Sunday, November 9, 2008

Work Ethic

We live in a country that believes class division is something that happens somewhere else. We're all in it for the American dream, even if we have no possible way or plan to ever achieve it. Ask Joe the Plumber. The fact that it could happen, somehow, keeps the dream alive for many people. To reinforce this, we have a very strong work ethic that's part of our American traditions. This ethic is ingrained in our religions, especially American flavors of protestantism. We're told that work has value, that we define ourselves by our labor, that hard work is a reward in itself. Marx can go bite himself, we do it because it's fulfilling.

I grew up with this ethic, my father insisting that I get a job as soon as I was old enough. He rarely missed a days work, unless he was deathly ill. Even when he was in cancer treatment a few years ago, he didn't miss work. He would get up early to get his treatment, driving in the dark in the wee hours of the morning, and then going to work on time, every day. That's dedication, not to the company, but to his own sense of pride and work ethic. I can't say I'm as dedicated. Having spent most of my adult life in IT, I saw that there was value in being a fickle mercenary. You could blow into town like the new sheriff, fix all the problems, and then move on to the next town with a substantial bump in pay, and usually in short order. Work ethic? Working harder was for fools; yes you needed to work hard, but working smarter was where it was at in a knowledge economy. The guys in IT who were always busy never seemed to get anything accomplished. Get in, fill your brain, get trained, add value for your employer, and move up. For this I was rewarded handsomely with a 20% pay jump every couple of years.

Starting my own business was the hardest I've ever worked. We're talking real sweat, no days off, old fashioned getting it done. Work is a funny thing when you have an employer. You think in terms of your hourly wage. Wash my car myself? Heck, it would take me an hour and at my high rate of pay, I should have someone else doing it. This assumes you have someone paying you and that your labor is limited. Business owners can't place an hourly rate to their time, and as for limits, they have until the job is done, whether it's 40 hours a week or 80. The work ethic for small business owners expects you to work hard, forever, for the freedom of not having a boss.

Yet, there's something funny there too. Small business owners are also part of that "ownership society." As business owners, you've got a foot in the world of finance, of the rich and wealthy. You may not be one of them, but there's this idea that you could be, if you could only stop working. Yes, not work harder, but not work at all. The flip side of working insanely hard, is the idea that you if you worked smarter, you wouldn't need to work. This is a kind of "franchise" model of your business, creating processes so that you can hand off the labor to someone else. If you're not used to this kind of talk, it kind of messes with your head.

Going into year five, this is the fence I'm straddling. Do I want to give into my inner Protestant work ethic? Do I want to work the counter, greet the customers, and do the thing, or do I want to step back, manage processes, and think big picture? This assumes I have something better to do with my time. That's the first step; figuring out what that is.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting study on poverty by Ruby Payne shows that poor people lack this work ethic. Which begs the question: Do they lack a work ethic because they are poor, or are they poor because they lack a work ethic?