As we celebrate Labor Day this week, I recall a conversation I had with my mother-in-law, who emigrated from Jamaica several decades ago. I asked her what drew her to America.
She explained how she saw Americans working hard and achieving success. She believed that America was the land of opportunity, and that if she worked hard, she could prosper in this country, too.
The implication of her belief was that she would not prosper in her own country as much as she could here. This “American Dream” is one of the things that has made America great, and this sentiment is not only found among immigrants like my mother-in-law, but I also see it when I read the writings of some of my personal heroes and pioneers.
When I read Fredrick Douglass and Ben Carson, for example, I hear that same tenor that through hard work, one sows the seed of opportunity, and with consistent effort this seed will grow into the vine of success.
Yet, in popular culture, there is the toxic message that success is not rooted in one’s own efforts and talents. Instead, success is found if you know the right people or if you are simply one of the “lucky ones,” and you probably won’t succeed because of oppressive forces like racism and sexism that will always keep you down.
In fact, the idea that success is built over time and is derived out of being consistent, self-disciplined, and committed to give one’s full effort every day, is dismissed as naive. One does not grow towards prosperity anymore. That’s for chumps. One can now achieve success instantly. You “can get rich quick,” you “get discovered,” you “hit the lottery,” you become an “overnight success” or you can become an “over-night sensation.”
Becoming successful is no longer linked to an occupation either. I will never forget doing an activity with elementary school kids where it was asked of them, “What would you like to be when you grow up?”
I expected to hear responses relative to serving others in an occupational capacity like being, “a doctor,” “a lawyer,” or perhaps “a teacher.” Instead, the two most popular responses were, “rich,” and “famous, and when an occupation was mentioned, it was usually “a singer,” or “a musician.”
Now, I know for some kids there might be a genuine interest in the musical arts, but I suspect the draw to these occupations was less out of an intrinsic appreciation of the arts and more from the gratification they feel in doing these things, or worse, the glamorous lifestyles they see from their role models. In short, the notion of serving your community or working hard was noticeably absent from the responses given by these kids.
The lesson I took away from that activity was how imperative it is that we teach our children, once again, the value of hard work.
When I say “hard work,” I do not mean simply doing the things they like to do. Rather, our kids should give their best effort in doing whatever they are asked to do, whether it is doing their chores, helping out in the yard, or being faithful with their part-time job.
There is intrinsic value in simply doing one’s best, no matter what the task. It sets a discipline in one’s life and establishes a work ethic that others can trust. I think somewhere along the line, work has been redefined to be something that is supposed to be self-gratifying rather than being something that contributes to the betterment of one’s character and one’s community.
So, as I finish this article and prepare to celebrate this Labor Day with my family, rather than taking it as a day to simply relax, I approach this holiday with a renewed sense of gratitude for all the hard work of people, like my mother-in-law and generations before me, who helped build this nation to be as strong and as prosperous as it is.
And I will endeavor to teach my children that success is not something to which we are entitled. It is something which we can achieve if we work hard and take advantage of opportunities that are presented to us.
[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]