Tuesday, March 07, 2023

On A Work Ethic

 Friend of this blog Nylon12 made a fascinating comment in yesterday's post which (as these things often do) sent my mind down different paths as soon as I read it.  The comment is thus:  

"Agree about colleges/universities., how many prepare their students for the real world?   How many teach the process of  how to think/analyze/learn? How many employees give a full days effort for a full day's pay?

The place that mind went was "Where does one learn a work ethic?"  Perhaps more intuitively, "Where did I learn a work ethic?"

If look at myself at least, it would have to start at home, especially with my father TB The Elder.  All of my growing up years and even beyond when I left home, he worked at the same job.  He left the house by 7:30 and arrived home by 6:00 PM.  Perhaps as is usual with children growing up, I had a very vague idea of what my father did.  I knew he worked for a utility company in the gas division, but was pretty vague on what that meant.  I know better now;  it meant days in the hot sun and rainy cold days, digging trenches and checking pipes and meters and dealing with emergencies as they came up.

Even at home, he had a work ethic likely drilled into him by a combination of poverty and his own father.  The amount of time I remember my father just "sitting around" is fairly brief.  He was always about something, be it around the house or at The Ranch on the weekends.  The three breaks from that were:  1)  Church on Sundays (which I suspect he grudgingly attended more often than not for many years); 2) and 3)  When his beloved Dallas Cowboys or Los Angeles Dodgers were playing.

My work ethic "extended" itself when I got my first job at a fast food restaurant.  Fast food was hot and greasy work and is on a pretty tight timeline (oddly enough, customers seem to prefer their food hot).  Work was a series of tasks to be completed in a specific order - and as one got good at those tasks, one "graduated" to other tasks ( and for everything I have forgotten from that experience, I still cook a pretty mean burger).  One did not leave until one's tasks were complete - and if I wanted to get off on time, I worked hard to make sure they all were done.

In my current line of work (let us be kind and call it "intellectual"), school helped a great deal. I have always been good at school for some reason because school made a lot of sense:  study, learn the material, pass the test, move on.  Classes, especially as one goes into high school and college, become much more defined.  How to succeed was clearly known (generally speaking, at least in the day, it showed up as the "syllabus" on the first day of class).  Understand what to learn, understand how to apply the knowledge and pass the tests, and one moved on - oddly enough as I think about it, much like what I do for a living now.

So what changed?

I am not a social scientist nor a trainer nor a labor consultant so I feel fairly unqualified to comment beyond a personal observational level - but I, at least see elements of the following:

1)  Examples:   This is a hard one for me to quantify as I have a limited pool of people (we all do), but it does occur to me that experientially, the biggest impact happens in the home, whether by direct family or other family members or close friends.  Are those examples as strong as they were?  If not at home, where are those examples coming from?

2)  Experience:  I would argue that my 1.5 years in fast food were some of the most formative in both my work ethic and my desire to get a better job (smelling like grease every day when you come home gets old pretty quickly).  I knew that working hard was important; now I had to apply it in a real fashion.  Effort without direction is just wasted effort (otherwise known as "flailing about").  

Our children all held jobs through part of their high school and most of their college experience. We never really told them what job to have, especially in high school - two babysat very regularly (and made good tax-free money doing it) and one worked at a grocery chain - as what the job is was (to me at least) less important than learning the basics of showing up on time, commitment to the task - and learning how to save and pay for things.  But how many children or even adults are gaining that experience now?

This extends, of course, to getting out of school and into the work force as well:  a key component to reinforcing a work ethic is to gain the benefit of one's labors.  Work and get nothing for it except the bare minimum and a tax bill and your desire to work can quickly dwindle.

In every generation, even the ones after mine, there are those that have a work ethic, that are working hard and well and succeeding.  Every time I keep feeling depressed about such things, I read another story that stirs my resolve.  Not everything is lost, and not all of a generation is doing the minimum amount required.

But there is one more thing about a society that loses its work ethic.

Those that lack the ethic can do so only as long as those with a work ethic continue to do what they are doing, and the society has the finances to support it.  Drop out that bottom, either by those with a work ethic removing themselves from the labor force  or the ebullient "we can pay for everything" financing collapsing and all of a sudden this surfeit of drafting ceases. 

At that point, everyone will suddenly discover they either have a work ethic - or need to get one.


  1. Interesting post. I'm not sure I consider myself to have a great work ethic. I know many people who are constantly on the move and doing things and I am definitely not like that. I need my down time where I can sit down and ponder things/life. But I am task focused when working on something. I guess growing up on a farm where tasks were assigned daily and one couldn't progress to a new one until they were completed, I learned to focus and get the task at hand done quickly and efficiently so I could move on. For some reason, I always think of the former and not the latter when I think of someone with a great work ethic.

    1. Ed, that is not at all a bad view of a work ethic. I do not mean to imply that having a work ethic means "doing something every minute of the day" - like you, I value the time I can just sit and read and think (or write) - and all of that takes actual time, not just something fit in around the margins. But to your point, focus/complete the task/move on is a great basic definition. What I would add in general is the fact that it is, at some level, self motivated (e.g., I do not need someone constantly telling me to do it; I do it even if I do not originate the task).

  2. Nylon125:05 AM

    If you grow up in a household where no one is working, there's no example then. Like you TB my dad was an example for me, I had chores around the house to do every day. How many households now have no adult in them WORKING? Makes it harder for youngsters to learn by example.

    1. Nylon12, the power of an example (in anything) cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately that is a problem that builds on itself: as there are less and less examples it becomes more and more prevalent, until all of sudden no-one wants to do anything. That is where the real issues start.

  3. Work ethic.
    Every adult in all of my family worked at a variety of jobs when I was growing up. In later years when my sister and I were both in school, my mom worked at office jobs.
    The fine points of being on time, doing a job job, and other things I took for granted were the teachings of my family.

    As Nylon12 said, where are the examples today?

    I agree with Ed saying that I enjoy the time to sit and ponder.

    1. "The fine points of being on time, doing a job job, and other things I took for granted were the teachings of my family". Mine too John, and something I (apparently) took for granted as well.

      Taken too far of course, a "work ethic" becomes overwork - thus the correct emphasis on time to sit and ponder or even engage in things that have nothing to do with our "work".

  4. "At that point, everyone will suddenly discover they either have a work ethic - or need to get one."

    I feel is a bit optimistic. This era isn't the first one to go through the good times to bad time social economics. But MORALS of the Society is the restrainer (or not).

    During the Great Depression folks didn't have a "Social Safety Net" from the Government. Charity was local and folks were ashamed to be "Wards of the Town" and encouraged to work themselves out of it. Those that did not were shunned or forced out of town.

    I remember as a child being handed some food stamps by my disabled father and told to go shopping. I was ashamed to have to use them. I was so proud when Dad got back to work.

    Today people are arrogant, even Proud of their EBT cards and Obama Phones for FREE.

    Children learn as they live. Proverbs 22 6 Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

    Children raised where hard work was rewarded, have work ethic.

    Children raised where random Baby Fathers, violence and illegal activities are expected and promoted, do not learn Work Ethic.

    Even well before the time of Jesus the shiftless were noted and disparaged. Proverbs 20 The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing.

    Sounds like root hog or die, eh? New Testament version 2 Thessalonians 3: 9,10,11 speak to this.

    From where I am standing it's those that are encouraged by our corrupt society to steal, murder and be lazy-dependent in handouts are a real treat to my efforts to build a lifeboat for my family and friends.

    The bible is full of how people got through times of troubles, and how they got into trouble. And how to work together with likeminded people to prosper.

    Proverbs 27 The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.

    Sometimes you have to create your refuge. A thought to ponder for country folks not wanting to flee the homestead. How many routes lead into your area. How troublesome is it when trees fall across those paths? Whole crews show up to remove them quickly, eh?

    If a few well selected areas had trees that took 5-6 strong men to emplace block a route from the chaos city. How many strong teamwork "Visitors" need to remove? How many troublesome folks carry chainsaws?

    Military knows an obstacle without covering fire is an annoyance BECAUSE they have teamwork and tools. Would still give your watchman time to bicycle away to warn of visitors. Just saying.

    1. Michael - Certainly (as I think Ed, Nylon12, and John pointed out) the lack of examples is troublesome. And without examples or teaching (a form of example), no-one will learn. At the same time and as you correctly point out, we live in a society that in many ways discourages effort and encourages a sort of social responsibility that only encompasses our responsibilities to others, not our duties to (where possible) remove ourselves as a responsibility of others.

      Ultimately, all I can do is prepare myself and those around me as best I can and be an example as long as I can of what such a thing as a work ethic looks like. And, of course, at the same time, demonstrate what actual Christian charity looks like, not the charity which our society tells us is Christian.

      "The prudent man sees danger and hides from it. The simple goes on and suffers for it" - Proverbs 27:12

  5. Anonymous6:47 AM

    Learned my work ethic growing up on a ranch. Hay to make and haul, fence to build and repair, firewood to make, and we did everything back then by hand. It’s probably not good, but I have a critical eye when I see people engaged in physical labor.

    1. That would be quite a lesson in work ethic.

      I do not think it is wrong to have an eye for how people do work you are familiar with. For me at least, I often let that get into "and that is why I should not do it", as I can be far too self critical. You have to do it poorly before you do it well.

  6. I found out my folks kept me busy to keep me from causing chaos at home. I was TOO active. I always had a long chore list and a long belt at the end if it wasn't done on time and budget. I always had more work to do than the siblings. I noticed, too.

    In high scruel, I cleaned out the High Plains Hog Market on Saturday after the Tuesday sale. I came home smelling to high heaven. Dad told me he knew I would never go hungry after keeping that job for so long. It was just work, and I'd been doing a man's work since I was a little kid. No change, just got money for it now.

    As to examples, mom and dad both kept busy around the house. They both had chores and projects. I didn't have the option to not help. My ex brother in law was a druggie. He would come home from work and sleep. Or be manic about cleaning an already clean house. He was an anti-parent. He didn't allow the kids to work at chores, actively frustrating their mom's plans and attempts at training. Now, in their teens, they have next to zero work ethic or skill.

    My niece is learning to repair her car. I'm hoping to impart a little self confidence and skill to her. It will be a little at the end of her teens, instead of when she was young and an intellectual sponge. Her younger brother is well on his way to..... God only knows. Poor kid.

    1. Good on you for helping your niece. It can never be too late, although I suspect sometimes it is.

      One wonders, if we stay on the current trajectory, what things will look like in another twenty years.

  7. Being an example and teaching is the noble thing.

    I have to be careful not to ride herd on my OR trainees. I will not allow danger to the patient, but they do have to learn for when I am gone (or even Their Patient).

    What's that saying "Preach the Gospel, if needed use words".

    1. Michael, there is always a fine balance between letting people work through things and guiding them before something awful happens. I am not always very good at finding the balance.

  8. These last two posts have spurred a lot of thinking, as your posts so often do. My dad could be difficult, and I'm afraid I have some wounds because of that, but he DID set a good example when it came to a work ethic, for which I am grateful. This post, and its comments, has made me more aware of the importance of having an example.

    Your previous post got me to thinking a lot about college, and education in general. Off topic, but I am less and less impressed by a college education. Granted, I loved college, but there is not a reason in the world it had to take four years. I understand much growing up is done in those post-high school years, but today, at what cost and more important, is it worth it? The numbers on educational debt are mind-boggling. I hire people, and while the company I work for says they need a college degree, I would be fine to hire them without it. Our entire system of higher education needs an overhaul, the sooner the better.

    1. Bob, it was good for me as well - I never thought about where I acquired it from, only that I acquired it. It is always good to recognize where things - good and bad - originated (thus, I suppose, my love of history).

      A college degree is much less than it used to be, partially because it only measures the ability to take and pass classes (and does not have demonstrable knowledge attached to it) and partially because there are a lot of college graduates that should have never gone. We devalue the trades (where there is still growth and opportunity) and prioritize college, which as you note is mostly expensive and for a lot of majors, does not have a lot of value.

      I do wonder if the upcoming financial issues will help to sort some of that out. Certainly colleges are already starting to go under, and from what I have read there is a demographic drop off coming in ten to twenty years. The cost cannot continue to climb forever, especially in regards to the value proposition for so many majors.

  9. Older folks are hanging on to the responsibility and the jobs. Not good.

    1. It is likely not a good sign John. If people want to work that is one thing; if they need to that is another.


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