Earning Your Life: Teaching Kids the Value of Work, Not Entitlement

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Most of my teenage friends worked in the summer, but I might have been the only one to work every day after class during the last two years of high school.

It wasn’t by choice. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, required it. I protested that it would affect my school work and I think it probably did, but not so much that I didn’t do well.

I accepted my dad’s work dictum, but generally felt put-upon that I, in the minority among the lower-middle class kids I hung around with, had to do this. In the end, it taught me a good deal, as I shall relate to you.

I’d catch the Lincoln Avenue bus and transfer to the Ravenswood elevated train at Western Avenue. This would take me into the “Loop,” that place where the elevated tracks encircle a good part of what is also called “Downtown Chicago.” During my junior year of  high school I was employed at Chicago Band Repair/Ace Crystal Service, my Uncle Sam’s business.

There, I learned to make simple repairs on expansion watch bands, pack and ship glass watch crystals that had been ground to size on a lathe (this was in the days before plastic watch crystals), dispatch those repaired expansion bands, and run errands. The next year I was an “office boy” at David Altman Law Offices on La Salle Street (still in the Loop) doing filing, errands, and running a Multilith machine, the offset duplicating equipment that was used to copy and print large quantities of legal documents.

Those jobs were interesting enough. There were always lots of things to do, little “down time,” and some entertaining people whose life experience was entirely different from my own. At my Uncle’s place at 5 S. Wabash in the Mallers Building I worked with an almost entirely black and mostly female staff in the days just before the major civil rights legislation was passed. At the law office, it was lawyers and secretaries — all white and all white-collar. In both places I fit in pretty well and got treated pretty well.

But it was the summer work at one job that I hated. I was a college student by then, just having finished my junior year. The place was an un-air conditioned metal stamping factory. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do it, you never got better at it, and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing over and over and over. For eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by punching in at 7:00 AM, which meant that I had to get up at around 5:00 AM in order to get to work on time. If I stayed out at all late the night before, I paid for it dearly the next day with the extra-strenuous effort that was required to stay awake while performing my deadly dull duties. You know the feeling — each eye lid seems to weigh 400 pounds and sleep beckons more enticingly than the most beautiful woman and more insistently than the most demanding boss.

I recall one day in particular. The summer was a hot one and the factory retained heat. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Even so, it felt peculiar to be drenched in sweat at my work station at 7:00 AM in a building where the thermometer already registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best that day to keep alert and be productive. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the clock on the wall. It said 7:15 AM! It seemed impossible, but only 15 minutes had elapsed since the moment of my clocking in. Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity seemed nearer than the end of the work day.

I so-hated the job that I found another one that summer in order to get out of the factory, where both the duties and the temperature were liquefying my brain. But it was an experience I never forgot, nor the fact that there were men there who did work only slightly more sophisticated and challenging than I did, and continued to do it for the rest of their working lives.

Earlier, during the summer before my second year in college, I worked in the mail room at Edward H. Weiss Advertising Agency. I made about $1.25 per hour. I had a girlfriend named Beverly that summer and she fancied the idea of going horse back riding. One Saturday afternoon we did just that in Lincoln Park. But, to my dismay, I discovered that the horses cost $3.00 per hour. I knew something was wrong if an equine commanded a better wage than I did!

So what exactly did I learn from experiences such as that?

First, that honest labor at whatever level is nothing to look down upon. There are many worse jobs than those I did, but some of mine were bad enough to make me appreciate the men and women who make a living at tasks that provide little room for growth, excitement, or creativity. My hat is off to them and to what they do for their families and their children.

Second, those jobs taught me how to get along with people whose backgrounds were different from mine, in some cases individuals of a different color, sometimes of a different social status (both higher and lower), including people whose parents and grandparents had gone to college (as mine had not) and those who only could hope that their kids might some day be able to obtain more than a high school degree. I came to see the nobility in simple labor; the complexity and skill required to work precisely with your hands; the meaning of craftsmanship, duty, and dedication. I also learned respect for authority even when the authority wasn’t always fair, and the value of being able to make the best of a situation that wasn’t ideal.

I realized, too, that if one had some good fortune — in my case the opportunity to go to college along with parents who encouraged me to become educated and scholarships and fellowships that enabled me to obtain graduate degrees — one should take advantage of it. I saw, up close, that life could be different from what I hoped my life would be, and that the “different” path was one that I did not want to traverse.

And, I have come to appreciate, every day of my life, how lucky I am to do the work that I do. Work that is interesting, mostly in my control (since I am my own boss), and that has allowed me to make a good life for my children; labor that does not always feel like labor, that I do not dread, and that is challenging, enriching, and satisfying to myself and those I serve.

My friend Jeff Carren, who is an attorney, tells me that he has encountered new hires into legal practice (that is, new lawyers) who had never held a full-time job until they became associates at a law firm. And, that they were stunned at the amount of effort that “work” — a new job, any job — requires.

Perhaps then, in light of my experience, you will not be surprised to know that my kids, despite heavy academic and extra-curricular loads, both were gainfully employed part-time during high school. My oldest, Jorie, did her regular stint as a barista at Star Bucks, while Carly did lots of baby sitting. And, both performed full-time summer jobs when school wasn’t in session. They too, have learned the value of hard work and the worth of a dollar earned from that labor; that is, they have learned the one additional lesson of my early life experience — that money does not grow on trees. They discovered, early enough, what it feels like to “earn” a thing — quite a different sensation from having it given to you. And they have, thankfully, grown up without the sense of “entitlement” that is so pervasive in American youth.

JFK put the entitlement issue in quite a different context when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Similarly, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the movie Saving Private Ryan tells Ryan to “Earn It” as the latter faces the fact that men have given their lives to save him. That is, “earn” your life by making something of it, so that those who gave their lives for you will not have died in vain.

There is great value in “earning” your life. And, the way it starts is by doing work, “making” a living — in effect, doing what is required to sustain yourself and others.

Parents need to remember that we can let our children down just as much by expecting too little of them, as by expecting too much; as much by overprotection as neglect.

We are not entitled to anything — not you, not me, not our kids. Life can be a gift of opportunity, but there is no free lunch.

It is work, hard and honest labor, that helps to teach this lesson.

Thanks, Dad.

Self-Defeating Behavior and the Path to Loneliness

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What price would you be willing to pay to feel that you are special? I will tell you a story of one young woman who has paid that price and then some. She is an example of how we sometimes defend our self-image at the cost of our happiness.

The patient of another psychologist, I knew this woman for about 20 years, filling-in for her therapist when he was on vacation. Gloria (not her real name) had a tragic early life. She was victimized by her parents’ verbal and physical abuse and neglect, and became an easy target for schoolmates. Gloria was unlucky, too, in that she was born with slightly less than average intelligence. Making things even worse, her body was naturally graceless and her facial features were less than attractive. But, Gloria could be sweet and socially engaging, willing and able to approach strangers and make conversation despite a long history of rejection.

Even with all her disadvantages and misfortunes, Gloria, now a middle-aged woman, might still be able to have a good and pleasing social life except for one thing: she believes that she is the world’s unluckiest person, the record-setter for having received the greatest misfortune in the history of the planet. Moreover, she feels compelled to report her tale of woe to those people she begins to get to know, very early in her relationship to them. This has the predictable result — they shy away from her, leaving her feeling rejected once more, and adding to her claim that she has been the most ill-treated human in recorded history.

I am not being facetious here; I once asked her to compare herself to various victims of misfortune including those who had been tortured, suffered in natural disasters, lived in concentration camps, or been plagued with disfiguring and painful illnesses. She assured me that her lot in life was far worse than any of them; and, that it was only fair and reasonable to expect people to be sympathetic to her and give her some of the understanding, sympathy, and support she had always been lacking.

Thus, Gloria pursues with a vengeance the comfort and affection that she believes she has coming to her. Her sense of entitlement to this, her insistence that her fellow-man should and must provide this, drives people away from her in her striving for the love she has never had. Of course, her therapist points out to her the self-defeating nature of this strategy, the need first to establish relationships based on something other than the other person’s willingness to listen to her sadness and anger. Gloria doesn’t accept this, unfortunately. The world and the rest of the human race owe her this hearing (so it seems to her), the sooner the better, and it is only fair and just to expect them to deliver what she wants.

Gloria is smart enough to understand that people she hardly knows might not have much patience or interest in accepting her premature self-disclosure. And so, you might well ask, why does she continue to do the same thing over and over with the same bad result? Why doesn’t she try something different?

After much consideration of that question, here is the best answer I can provide. First, Gloria is so desperate and needy, so starved for affection, that it is difficult for her to restrain herself from lunging at the thing she desires whenever she first sights it. But, more importantly, I think the one thing that Gloria values above everything in her life is her self-appointed status as The Most Unfortunate Person in World History.

Now, you might say that you wouldn’t want to hold that particular title. But, think about it. I suspect that this designation gives Gloria the only form of distinction she could every expect to achieve in life. Without it, she is simply a sad, angry, lonely, unattractive, unaccomplished, anonymous person; but with it, she is something special, someone who stands out from the crowd, a noteworthy individual, one in six billion, the leader in her class. And the self-nourishment she receives from licking the wounds attendant to this awful position in life almost certainly provides her with some amount of solace.

I’m sure Gloria would deny the psychological explanation I’ve just provided for her self-defeating behavior and I cannot promise you that it is accurate. But I would ask you this. Do you know people who persist in self-defeating behavior despite all the advice, therapy, or wise counsel offered by friends, relatives, and therapists? Have you sometimes wondered why they do so?

Often the answer isn’t “logical” in that it doesn’t “make sense” intellectually. But, it just might make sense emotionally, as I believe it does for Gloria. If, somewhere deep inside, she doesn’t really believe that she can achieve the life she wants, her behavior suggests that she has found a method, however self-defeating it is, to give herself some of the sense of status and recognition that life hasn’t and probably won’t provide to her.

Gloria was dealt a bad hand in life. Her response to that deal of the cards is instructive. She seems to have chosen a sort of fantasy, a story about herself that compensates her for her misfortune, just as it simultaneously fuels her continued loneliness. But be careful should you wish to dismiss her behavior as “crazy” too quickly. We all do self-defeating things in life.

Before you condemn her, check yourself out in the mirror.

The drawing above is called Africa Lonely Kids by Myfacebook. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Your Social Life is “Social Work”

The world is divided into “givers and takers,” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — only in it for ourselves. So being a giver tends to be the equivalent of being a “nice person.”

But can you be too nice? Can you be too giving? Giving to the point that it hurts, to the point of disadvantaging yourself and permitting others to “use” you routinely? Can too much giving be the equivalent of self effacement: showing deference and preference for others to go first, take what they need, and leave you at the end of the bread line?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life has become social work, caring for others to the point you are not taking good enough care of yourself:

  1. Do you tend to be the person in your group who listens to others’ problems, the first person your acquaintances go to when they have something bothering them? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But these types of relationships become problematic when they do not go both ways: when others don’t have time or understanding or compassion for your problems, but expect those qualities from you.
  2. Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
  3. Beyond words of thanks for your kindness, do your friends express gratitude in more substantial ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner? If you do such things, do they reciprocate?
  4. Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only when they need something from you or someone to listen, but not for social invitations when they are  feeling good?
  5. Do you believe your only value to people is to be found in what you can do for them? Do you think if you failed to “give,” others would find little reason to spend time with you? Do you doubt your value beyond the ability to assist or console?
  6. Do too many relationships begin with the other’s enormous gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted, almost as if he is entitled to it?
  7. Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of others?
  8. Is it difficult to say “no” when something is requested from you, be it time, money, or a ready ear?
  9. Do you fear being dropped by friends and acquaintances if you should become less available when they are in need?
  10. Do you find yourself worrying a good deal about hurting others if you don’t do what they request?
  11. Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies, opinions different from their’s? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
  12. Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you tend to associate yourself with people who have more than their share of problems, making it easy for you to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
  13. Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
  14. When you are not appreciated, do you think perhaps you haven’t yet done enough to please your friend?
  15. Do you make excuses for the other when your efforts are unappreciated?

If you have answered “yes” to a number of these questions, you might have problems of self confidence and an inability to assert yourself. Another term often used in the types of relationships described here is the word dependency. Sometimes the word “co-dependent” is used instead. The dilemma is one of allowing yourself to be used, thinking too little of your own needs, and imagining you must do whatever it takes to keep certain people in your life. Standing up to others and setting collapses for fear of abandonment.

This style of relating to people doesn’t go away by itself. Rather, if you see yourself in the above narrative, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is much easier and more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely that your life will increase in satisfaction.

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The world is divided into “givers and takers” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — only concerned with ourselves. Thus, being a giver tends to be the equivalent of being “good.”

Can you be too good? Can you be too giving — to the point that it hurts, to the point of disadvantaging yourself and permitting others to “use” you routinely? Can too much giving be the equivalent of erasing your needs? Might it become deference and preference for others to go first, take what they need, and leave you at the end of the bread line?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life amounts to social work without the salary social workers receive, caring for others to the point you are not taking good enough care of yourself:

Do you tend to be the one in your group who listens to problems, the first person your acquaintances go to when something bothers them? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But these types of relationships become problematic when others don’t offer time or compassion for your problems, but expect those qualities from you.
Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
Beyond words of thanks, do your friends express gratitude in concrete ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner?
Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only in need of something from you or someone to listen, not for social invitations once they bounce back?
Do you believe your single value to people is to be found in what you can do for them? Do you think if you failed to “give,” others would find little reason to spend time with you? Do you doubt your value beyond the ability to assist or console?
Do too many relationships begin with the other’s enormous gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted, almost as if he is entitled to it?
Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of others?
Can you say no when something is requested from you, be it time, money, or a ready ear?
Do you fear being dumped should you become less available when they are in need?
Do you find yourself worrying a good deal about hurting others if you don’t do what they request?
Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you tend to associate yourself with people who have more than their share of problems, making it easy for you to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
When you feel unappreciated, do you think perhaps you didn’t do enough to please your friend?
Do you make excuses for the other when your efforts are dismissed or taken for granted?

If you answer yes to a number of these questions, you might have problems of self confidence and an inability to assert yourself. Another term often used in the types of relationships described here is dependency. Sometimes the word “co-dependent” is used instead. In either case, the dilemma is one of allowing yourself to be used, thinking too little of your own needs, and imagining you must do whatever seems required to keep certain friends in your life. The thought of standing up to others and setting limits collapses for fear of abandonment.

This style of relating to people doesn’t go away by itself. Rather, if you see yourself in the above narrative, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is much easier and more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely that your life will increase in satisfaction.