it.

MSN Money columnist Donna Freedman blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.

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Sep 6, 2011 12:54AM
your not a 30 something for sure.battle scared hands and arms are badges of honor.
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