The Value of Work

When I was eighteen, my car (a monstrous and monstrously large 1978 Lincoln Continental Mark V) broke down, its gigantic rear axle having refused to endure any more of the torture of propelling that beast down the highways of southeast Ohio.

At the time, I'd been seeing the girl I was dating for just shy of two months. One fine Sunday, we went to see her parents, who lived about an hour and a half north of us in a magnificent log cabin in the middle of nowhere. We hadn't been there long when I found myself on the front porch with my girlfriend's father, Bill, who maintained the 65-acre ranch, took care of the horses, the land, the family, in addition to holding down a full-time job in the city as an electrician.

We stood on the porch, he sipping his coffee and I marveling at the surrounding acreage and the cabin behind me, which Bill had built, as they say, with his own bare hands. At some point in the conversation, Bill pointed to a nearly new 1992 Cadillac in the driveway, and said "I want you to take it home."

The man (who'd known me but a few weeks, mind you) was offering me the use of his car while I figured out what to do with mine (a process, it turned out, that would take weeks). I was flabbergasted, and I'm sure it showed in my reaction. I politely declined, assuring him that I would figure something out (he was only worried about his daughter, after all), and after dinner, we left.

In the car we'd borrowed from another friend earlier in the day, we made our way home. I told my girlfriend about the offer, mentioning the two things that had struck me about the conversation. First, of course, was the offer itself. He was looking out for his daughter, yes, but to offer a Cadillac for an indefinite amount of time to the boy who was dating your daughter (a boy who, mind you, was eighteen years old- statistically, and realistically, the worst category of driver on the planet) was a level of generosity I'd not yet encountered in my young life.

What struck me most, though, was Bill's reaction when I declined: he looked hurt. What he said next has remained seared in my memory: It's just a possession, Rob.

I think I offended him, I told my girlfriend.

She confirmed. That's the type of man he is, she said.

I grew up in a small town, but I hadn't encountered this type of person yet. To me, Bill was straight out of a John Wayne movie- the kindest, gentlest soul you'd ever meet, but who wouldn't hesitate to tear your throat out if you crossed one of his three daughters. He built a cabin with his bare hands, was, I think, the original horse whisperer, and held honor to be the highest human virtue. Frankly, I adored the man.

Why do I mention this? Because this is the memory that came to mind when I read Miya Tokumitsu's piece in Slate on doing what you love. Some interesting points are made in the piece, like the fact that the realization of Steve Jobs' vision took countless workers on the other side of the world countless hours to bring to fruition. We'd all do well to remember those countless others typically behind any endeavor, let alone those of such monstrous scale.

The well-made points in the piece, though, are frustratingly rare. The main takeaway is this:

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

The doing what you love mantra, Tokumitsu argues, is offensive to those who do "regular" work. We would all do better to shut our traps and stop desecrating the sanctity of hard work. That Tokumitsu presumes to know the inner thoughts of everyone who does what they love is laughable.

No one in their right mind would ever tell Bill that what he does, as the head maintenance supervisor of a sizable building complex in Columbus, didn't matter, but the work itself had little to do with its value. Rather, it was Bill himself who made the work valuable. He approached it with the same dedication and sense of pride with which he approached everything, and it was that dedication that made the world better. It wasn't the work, it was the man behind the work.

At the same time, if Bill's dream had been to breed horses, who in their right mind would tell him that to follow that dream would be detrimental to society, that it would be offensive to those who weren't fortunate enough to follow their own dreams? I've been on the unfortunate side of this exchange, and I feel safe in saying that if I were offended by the notion of someone else doing what they love, simply because I could not, I would turn my gaze inward. It's a small person that begrudges others the right to do work they love.

The type of work that betters society has nothing to do with the job being done; rather, it's the approach to the work that matters. In condemning those of us who've chosen to do something we enjoy, Tokumitsu has missed the point entirely. Whether you're a stenographer or a cashier or a politician or a ditch digger is of no import. What matters is the pride you take in your work. Were a designer to quit his job and start freelancing to do what he loves, we'd know too little based on that fact alone to judge his decision. If we could see the work ethic he applies to his job, we'd be in a slightly better position to judge. If we could see the work ethic he applies to a more traditional job, like paving roads or installing windows, so much the better. Show me a man or woman who applies the same level of principle and pride to all these jobs equally, and I'll show you someone the world is better off for having been home to... regardless of what particular job they've chosen to do.