Select Page

Hard Work Nation

Nothing engages our sense of national pride like “Hard Work.”  The two words sum up just about everything great about America: rugged individualism, freedom to excel, the pursuit of happiness, capitalistic opportunity, entrepreneurial resiliency.

Did I miss anything?

I like my “Hard Work” dripping raw with a side of “Go-get-‘em!” and a tall frothy glass of “can-do.”
Fills me right up.

Start talking about Hard Work and we can’t wait to tell you how we got started. That job we got so we could gas up, or pay tuition or rent or buy ramen noodles.  We’ll go on and on about it.  Let us compare our grinds so that we might determine whose nose was closer to that stone.

And how thoroughly we do honor that effort.

What lesson could possibly be more important than: The Value of Hard Work. Hell, it’s even in the Bible.  Actually, I think it makes up 75% of the American Version.

And so we teach our young people, as often as we can, the Value of Hard Work. We describe what it should look like by sharing our own first experiences:

Hot, cold, sun-burned, wind-blown, or frost-bit. We learned consistency and perseverance. We followed direction. We got up, got dirty, and got the job done.  Day after day. How those formative experiences did shape us.  The late nights cleaning tables or pushing a broom. The smell of the milk house in the morning, or hot metal, oil, and diesel in the garage at mid-day.  The growl and buzz of a saw or the flap and swish of a brush. A little imagination brings us back to the feeling of tension in our fingers and forearms as we gripped the rungs, pushed the mowers, swung the hammers, stacked the cases.

The memories are not hard to access. Indeed they’re etched sharply onto our very soul.

No matter the job, the way we religiously praise those (mostly physical, often mindless) efforts is integrally woven into the stories we tell about work and how it shapes our character, how it continues to ripple through our communities, how the ethos reflects the strength of our nation.

Legend has it “Hard Work” is an investment that pays off in (we tell each other), if not increased riches, then surely enhanced chances–and at least an empowered character.

The Work–especially early on–was not joyful. But it is the pursuit of happiness, after all, that we honor most.

So we continue to add, story by story, to the mythos: the cultural certainty that “Hard Work” will always pay off–somehow, someway–eventually.

Until then, we compare callouses and contusions, grease stains and wrist sprains.

The evidence of our efforts is recorded in our muscle memory and marked with the scars we’ve scattered across our bodies

Hard work dues are paid for with the body.

But why?

What about the mind?

How common is it that we compare:

  • The first thing of value we created?
  • The first value-added problem we solved?
  • The first time we discovered an inefficiency,
  • or learned how to repair instead of replace?
  • The first time we wrote something that convinced someone to give us a better deal or a better job.
  • The first circuit we wired,
  • or program we wrote?
  • The first time we made Work more profitable?

The stories we tell about the value of Hard Work are rich in the traditions of physical toil. But the honor we bestow upon this work is outdated—an emotional remnant of the industrial age. A time long past, when a person COULD actually pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. A time when physical labor was more valuable than today.

Solving and explaining, inventing and persuading, on the other hand, is the kind of labor that has the most value NOW.  And it’s long past time we recognize that. If we are to move forward, it is time we tell and value new stories.

Hard Work 2.0.

Mind Work.

Focused, Undistracted Work.

Deep Work.

The mark of this kind of work isn’t left on the body in the form of scars and callouses, but on the brain in the form of myelin and neural connections—invisible, but powerful.

Economies will always need strong hands and those willing to lend them, but the most rewarding jobs of today are built with strong minds.  Minds that perceive and consider. That analyze and synthesis.

Lo, the age of knowledge work is upon us.

Lend a mind.

Are your enemies to defining you?

Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

A quick fill-in-the-blank exercise if you will:

Vikings/Packers fans are __________.

Republicans/Democrats are _________.

Public/private sector employees are ______.

Union members are _____.

Rich/poor people are  ______.

Liberals/conservatives are _______.

Homosexuals are _______.

Your dander up at all?  If not, try a different combination, and consider the following excerpt from a very real sports blog I changed just slightly in order to make my point:

“. . .we Packers/liberals/republicans get to bask in the joy and ecstasy of not just a victory, but also in the delicious Schadenfreude that comes from a debilitating Vikings/conservatives/democrats loss. That makes it twice as sweet!

Their loss and pain is our gain. Why? Because the Vikings/unions/conservatives and their fans/supporters are our enemies. They and so many of their fans/supporters epitomize all that is soulless and wrong, albeit inept.

Given the good nature of most Packers/liberals/private sector employees, the importance of this is sometimes lost. We know how to love our Packers/republicans/union members, but sometimes we forget how — or why — to hate the Vikings/liberals/public employees and those who support them.”

Now, relax.  This propagandizing is just all in good fun right?  To be fair, surely Vikings/democrats/conservatives use this sort of language too.  And so do Bears fans and Pistons fans, and Minnesota drivers, and deer hunters, and loggers, and DNR officials, and business owners, and city council members, and terrorists, and hate groups.

The key step here–and it’s amazing how easy this is to do–is to separate or distance oneself from another in order to create an “Other”: an entity that different from you. Once that distinction has been made, this “Other,” just naturally becomes less human, more monstrous and much easier to hate or fear.  This “Other” then easily becomes the enemy, and the more pain and misfortune he or she suffers, the better.

In any contest, we prefer the side that is more like us.  Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the Association Principle.  The distinguished and prolific author, Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that YOU are better than the other person.  Whomever you root for represents YOU; and when he (or she) wins, YOU win.”

The ego-self is clearly at stake.  Our prestige rises when our side wins, and it falls when our side loses.  We feel real and escalating emotions of joy and pride the higher the perceived stakes.  Just listen to the language fans use after a victory.  We say, “WE won!” and “WE’RE number one!” not “They’re number one!” or “Our team is number one!”  Unless, that is, our team has just lost, in which case we will often distance and protect our fragile ego-self by saying, “They lost. . . the bums.”  The devil is in the pronoun.

Looked at objectively, this is insane.  Seen through the lens of a sports fan or political junky or religious fanatic however, not only does this make perfect sense, it’s an admired trait!  The more emotionally invested a person—the better fan or voter or follower he or she is.  The more pain they feel after a loss, the more euphoria they feel after a win.  We call these people true and diehard fans/constituents/believers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I am Viking fan/public employee myself.  Over the years, this association has given me the unique opportunity to feel very real and physical stress responses during the course of any game, political contest, and professional career—muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms—as well as the emotions of joy and agony—lately, mostly agony.

Love me or hate me, it is clear that somewhere deep within in our warped and fragile psyches, we believe that the Vikings and public servants everywhere really are me.  For many, this makes me less human, more monstrous, easier to kick when I’m down.  The enemy.

Perhaps however, bigger questions loom, like: Who are you? Are we really that much different?  Do our associations really make us winners and losers?  And, what is it, exactly, that you win, when I lose?

On resolutions, confidence, and this blog

I’m always hesitant, as a blogger, to write too much about myself—or this blog. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but there it is. Tonight, I’m going to break from that a bit because, well . . . what the hell.

This blog, boy I tell ya.

It’s been an interesting ride. Without getting into too many boring details, let’s take a quick look back:

Started: September, 2006
Total unique page views all time: 2,203,401
Highest traffic day: 13,483
Started earning money: April, 2007
Total earnings all time: $14,394
Highest earning month: $867
Total posts: 256
September 2011: Recieved my first “serious” offer to buy (a 4-figure offer)
October 2011: Got hacked and overcame my first serious cyber security attack

Okay. For the record, I’ve never done that before. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve never looked those numbers together in quite that way. Here’s what jumps out at me:


Holy shit! That’s over seven years ago!! Where did the time go? Additionally, I think: Sheesh did I waste it.


Only 256 individual posts. In over seven years?!? Well Christ, that’s only (tappity tap tap, grumble months, tap click, times 12 plus 4 click 76 buzz whir) . . . that’s only a little over three posts a month!! And since I have a good idea about the quality of most of those posts, again, clearly wasteful.

Wasteful because the past two years, especially—I’ve done next to nothing to the blog. Next to nothing. The traffic, an average of a little under 1000 unique visits a day would come without me doing anything, really. I worked at it the first few years, had success and just rode it. Rested on laurels.



Wasteful perhaps when I also consider the number of interesting things I could have been writing about. Things I’ve done. Things I’ve experienced. Running my first marathon. Running my second marathon in the barefoot style wearing a pair of Vibram Five fingers. The challenges of raising a family and caring for aging parents. All the do-it-yourself projects we do around here like, building a deck, installing cement board siding on the house, fixing a well. The garden. All the parenting stuff. And then there’s the significant emotional and spiritual work I’ve done. Whew. . . .

Lots of really interesting stuff. Valuable stuff.

I take solace, however in the words of Frank McCourt. You remember Frank McCourt, right? Angela’s Ashes? The Pulitzer Prize winning author? He didn’t publish his first book until he was sixty-six! His next one when he was sixty-nine! Da-Fuq?

What took him so long? This was his reply, which I read in the prologue of this book, Teacher Man.

“I was teaching, that’s what took me so long. Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools. When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.”

I teach middle school. 12, 13, 14 year olds. Seven classes a day. And with the continued budget cuts to education (that nobody gives a fuck about in Wisconsin), I’m teaching more and more students more and more classes every year—for less and less compensation every year. The time I have after teaching has been devoted to figuring out things like how to fix my breaks without bringing it to the shop so I don’t have to pay someone else to do it or fixing my ageing in-laws snow blower, or freezing carrots from the garden, or watching my daughter play volleyball. That’s my life. That’s been my life.

I’m not complaining. I’m just being honest. It is what it is. And only the wealthy get any special treatment. Teachers? Fuck ‘em. And hard. Don’t get me started. Oh, and you, yeah you reading this and feeling like taking another shot at me in the comment section because you think we greedy teachers have it so cushy—you might as well just piss off now because I’ll delete your comment faster than you can type it up.

Open and honest debate time is over. Teachers lost. Schools lost. Students and families lost.

Time to move on.

Of course—those that know me better understand that I have been doing some writing. Whether it’s correspondence with a good friend (hi Bobbie S.), or writing for my side project, taking a shot at NaNoWriMo this past November, or working on that top secret project with my sister (hi Jess)—yeah, I’ve been sputtering along.

But this year I’d like to see if I can take a little poke at the universe. With wage and benefit cuts coupled with new laws guaranteeing that teachers never get another raise above the CPI, it’s pretty clear that teaching is no longer a real career option in Wisconsin. I could bitch and moan about it, and watch my family’s standard of living continue to drop, or I could, again, take a little poke. See if I can’t make a dent.

I’d already started a bit last spring by committing to writing one 500-700 word column/post that I’m publishing not only in local papers, but also syndicating out in blog format to media web sites across Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. Of course the columns also show up on – a platform I’m building around the art and science of teaching and learning.

So, anyway, most of the time, the column runs just over 700 words. My point is, I’ve been writing 700 words a week now for just over nine months. I never miss a week. I’m proud of that.

I’m also proud that in addition, I’ve also been able to crank out the 50,000 words of fiction required to win NaNoWriMo. I didn’t say it was good. What I’m saying is that in November I averaged about 1,600 words a day. A day! So I can do this. I know I can.

Do what, you ask?

Well, I’ve got a couple of goals this year. It’s that time, you know, for everyone to have goals, resolutions – – call them what you will.

Last year, it was forgiveness. I realized that in order to survive the attacks that I and my profession were taking from the people in Madison and my own State representatives, I had to forgive them. I’ve put about as much as a person can into this (what do I call it now) profession, career,  job as a person can only to have it pissed on by not only my governor, but my own friends, neighbors and relatives–it was clear that the anger and bitter resentment had to go.

It might not sound like it by the tone of this post—but one of the things you have to do in order to forgive is accept the facts. If the facts above make you uncomfortable, tough shit. It’s my blog and I’m not pulling any punches in order to be politically correct. It is what it is. I’ve accepted and, in fact, done a pretty good job of forgiving those who have trespassed against us.

Forgiveness is deep. We’ve been over this before. I’ll just remind you (if you’re new here) that if you do it right, forgiveness never ends, but is is something you live with—like alcoholism. The facts and circumstances around them remain. And so does the edge. It’s just that you’ve run your delicate fingers along it enough to build callouses and the edge becomes less painful when you touch it.  Also (and this is the part that you never hear anybody talking about because hardly anybody does forgiveness right), done correctly, you become more powerful for having gone through it.

The power comes from the fact that you can now take the circumstances and facts and all the tumult and pain of the story at issue entirely within you.  It never goes away, like an old barb wire fence that now runs through a tree, you simply grow to surround it. Assimilate it. Accept it ALL for what it really is and was and means—leaving out nothing. Avoiding nothing. And finally be thankful for the experience—because of what it has made you: more bad ass than you could have ever been without it.

To be clear, this forgiveness I speak of is not forgetfulness, it’s not nice, it’s not pretty, it’s not selfless, and though you may call on spiritual resources to help you get through it—it’s absolutely not God’s doing. Not the real now-the-ground-is-solid-under my-feat-forgiveness. Not the Hero’s return from his journey kind of forgiveness. Not the death and rebirth type. And that’s what we’re talking about here.  The tree encasing rusty barbs.  Because, really and truly—I’m not fucking around. If you stick with me here, I promise you one thing—heretofore, reading ain’t gonna be no tip-toe through the tulips.

But I digress.

Where was I? Oh, yes. This year’s focal point.

Last year, I set one overarching focus: forgiveness. This year, it’s confidence. More on that later, but one sort of offshoot of that is to write more. How much more? I set a modest but I believe very achievable goal of 500 words a day. This post alone is going to end up being three days worth. Which, actually is fine—because it took me about three days to write my last 700 word column.

I’ve been at this now for only five days. 360 left. You can do the math on word counts if you like. But the thing I’m really after is the practice. Yes there are a few things I’d like to accomplish. Finish that NaNo Novel, the project with my sister, keep up the columns, and maybe even this idea that’s germinating for a non-fiction book as well.

And then there’s this blog. I figure it’s time. And I figure, it doesn’t have to be pretty. There are a lot of things that have held me back from writing for a long time–even before the invent of this (or any other) blog. One of the first things my focus on confidence is inspiring me to eliminate is the fear and self-doubt that has slowed down my writing for so long. It’s already taking root and changing other things too, but the writing thing; that was the first.

Which takes us back to the blog. Last month was the lowest traffic month in this blog’s history. This month is shaping up (so far) to be even lower. While the increased writing may affect that, I’m not focusing on it. Notice, my goal is not to revive the traffic, status, rank or earnings of the blog. No. This is about the writing. Pure and simple. Down and dirty. I’m going to scrape the scum from the sides of the tank here and the only way to do that is with words. The way I see it, blogs are made of words. The more, better, and interesting the words, the more current, relevant and valuable the blog.

And of course, you’re welcome on this year’s journey—if you can stomach it. All I promise is honesty and bloody fingers though.

Don’t ask for guarantees

“The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.  They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’  Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends.  The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninty-nine per cent of them is in a book.  Don’t ask for guarantees.  And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library.  Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”

Faber, in Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Dream a (little) dream?

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” — Voltaire 1770

“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves.  Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.” — Robert A. Heinlein, 1973

An inside job

Sitting on a bench looking passed the gas pumps to the road, reflecting on the arc of my life–the pain, pleasure, frustrated exertions and scattered little triumphs, the management and experience of it all–I realized I had imagined the whole thing.