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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.

Strong Schools, Strong Communities, Strong Economies—and vice versa.

dv1453015.jpgLast week, I attended another heart wrenching school board meeting (in Amery this time) where, yet again, people mustered their courage and voices to publically support those that nurture, teach, feed and care for our kids during the day.  I don’t teach in Amery, but I felt compelled to support those who do.

Held in an auditorium for the hundreds of people attending, the speeches to the Amery school board were honest impassioned and . . . becoming way too common.  Three years later, more fallout from Walker’s failed Act 10, another painful meeting, and another community torn apart.

The messages to the board that night all had a common theme: If there is indeed no money and you must continue to cut educator’s wages and benefits, please at least do so in a way that is respectful and empathic.  Please at least protect for these people their dignity.  Please talk with them.  Listen to them.

We know.  New laws no longer require our public education officials to do this–to talk to their employees.  But these are real people, living real lives, with real families to support and plan for.  Many are actually quite brilliant, creative and flexible—but the deep cuts combined with the punishing way they are being delivered are really hurtful and unnecessary—both financially and emotionally.  Public teachers and support staff are not monsters.  Really they are not.

As educators on the front lines, we know, as does everyone, that Wisconsin no longer values its schools.  We see it every day in the increased class sizes and workload carried by an ever-shrinking number of staff.  We know that billions have been cut from the education budget.  We know, even with a state surplus, that those dollars will never be restored.  We know school boards must continue to cut wages and benefits.   We know teaching and learning is only going to get harder in Wisconsin.  We know these things.

And we know also that it isn’t only our educators that are hurting in Wisconsin either.  As the most recent federal jobs report illustrates again, WI leads the nation in new jobless claims.

Our governor and local representatives are great at breaking unions and tearing communities apart. Terrible at creating jobs though.   This from the most recently released federal jobs report:

“The largest increases in initial claims for the week ending February 1 were in Wisconsin (+5,041), New York (+4,830), Pennsylvania (+2,448), New Jersey (+1,853), and Ohio (+1,780), while the largest decreases were in California (-9,631), Georgia (-2,558), Indiana (-2,444), Michigan (-2,411), and Florida (-1,387).”

I know . . .it was the weather.   It’s always the weather.  Or something.  It’s always something.

If we had destroyed our schools in order to create jobs, maybe that would be one thing.  I know that was the argument at the time: “Teachers and other public employees, and their unions, are the enemy–the greedy few.  Punish them.”  But it didn’t work.

All that said, I also know none of it matters.  I realize finally, especially at the local level, that we will continue to support our current representatives and their apathetic destruction of our schools and rural communities.  I know that nobody around here understands the link between strong schools and strong economies.  Strong words, maybe.  Still, I had to get them off my chest.  Because all I see in Wisconsin these days is weakness.

Making things more complicated, so they’re easier

‎”Why do some of the current Mercedes models have no dipstick, for example? What are the attractions of being disburdened of involvement with our own stuff? This basic question about consumer culture points to some basic questions about work, because in becoming less obtrusive, our devices also become more complicated. How has the relentless complication of cars and motorcycles, for example, altered the jobs of those who service them? We often hear of the need for an “upskilling” of the workforce, to keep up with technological change. I find the more pertinent issue to be: What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first-century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of bullshit that get piled on top of machines?”

— Matthew B. Crawford in his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft

This celebration is not what you think

As many of you know, last Wednesday, Wisconsinites turned in enough petitions to trigger a recall election of our Governor.


Yeah, yeah pending a review by the Government Accountability Board and challenges of legitimate signatures by the Walker camp . . . yadda, yadda, yadda.

Seriously though–we got this thing.

Where was I . . . Oh yeah.


For us, this was a big deal.  If you see us bumping fists, please understand that it is not the recall we are celebrating.  Collectively, we are not happy about this.  Most of us wish we had some other–less dramatic–recourse.

We don’t.

Please understand that it is the energy, courage and sacrifice we gave to this effort that we are now honoring.  It is the solidarity, and commitment, and discipline, and stamina that it has taken as we have learned–one by one, baby step by baby step—to stand up for ourselves . . . that we are celebrating.

Not the recall itself.

To do nothing (and just bitch about it) would have been a hell of a lot easier.   Committing to the recall?  That’s crazy.  Insane even.  In the history of our nation–there have only been 2 other governors that faced a recall election.  THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!!

We’re throwing senators and a lieutenant governor in along with him.

This is unprecedented.

What if we lost?  People would just make fun of us!  We’d be labeled: wackos, liberals, union thugs, greedy teachers, socialists, bullies, public workers, special interests.

If you’re on the outside looking in–it’s hard to appreciate just how much courage this took.

For us, this started almost a year ago.  And make no mistake–it has been a long year.  Those in power thought that we would go away after a few days, then a few weeks, then after the initial round of recalls in the summer.  But, to our collective credit, we saw this through.

We are seeing this through.

But beyond courage and an iron will, what did it take to get here?

First, we had to wait until this governor had been in office one full year.  Then, within 60 days of our start date, we needed to collect 540,000 signatures (25% of the total vote in the last election for governor).  Keep in mind, these are not online petitions or signatures.  These are real, physical pen written signatures.  One per person.  540,000 of them.  And it’s winter.  It’s cold.  It’s snowy.  It’s icy.  It’s windy.  And it’s a personally busy time of year–it’s the holidays.

So let’s take a moment to reflect on (or celebrate–your choice) what we just did:

  • We collected over a million signatures to recall Scott Walker (actually we also collected more than enough to trigger recall elections for four additional Walker supporting state senators, as well as the lieutenant governor–for a total of over 1.9 million signatures) . . . but back to Walker.
  • The number collected is 185% of the signatures required to force a recall election.
  • That is 460,000 signatures above the threshold.
  • 1 of every 3 signatures would need to be invalid to disqualify enough signatures to stop the recall.
  • More than 46% of the electorate signed. By contrast, in the only other two successful gubernatorial recalls in American history: almost 32% of the electorate signed in North Dakota in 1921, and 23% of the California electorate signed in 2003.
  • Earlier this year, 32% of the electorate in Ohio signed the petition to overturn the Republicans’ union-busting SB5.
  • The weight of all of the signatures collected is 3000 pounds.
  • Stacked on top of one another, the petitions go 125 feet high, which is taller than the wings of the Madison Capitol Building (those are 84 feet high), but not as tall as the dome (that’s 285 feet).

All very impressive, right?  And, perhaps . . . meaningless.  All any of this really means is that, sometime this summer, we will have another election for Governor (and another 4 state senators). Nothing has changed.

Except maybe our awareness.

Now . . . we are watching.  We are present–and we will be for as long as it takes.

And that’s it.  You can’t put a label on awareness.

We are not radicals.  We are not crazy.  We are not liberals.  We are not Democrats.  We are not union members.  We are Wisconsin and all we want is our state back.  Most of us are not willing activists.  This is not fun for us.  Most of us–God’s honest truth–want our lives back.

True these lives will never be the same.  Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”  We are awake now.

So if you see us celebrating–it is only because we are pausing briefly to acknowledge and honor the work, because as we have learned, restoring the democratic process is hard.  It’s a lesson we won’t forget. We don’t want to do this again.

But I think we’ve also learned that if we have to, we will.  In a heartbeat.  We’ve learned what it takes, but we’ve also learned that we have it–and then some.

And we also understand, I think, that we may not win this one.  It is clear though, based on the numbers, that collectively we are more aware.

Now that another round of recall elections is immanent, those in power are saying they expected it all along.  So what.  The recall process itself is no big deal.  In fact, they go even further in saying that we should be ashamed of ourselves.  That what we’ve done is groundless and wasteful.


If it had an ounce of groundless, we would have failed.  If the investment was not worth it–we never would have begun.  Don’t talk to us–who have been out on the front lines–about the cost of the recalls.  We–better than any–understand the cost.

We paid for it every time we picked up a clipboard and left our families for a day to stand in the cold and the snow.  Every time we mustered our courage against those that swore and threatened and mocked us in our own towns.

We would not have attempted this if we did not know–in our bones–that the power in the capitol today has corrupted the hearts and minds of those we have entrusted with it.

Trust, transparency, cooperation, compromise has all been replaced . . . with an infection.

We do this to clear.  We do this to restore. We do this to strengthen.

For those left confused and frustrated by it all.  Please understand–we know this hurts.  We know it’s painful.  Removing slivers and cleaning wounds often is.  But we have to do this now.  The sooner we do, the sooner we will heal.

(A special thank you to Cassandra Green for inspiring this post, some of these words were actually hers)



Sheila Harsdorf vs The Boogeyman

“If I could give three words of advice, they would be ‘tell the truth.’ If I got three more words, I’d add: ‘All the time.’ –Randy Pausch, in, The Last Lecture

Here’s the thing we have to remember: Politicians use language.  They search for phrases that will resonate hypnotically within us.  Good political phrases are like gold to politicians, because with them, they can frame the issues and easily influence us.

Take the phrase, “Tax Relief”, for example.  President Bush’s team came up with that one and he made magic every time he used it.  Why?  It totally frames the issue of taxes.  In order for there to be “relief” there has to be an affliction.  It’s a perfect frame.  That one little phrase influenced the way millions of Americans thought about taxes.  Instantly “Taxes” became an “affliction” for which we all needed “relief.”  We haven’t been able to have an intelligent discussion about taxes since

Over the past few months, we’ve heard Harsdorf and Walker refer to the “Special Interests” involved in the recalls, hoping that voters wouldn’t think about who that really is.

It’s a strategy that allows Harsdorf to appear to be protecting tax-payers (who need relief) from something scary — kind of like the boogeyman.  It’s a fear Harsdorf wants you to have.  She needs there to be a “special interests” boogeyman so she can protect you from it.

But remember when you were young, and you thought the boogeyman was in your closet? Remember how foolish you felt when your mom turned on the light and it was just a lump of dirty clothes?

Unlike our moms, Harsdorf wants to keep us in the dark—and very much afraid. That boogeyman she’s calling “special interests”?  Yeah, those “special interests” are the teachers at your school, organizing food drive competitions between classes two weeks before Thanksgiving.  It’s the non-profit broadband provider, WiscNet, bringing affordable internet access to your libraries, public schools and universities.  They’re the police, firefighters, snowplow and ambulance drivers keeping us safe.  It’s the dad across the street, ashamed because his kids’ clothes are too small.  You know these people.

While collecting signatures to recall Harsdorf in my hometown earlier this spring, I was often confronted by angry Harsdorf supporters.  Repeatedly, I was asked where I came from and how much I was getting paid.  They didn’t believe me when I said I was from St. Croix Falls, and was paid nothing. When I told them I was a teacher, many called me a freeloader—or worse.

It shocked me.

Upon reflection, however, it makes perfect sense.  These angry Harsdorf supporters believe and trust her.  They were afraid.  And I was the boogeyman.  My hope is that enough people will turn on the light and begin to wonder—if Harsdorf isn’t telling the truth about special interests, what else is she lying about?