The Value of a Work Ethic

A poster for Team Conan, created during the To...

Conan O’Brian (Image credit: Wikipedia)

“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” -Conan O’Brien

I don’t normally turn to TV personalities for words of wisdom, but I remember watching Conan give his speech on his final night on NBC and being struck by the simple truth of these words.  As I move from town to town and work for different schools, it usually only takes me a day or two to jump to the top of a sub list.  It’s not because of some extraordinary talent that makes me better than other subs or teachers.  Instead, I am constantly praised for my strong work ethic.  I take my job seriously, I complete the tasks given to me, and I give a full report at the end of the day.  Plus, I’m nice to people while I do all that.  For some reason, that’s enough to place me on the top of the sub lists within a day, even when there are other experienced teachers to call.  

It kind of boggles my mind that that’s all it takes to impress people in my job, because anyone can develop a strong work ethic.  Then I look around at a culture that prizes instant gratification, entitlement, and getting something for nothing, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  Teenagers, take note:  If you develop the habit of working hard, amazing things really can happen, because so many other people don’t!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students resist doing work simply because they don’t want to do it.  I ask them to finish a worksheet, and they respond “but I don’t like doing this” or “I don’t want to do it.”  I’ve heard some version of that sentence from students in fifth through twelfth grades, and I probably would hear it from younger if I taught them, too.  Many of them really seem to think that’s a good enough reason to not do the work.  Some are even surprised when I then give them a zero or write their name down in sub notes for the teacher, as though not liking it was a good enough excuse to get them out of the work.

Really, teenagers?  REALLY??

(OK, I know it’s not all of you.  Many of my blog readers are hard-working, respectful teenagers.  Still, I’ve heard these excuses with my own ears too many times not go on this rant, so bear with me).

You think that liking it or not liking it, wanting to or not wanting to, determines what people do in life?  If I tell my apartment manager that I don’t like paying rent, do you think he’ll smile, nod, and say, “well, then, don’t worry about it this month”?  (I wish.)  If I tell the school principal (i.e., my boss) that I don’t like reading essays, will he let me just arbitrarily assign you grades for your work?  If I tell your parents that I really don’t like posting grades on the internet, writing comments on report cards, or sitting through parent teacher conferences, do you think they would let me stop doing those things?  (I know, some parents wouldn’t care, but others would be outraged.)  You think that’s how life works, and so I should let you off the hook when you say you don’t like homework?  Seriously?

Don’t get me wrong – I love being a high school teacher.  I love teaching literature units, leading class discussions, getting to know teens, and having the opportunity to make a difference in your lives.  I’ve taken pride in teaching honors courses, developing curriculum plans for a new high school, mentoring struggling teens, and guiding students through college applications.  However, like every job, it has elements that I don’t like as much, and that’s where a strong work ethic comes in handy.  When I teach full-time, I spend weekends pouring over essays to get my grades posted on time and sit through conferences because that’s what I’m paid to do, and I need to get paid in order to pay my rent and keep a roof over my head.  As a sub, I work hard to complete the lessons so that the school will like me and call me to sub again so I can buy groceries and pay my phone bill.  My parents instilled the values of a dedicated work ethic in me as a child, and those values have grown much stronger out of the financial necessity of adulthood.  They have also led to amazing work opportunities.  People want to hire reliable, trustworthy workers who will get the job done – so they hire me.

Anyone who has been following this blog for any length of time knows how much I love Brett and Alex Harris’ call for teens to do hard things.  However much some of kids’ excuses frustrate me, I do sincerely still believe in the teenage potential for greatness, so I’d like to offer my own twist on Harris brothers’ challenge:  Whatever you do, be it schoolwork, chores, a job, or extracurriculars – work hard, even if you could get away with doing less.  Take any and every opportunity you can build a strong work ethic.  Break the habits of trying to get out of work, taking the easy way out, getting by with average quality when you could be achieving excellence.   When your teacher gives you that assignment that you think is useless, work hard on it anyway.  When your boss (or a parent) asks you to repeat a task that you just completed, do it anyway.  Do it as well as you possibly can.  As frustrating as those things may be, view them as opportunities to build the habits that will help make life amazing later.  Because it’s not always about the results of that particular assignment or activity – it’s about building yourself into a stronger person.  Don’t think that a good work ethic will just fall into place when you need it.  Like any habit, it takes time to build – especially if you have to also break bad habits of complacency first.  Don’t wait until an amazing opportunity comes along to start building the habits of dedication, integrity, and commitment to excellence, because it may already be too late.  Build them now, and when opportunity knocks, you’ll be surprised what kind of amazing things really can happen!

Just don’t forget the first half of that Conan O’Brien quote, ether.  No one gets exactly what they want in life, but that isn’t reason to give up on working hard.  If anything, that should push us harder.  I would love to be a guidance counselor right now, but I still need to go to grad school and get my Master’s degree before any school will give me that job, no matter how much they like me.  Also, sometimes life will throw a wrench into our dreams and plans, but that doesn’t mean we should stop working hard.  I could have given up on my teaching career three years ago when I walked away from my ideal job and failed to find full time work again the next year, but financial need forced me to continue to work hard.  Now my résumé includes achievements in the education field that I never would have imagined for myself.  Life is different from my original dreams, but like Conan said, amazing things have happened.

So work hard.  Be kind.  Starting… now.


3 thoughts on “The Value of a Work Ethic

  1. Amen! I impressed my bosses at work in a very short amount of time. Why? Because I work hard and complete my tasks without complaining. I didn’t know that I was doing anything out of the ordinary until my boss told me that very few people just do their job and do it well. One of my coworkers said, “Doesn’t it bother you that you have a master’s degree and you spend most of your day making copies and stuffing envelopes?” I said, “Well, if I thought of it that way, it would bother me. I’m just happy to have a way to pay my bills, and complaining gets me nowhere.” I wish more teens understood that concept.


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