The “Hard Work” Narrative

The people of the United States are known to say that if you just work hard enough, you can be successful in anything. I don’t disagree with this sentiment; however, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Where you start from matters a great deal. If we are all running a race and the first to finish wins, we cannot ignore the fact that some of us are given tremendous head starts in this race that others are not.

I am not sure how much of a head start I had growing up. I attended Head Start for preschool if that counts for anything. We lived in various apartments, trailers, and houses over 18 years. We didn’t have a telephone. We never had cable television. Almost all my clothes were hand-me-downs from the thrift shop. We didn’t go on many vacations. We didn’t have gas heat and we had to cut, split, and stack our own wood constantly in the summer in order to have enough to get through the cold northeast Iowa winters. We had a garden and raised chickens because it was cheaper (and more work) than buying the same food at a grocery store. My parent’s cars were constantly breaking down. Everything was constantly breaking down and we were constantly working on, fixing, and repairing multiple things simultaneously.

What some people born into privilege forget is how much work it is just to live like that. My parents worked very hard. They took on all the overtime they could. When they came home, they had even more work to do. They were working all the time. I also worked hard and sacrificed a great deal growing up, as did my siblings. In fact, work was all we ever knew on the weekends. Simply gathering, cutting down, splitting, and stacking enough firewood to get through the winter took up the majority of the weekends we had. Between that, gardening, mowing our large yard with many trees, repairing equipment, repairing cars, fixing things around the house, and helping my Dad with various odd jobs he took on for more money, there was little time for anything else.

Investing all this time on work, combined with there being little money available for anything beyond the bare necessities meant that growing up, I went to only a handful of movies, never got braces, never had swimming lessons, never participated in youth sports, never went roller skating, and never stayed over at a friend’s house.

I share all of this not to generate empathy, but to make a point. I’ve had to work very hard for everything I have, which isn’t much. I believe the greatest gifts my parents bestowed on me was is raising me to have a strong work ethic and little expectation for anything to be handed to me in this world. I worked extremely hard in school, knowing I had no safety net and that my only ticket to a better life was a good education. I studied relentlessly and listened intently in my classes. I gave everything I had.

In sports, I did not have the benefit of years of youth sports experience prior to seventh grade. I wasn’t terribly talented, but I worked hard. Before I had my driver’s license, my Mom used to drop me off every morning in town with my bike so I could lift weights at the high school. Then, I would bike over an hour back to our house in the country. Needless to say, my level of fitness dramatically improved that summer!

I wasn’t handed the keys to a new car when I turned 16. Instead, in the two years prior to turning 16,  I helped my uncle and relatives in their roofing company, working long hours on hot summer days tearing off old shingles and carrying heavy bundles of new shingles up steep ladders and roof pitches for $15 a day. Eventually, I was able to save up enough to buy a cheap used car when I got my license. The car had constant problems and I had to work with my Dad to repair it on a regular basis.

When I graduated high school, I earned scholarships, but not enough to pay for all my expenses. My parents helped out the best they could, but they couldn’t just cut a check for my tuition and housing. During the majority of my time in college, I worked. This helped me pay for my housing and living expenses, but was not enough to cover to pay for the all the costs. Therefore, like so many others, I had to take out student loans to cover the difference in order to get through college. I graduated in 2001 and I am still paying these back and likely will continue to do so for several years into the future.

I mention all of this because often the people who were born into middle or upper middle class families, attended the best schools, and were given a great deal of resources and support along the way are often the ones most opposed to providing support or “handouts” for our nation’s most needy citizens. Some of these people steadfastly believe that the vast majority of our nation’s poor people are simply lazy and if they, or their parents, had just worked harder, they would be successful.

My story is not unique. In fact, I had many privileges I did not realize at the time that others did not. My parents were still together and not separated. We always had electricity, running water, a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table.

I wonder how successful I would have been if  I had been born into extreme poverty and occasional homelessness, attended schools with minimal resources and crumbling infrastructure, lived in neighborhoods of perpetual crime, been a descendant of non-native English speakers, been a racial or ethnic minority, etc. Would I actually have just worked that much harder to get where I am now? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Considering how hard I had to work just to get to where I am now, I am not so sure I could have worked much harder. How about you? How much of what you have did you have to personally work for? How much did you inherit? Did you work harder than I have from the time you were born? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Perhaps the point of this post is that we should all work hard, but also be willing to help others. We should be thankful for any privileges we inherited that made our journey any easier and try to pay it forward as best we can.

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