A Job Well Done Is Its Own Reward, but I Like Money Too

May 10, 2010

Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.
• Horace

All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.
• Aristotle

Never continue in a job you don’t enjoy. If you’re happy in what you’re doing, you’ll like yourself, you’ll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined.
• Johnny Carson

I just tried to make a list of all the jobs I’ve done for pay in my lifetime. I’m doing this because yesterday was Mother’s Day, a celebration of the unpaid work of millions, and because I’m reading Gabriel Thompson’s (2010) book, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won’t Do. Thompson reports from the front lines of picking lettuce, working in a poultry slaughterhouse, and tempting death as a Manhattan bicycle delivery boy.

Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2001) minimum wage adventures in Nickel and Dimed, Thompson isn’t attempting to live on his earnings; he’s just trying to survive the work.

I’ve been a babysitter, a seamstress times two: designing and making clothing for other people and sewing pockets on pants in a huge warehouse with dozens of other women. I’ve been a short order cook and I’ve made chocolate- butterscotch- and strawberry-dipped soft serve ice cream cones. I’ve sold fabric and radio advertising. I’ve been a graphic designer and worked a cash register.

I’ve written newspaper columns and feature articles and radio advertising copy. I’ve created character voices for radio commercials. I’ve painted houses and cleaned them. I’ve picked strawberries. I’ve taught high school English and radio and lots of college courses. I once got paid fifty cents apiece for calligraphied names and titles on certificates.

Until I went back to school to become a teacher, my jobs were sometimes interesting yet mostly paid minimum wage (the piecework of pocket sewing paid extremely well if you were fast, ditto painting houses). Ehrenreich’s essential question, from the introduction to her book is this: “How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?” (p. 1) Sometimes low wages go to the skilled as well. There are many jobs that do not pay well and I have worked a number of them. Interesting work is purported to be its own reward, but I have never found this to be entirely true.

In the foreword to Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Studs Terkel’s (1974) interviews with people about their jobs. Terkel’s quest to understand people and their work is described: “Mr. Terkel found work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, ‘for daily meaning as well as daily bread.’”

I want both. Meaning and bread. I imagine most people do, yet the disparity among wages is particularly dramatic in this country. I don’t have an answer for this problem. The outrageous salaries of sports figures are justified by those who support them because the players’ career lifetime is short, but the ability to do backbreaking minimum wage jobs is also time-limited. Teaching is not poorly paid compared to many jobs, yet it’s considered overpaid by some very vocal commentators.

Read Johnson’s book and you’ll realize that even a task like lettuce-cutting is artful work, requiring practice and skill. Regardless of the job someone is doing, s/he deserves a wage that will provide what the striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, wanted in 1912. “We Want Bread and Roses Too,” the mill girls’ signs proclaimed.

What are you looking for in a job? If you had to choose between an extremely generous salary and boring work or a barely adequate salary and satisfying work, which would you choose?

It does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life.
• Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990),
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


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