Every job is worthwhile
On the dignity of work.
I first shared this article pretty early on during the life of Understandably, and it was the most popular one by far, at least up until it’s time. I think it’s time to share it again—fitting since Monday is Labor Day. Speaking of which, we have a couple more days of “low power mode” so I’m going to skip Monday. I think I’ll be back and ready by the end of next week. Thanks everyone!
When Nazi Germany invaded France, and Winston Churchill became the prime minister of Great Britain, he had a big personal problem: He was flat broke.
Between his debts and overdue taxes and even the interest he had to pay “on his large overdraft,” according to Mark Archer in The Wall Street Journal, he was in big trouble.
Fortunately, an Austrian-born English banker named Sir Henry Strakosch, came to the rescue, writing a check for £5,000, the equivalent today of about $250,000, so that Churchill’s financial problems wouldn’t divert him from the enormous task at hand.
Another story. By the late 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had lost all of his savings. (I scheduled this post before Gorbachev passed away this week; may he rest in peace.
“I can explain it with pleasure because I have no problem with that,” Gorbachev said in an interview later (link is a video). “I had some financial problems … so I did an advertisement for Pizza Hut.”
Yes. Pizza Hut. (If you don’t see the video below, please enable images.)
Reportedly, Gorbachev made $1 million for doing the ad. It was enough to keep the anti-corruption foundation he’d started in Russia going a bit longer, Paul Musgrave explained at Foreign Policy recently.
There are so many fantastically successful people—good men and women who do great things in many different fields—and who other people assume get rich in the process.
Sure, some do. But for others, life happens.
Examples abound throughout history. Ulysses S. Grant was nearly destitute and dying of throat cancer in 1884.
He left his family with an inheritance only because he spent his last months studiously churning out The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.
(Also, because Mark Twain figured out how to market and sell 350,000 copies for him.)
Another president: Harry Truman. In 1953, he retired to private life. His sole asset was a $112.56 per month Army pension from World War I. (He refused to serve on boards or give paid speeches, finding it unseemly to trade on the office of the presidency.)
The dignity of work
It’s not just world-historical figures. A few years ago, a cashier at Trader Joe’s in New Jersey was shamed on social media, after a customer recognized him as the actor Geoffrey Owens, who had a recurring role on The Cosby Show back in the 1980s.
Owens owned it. He appeared on Good Morning America wearing his Trader Joe’s name tag and a Yale University hat (he’d graduated from Yale in 1983).
He talked about how he worked there because he needed the money, and took the moment to ask people to reflect on the dignity of work—almost no matter what it involves.
How are you going to respond negatively to that?
Doing something right
When I first shared this whole story, I wrote that it seemed incongruous to be writing about this, because the unemployment rate was as low as we could ever remember it being, and the stock market was at an all-time high.
“On paper,” I wrote, “we’re in the middle of an amazing economy.”
Now, I’m not so sure what to make of things. I’m actually writing this in the middle of August before heading on vacation, and while I’m more optimistic about the future of the economy than I was in, say, June, I still think it’s likely that we’re in for a bit of a rough patch, at least.
So if you find yourself doing things you never thought you’d have to in order to make ends meet, or if your business isn’t quite what you hope sometimes, or if you beat yourself up for bad financial decisions, I think there’s something inspiring in these stories.
I hope you’ll hold your head up high, and remember you’re not alone.
Even though we live in a society that often assigns value according to the size of people’s bank accounts (sorry, brokerage accounts), we ought to take pride in the mere fact of doing what we have to do in order to get by.
If you’re doing that much, I think you’re doing something right.
(Reminder, while we’re running on “low power mode,” we’ll be skipping the “7 other things” we normally run. But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.)