Thursday, May 22, 2008

Will Work for Character

"Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all."

-Sam Ewig

Few of us escape without engaging in it. Some of us will earn a couple crusty years at the end to enjoy the fruits of it. The rest of us will die doing it.

For most, money is the whip that drives this machine that engrosses our lives. For others it’s power, greed, love, a solution to restlessness, or all of the above.

It is the most widely acknowledged character builder in the world.


I never questioned the age-old mantra that working builds character until now. I’ve been a card-carrying member of the workforce for over a decade now, ever since I lied to acquire my first job at 15 as a salesperson at J. Silver ($10 or less) clothing store. While I’m no veteran, if the age-old adage is true, my character should be sufficiently built by now.

And so, does work indeed build character?

“Working does build character, no lie,” said Jessica, a customer service representative. “It gives a person a tool on how to deal with difficult situations, the real world. Persons that don’t have to work generally end up spoiled and screwed up.”

Spoilage is often cited as a direct consequence of not having to join the 9 to 5 bandwagon. When the world is handed to you on a bling-encrusted platter, virtues like responsibility, compassion, and resilience are hard to come by, which is why parents often encourage teenagers to obtain jobs to “learn the value of a dollar.” [Delect Inject: Which isn’t much, depending on where you are in the world today…]

Yet, hypin’ up the workforce like it’s the best thing since cable TV is one-sided. Punching a clock, begging permission for time off, and being pimped for your skills is not all that. Isn’t having the option to work what all us working folks are working towards? Beneath all this rhetoric, are we just hating on those who started out with what we’re fighting to achieve? After all, we laugh at folks who claim they’ll keep working if they win the lotto. I like jogging, but please believe I wouldn’t be doing it if I was blessed with the metabolism of some lil’ thang that can eat whatever she wants.

Everything about working for The Man every night and day ain’t pretty. It changes people (e.g., Devil Wears Prada). A person can’t do 40 hours or more of anything a week and it not impact them one way or another. That's too huge of an amount of time over years and years to exist in isolation of one's being.

“I’ve also become much more self-involved and generally, I think, just worse from doing this—worse as a person, as a friend, just worse. As I become more successful, as we like to say in the office, it’s all about me. And I don’t like that…”

–Lisa Pirriolli, casting director (from Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs by John Bowe)

I spent a month as a sacrificial lamb in high school telemarketing for MBNA. Now I’ve done a lot of things—wait tables, fill prescriptions, cashier in various locales, clean up a gas station—but telemarketing broke my heart. The job is founded on rejection. Every freaking day. For hours.

I experienced bouts of anxiety leading up to my shift. I slept restlessly. When I wasn’t in the building, I was tortured by thoughts of being in the building. Then one afternoon, dressed for work, I collapsed into a sobbing glob in my mother’s arms. She told me to call MBNA that day and quit.

The only character I gained from telemarketing was to be decent to telemarketers. And hey, maybe that’s what character is all about—having the ability to relate.

“That’s the worst thing, it takes so much of your time. You can get a day off when you want, but still, it takes all your time. And you’re tired when you’re done. Really tired. It’s basically a job for stupid people. It’s not very interesting. it’s just not. I mean, if you have no other opportunities and you need benefits, and you’re going nowhere, take this job.”

–William Rosario, UPS driver (from Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs by John Bowe)
It’s undeniable that people are products of their experiences. How much so---the nature versus nurture question—has been debated for years. Nature: we’re born nice, productive, mean, or chill. Or nurture: we learn to be nice, productive, mean, or chill.

Nature says you are innately who you are whether your daddy's a street hustler or a Hilton. Therefore if Paris was from a trailer park, she'd still be a spoiled attention lover, but with a couple babies and a penchant for Marlboros aka "cowboy killers." The Nurture Teams claim you are who you based on your environment. In this case, Trailer Park Paris (which could be the name of a baby doll…) wouldn't be spoiled because she had to work at the local Waffle House to pay her bills and she got little more than a stray mutt for Christmas as a child.

If work truly builds so much character, there wouldn't be so many jerks at the job. Give a nutcase a job at McDonald’s and she’s a burger flippin’ nutcase. Give a liar a job at Tire Kingdom and you will likely have a tire’ rotatin’, oil changin’ liar. It proves that much our character is innate.

On the other hand, I know my 15 or more jobs have helped to shape me into the woman I am today. I’m more refined. I can relate to anybody. I've seen the inner workings of so many industries that my general knowledge base is more diverse than it would be had I grown up financially pampered.

Being a member of the workforce by necessity instills values that would otherwise not be there. Conversely, people that don’t have to work could be missing those values. There are plenty of people who work that don’t have to—privileged young people, bored housewives, and well-to-do retirees—that just need something to do. The rest of us don’t just need something to do, we need something to eat. And air conditioning.

"It's a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can't eat for eight hours; he can't drink for eight hours; he can't make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work."

-William Faulkner
I'm not sure that working builds character. But I do know it can bring out the best or the worst in people. So like anything else in life, it is what you make of it.