I always thought I knew what this meant, and believed I did it. Both my parents had strong work ethics; my dad was the youngest of six in a relatively poor family from Kensington (a section of Philly, PA, not the England place; my paternal grandparents are from Germany). He worked hard, following his passion for cars and opening up his own successful gas station/body shop before he was thirty. My mom’s hard work was of the domestic kind, but the house was spotless (Mom washed walls, floors, ceilings with an ammonia solution; seriously she was Dolores Claiborne), the meals were large and complicated and never late to the table, laundry was cleaned and pressed, just like her children. My dad wasn’t an educated person, but he believed I should be and encouraged me to study hard and work hard, emphasis on the latter.
I got my first job at fifteen at The Immaculate Mary Home, a retirement facility next to my grade school. I was working there as a volunteer, wheeling the residents outside for fresh air, down to bingo, assisting the nurses with non-contact duties. A grade school friend who worked in the kitchen saw me one day wearing my blue volunteer apron and told me I could get paid for basically doing the same amount of work. The kitchen was hiring, she referred me, I applied and got the job. As far as developing a strong work ethic, it was the best first job a teen could have. There was no downtime except lunch. Some shifts began at six in the morning. The timing schedule was tight, making sure some six hundred residents had their meals prepared, served and cleared away seamlessly. After most shifts I would come home depleted, my limbs were so tired. I did this and went to school and had a social life. I knew I was working hard because I was always moving, always exhausted and always in pain. (I’m exaggerating, yes, because as I sit here writing this I’m marveling at the stamina of a fifteen-year-old eager to earn a paycheck and establish relationships and maneuver her way through high school. Minimum wage back then, by the way: $3.35.)
As I navigated my way through the workforce, the jobs grew more demanding, and I always had to be the hardest working of the hard workers. I worked in fast food, and mastered every station before leaving. I worked in retail, sometimes putting in twelve-hour days on my feet while going to college and following the Philly band scene. I worked a pizza joint in Wildwood, more twelve-hour days on my feet, but still went home and worked on novels and found time for beaching and clubbing. I knew I was working hard because I didn’t even have time to eat. I lost thirty pounds that summer and ended up in the hospital, getting my gallbladder taken out.
Sometimes working hard isn’t all about the physical. Sometimes it’s mental, deep thinking that gives you unbearable headaches, high blood pressure, a nasty disposition. The House of Blues–my last “real” job–was a wonderful hybrid of everything. I worked in the accounting department, and sometimes the demands were physical–working from two in the afternoon until 4 am, lifting the Iron Mountain boxes in the squat storeroom to get at receipts, going back and forth from the Foundation Room and Mandalay Bay offices, the back-breaking hell that was outdoor concert Extreme Thing (are you wincing, Jefe?) It was always brain-demanding, as anyone who works with numbers will tell you. I wasn’t ever paid very well; they got me cheap because I didn’t have a degree in accounting. But the perks were unbelievable, so I dealt with not being able to buy certain things. I knew I was working hard because every three months or so, the pressure would build up and I’d cry for three days straight.
Which brings me to now and my confusion. Since coming to Tampa I’ve opened up my own business and still continue to write. It seems I’m always doing something for the business, rolling a bead, stringing a bracelet, scouting for stores, meeting with stores, updating the website, mounds of paperwork, traveling to different cities for potential retailers. I’m also always involved in the writing community: keeping up with this blog, writing short stories, working on novels, reading novels and literary magazines, submitting my work, meeting agents, going to conferences. I know I’m working hard because . . . well, I don’t know it. I’m not constantly crying. I’m not in physical pain. I’m not miserable. I’m also not yet published, a household brand, or able to buy anything I want. I still have to budget my grocery shopping. I still worry about car repairs. Where is the payoff for all my hard work? Am I not working hard enough? I realize that in my field a large percentage of success is based on luck, but as Dr. Phil says, the harder you work, the luckier you get. He also loves to utter the oft-quoted “the reward for hard work is more hard work.” So I’ll leave you with this, the last time I cried for this job:
Frustrated with the August-September retail slump in Florida, I decided to get in my car and paper surrounding neighborhoods with our brochures. One house had a lady peering over a fence who called out to me when I stuffed her mailbox. She asked me what I was putting in there; I told her an online boutique mailer. She said that sounded cool, then told me to wait a minute. When she came out, she was about eighty pounds with unkempt hair and sallow skin. The top of her head came to my chin. Her hands were covered with soil, like she’d been digging in the dirt; her teeth looked like she’d been eating it. Her eyes were bulgy, her speech was jumbled. She wanted to walk with me to stuff mailboxes. I told her this was my last stop and I was leaving now. She asked me where I lived. I was evasive. She asked me if I had a boyfriend. I was an idiot and told the truth: no. She asked me if I had a girlfriend, and if I’d like one. No, and no. She said I should try women, they weren’t so bad. They were soft and lovable. I got in my car and drove home shaking. When I told Arty Party, my bff and business partner, she basically said I deserved it. I shouldn’t have been putting mailers in people’s boxes. We don’t like junk mail; why was I bothering people with junk mail? I bawled. I wailed in the middle of my kitchen, shouting out loud “I’m just trying to get our brand out in the world! I’m just trying to generate sales and traffic to our website! I’m just trying to take Robert’s suggestion to advertise! I want him to be proud of me!” Later she apologized for saying I deserved it, but probably only because my meltdown scared her.
So what is hard work? Do you recognize it by a feeling of satisfaction or pain? Is it reflected in your paycheck? Your title? Your ability to sleep soundly or not at all? The praise you receive? Or criticism? Is it ticking off a to-do list, or adding on more? Is it all of these things, or none of them? Some people work hard at avoiding hard work. Some people work too hard and don’t even know it. Some people work hard and only they know it. Some people measure working hard by adding the word “enough, ” which actually can negate working hard.
When you work hard, do you know it?