Advice for Young Men: The Truth of Labor

Growing from a boy to a man is a minefield of obstacles and traps, each one more dangerous and insidious than the next.  Many of these traps are revealed in the moment they go off like a grenade in your face while others take years or even decades to reveal their full importance.  Today, I’m talking about one of the sneakier problems – the Truth of Labor.


Let’s get to work, kid.

When we are young and stupid (a time that sometimes lasts much longer than it should) we have two separate views of work.  The first is what we see our parents do.  They get dressed in the morning in something uncomfortable, head out the door to some vaguely-defined job-type-thing, then show back up at 6:00 at night and take their shoes off, grumbling about something that happened that day.  They look unhappy and exhausted, and the idea of “work” seems like something to be avoided.


The second impression we have of “work” comes from television and movies.  Good-looking people doing awesome things for piles of cash.  Pro athletes who define physical strength & agility operating at the peak of human performance in front of million-member crowds.  Rock stars who have an arsenal of awesome outfits and fawning fans who would give everything they own to catch a bead of their sweat.


“I keep my sweat on reserve in a Swiss vault.”

Those are the jobs we want.  Those are the jobs we expect.  And we’re wrong.

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of my friends go to work at the Dairy Queen, do a lousy job, gripe the entire time, then walk off the job after a few weeks.  Hell, I was one of them.  This wasn’t anything I wanted to do.  It was hot, the customers were rude, the manager was a dope and there was significantly less free ice cream than anticipated.


Not Pictured: me, inside, crying.

But the amazing thing about that job (and the next 10 jobs that followed it) was that they were all the same.  Nobody came up to me and begged for my autograph.  Nobody gave me a standing ovation when I gave them onion chips with their Fatburger.  There was no army of toadies waiting to give me a quick costume change before my second shift at the Piggly Wiggly.  Nobody wanted my sweat.

Nobody, that is, except the guy who actually took a chance and hired me.

Listen:  As men, there is nothing greater we have to give than the value of our labor.  You can fight that statement all you want but it’s true.  Our job – listen to me – our job is to provide for ourselves and our family.  That’s it.

Everything else is a break from that labor.  And even more importantly, the only reason we get that break is because of the labor we already put in.   We get to go to Hawaii because we put in the work.  We get a nice car because we put in the work.  We get to go to the fancy dinner and give our awesome girlfriend a piece of jewelry because we put in the work.  Those moments are all provided by you – by your labor.

two roofer

“Plus we’re building a kickass roller coaster this week.”

Now here’s the part that matters: all of that labor, that value, that money…all of that comes from that first job.  And the second.  And the third.  Because what you learn on that lousy summer line-job at the devil-hot construction plant is the most important thing you’ll ever learn:  the Truth of Labor.

Here’s the Truth of Labor:  Most bosses are dopes.  The pay is never enough.  Very few people appreciate you.  Somebody is always dragging their ass and expecting you to pick up the slack.  It’s hard.  It’s tiring.  It’s frustrating.  And it goes on forever.

But here’s the other Truth of Labor:  if you do it well, if the bosses see you sweat, if the customers notice that you take pride in your work, if you can do it all with a smile on your face and ask what’s next, there is no force on God’s green earth that can stop you from winning this game called Life.


*Chicken dinner not included.  Buy one.

When you’re young, make sure you get a job.  Get three of them.  Mow somebody’s yard, scoop poop off the manure truck, grind out 40 hours a week at McDonald’s.  Every one of those things build your tolerance for labor.  Labor is like a muscle – the more you work, the stronger you get, and the easier it becomes.  You discover that doing a thing well is its own reward.  You discover how to take a 8-hour bricklaying job and get it done in 5.   You learn why the boss turns into a grouch, and figure out that when you give him the TPS report before lunch, he (amazingly) doesn’t turn into a grouch…in fact, he invites you out to lunch with him and pays for it.  You figure out that if you have a great attitude while you’re working, the people around you like you more, and suddenly do things to help you.   And once you figure out how to do that…well that, my young man, is called being a boss.

Man pointing his finger

“I’m taking everybody out to Dairy Queen.”

Let’s be clear: No one is going to hand you your dream job when you’re 22.  Be grateful for that.  Because even if you did get your dream job, you wouldn’t have developed the muscles to keep it.  You’d lose it (and fast) to the guy who knows what he’s doing, gets the job done well, and treats the people around him like kings.

Be that guy.  Be that man.  Develop your muscles now, and you’ll be strong the rest of your life.


A.R. Witham is the Emmy-winnning author of Black Jack: A Moving Novel.  Click here to get your copy free on your iPad.

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