Hard Work is Good Work

In my interviews for the Legacy Project, I loved listening to the Texas accent. Apparently, some say the classic Texas accent is disappearing, but not among these folks. Many of these elders were from East Texas, with its soft, musical drawl and slow cadence. Twenty-five cents becomes “twenny-fi cints,” kid becomes “kee-ud,” business to “bid-ness,” and government to “gummint.” There was a lulling quality in my conversations with very old Texans, but also a remarkably clear way of condensing the past and expressing their feelings about it. And Texans are polite; no one hurried me along or refused to at least try to answer a question.

One thing that almost all the Texans had in common was that they grew up working – and working hard. Martin, 78, was typical. From a very early age, he was expected to work, and it taught him valuable life lessons. He grew up on a farm during the Great Depression, he told me, and that’s what kept the family alive. “We had enough to eat because of the vegetable garden.”

We chopped cotton, we picked cotton, we milked cows, we carried wood for the cookstove and the fireplace – we cooked over a wood cook stove. They cooked that way until the 1940s. The didn’t have electricity or running water until after I left home. We drew water from the well to do wash. You had to draw the water, put it in the tub. With everything that had to be done on a farm, we tagged along and helped.

Martin embodies the work history of many of the elder I interviewed, and he shows the legacy over his life course.

The family home that I grew up in was very religious, and the community I grew up in was about three hundred people. And we had church and family and our farm where we worked all the time, we worked round the clock and nobody had any money. There was school and work and that was it. And that was my life. And all during the Depression my family farmed that farm and when you could get little or nothing for anything, we managed to keep everything together. And when everybody around us was going belly up, we came through it. Just being around for those years, I got a lot of what I learned over my life.

At a young age, age fourteen, I guess, I was working seven days a week when I wasn’t in school and many days before school and after school, I was working on that farm. And I rode a school bus from school back to the farm and then work until dark and then my dad and I got the truck and we came home. But that was a normal work day. And like I said, nobody had any money. This is something that most people today can’t fathom, they can’t realize. We lived at a time when there was no money and you just really didn’t think about it because all of our friends were doing the same thing. And it gave me a value where I knew what a day of working was. I knew what it meant. I knew what hard work was and when your fifteen or sixteen, that’s a pretty good lesson.

He went on to a distinguished career in the military, serving in Europe, Korea, and Vietnam. After retirement, he worked for several corporations. Throughout the course of his career, what he learned from a childhood of hard work stayed with him. “I enjoyed working, sure, I made the work a part of my life. A job to me was a set of requirements and a group of people that you work with, you get along with, and you do the best you can.”

This vision of work came from a kind of childhood shared by many of the elders, but known to few younger Americans today:

I attribute any success I’ve had to my family because of the way I was taught. You know, when you’re thirteen and you’re getting up at four in the morning and milk the cows and feed the cattle and then going to school at seven thirty. Getting out of school at three thirty in the afternoon and then getting on the school bus and then going back out to the farm and working til after dark, and that’s before you even started studying.

I am still determined to be productive. Nowhere in the Bible do you find a retirement plan. We’re here for a purpose and I like to think that we need to find out what that purpose is and get about doing it, no matter how old we are.

Making your mark in your career: Sy’s lessons on new video

There’s been a lot of discussion on this site about how young people should approach their careers. Since the elders we interviewed have had almost every job you can imagine, and many succeeded in careers after a struggle, they are a great source of practical advice. Today we hear from Sy, a successful entrepreneur who shares his lessons those starting out (or in mid-career).




See many more Legacy Project elders on video at our YouTube Channel.

Your turn: Can you advise one of our readers?

In an earlier post, we shared Bertrille’s regrets about her work life. Jenny commented on the post, sharing her own struggles to find a place in the world of work. Although our elders in the Legacy Project can’t respond to individual questions – can you? Does anyone have some life wisdom to share? Please comment to share your thoughts. Below is the original post, and Jenny’s comment follows.

Sometimes the elder’s lessons come not from what they did right, but from what they felt they did wrong. They advise younger people not to do as they did. So it is in this lesson about finding work that has meaning for you.

Bertrille, 69, flirted with a number of careers over the course of her life, from graduate school in the humanities, to work in research , eventually training as a nurse and practicing in several different settings. Her main regret is never having taken the time and energy to learn  what type of work she would find meaningful and even love:

Work for me? Well, you know, some people have careers and they find what they love to do. For me, work was to make money to do the things I wanted. It didn’t really have much value to me. And I’m very sad to be in my sixties and to have to say that, but it’s really the truth. I worked to live, I didn’t find anything in it that held a lot of meaning to me. I drifted from one thing to another and never really found a purpose.

So I feel sad, I feel very sad about that. I wish I could’ve found something that I really enjoyed but I didn’t do that.

When I look back on my life, I have one area of regret and that is I listened too much to what other people told me to do. I think people have to follow their own instincts about who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they have to offer. You should not listen too much to what other people tell you to do. I have to deal with that sense of lost purpose.

Here’s what Jenny wrote in her comment. Do you have any life lessons to offer her?

Dear Bertrille, thank you for sharing your life lessons.

I am currently 34 year old and I am one of those who has moved from job to job because I didn’t like the previous one. 3 Years ago, I realized I must stop wasting time and do something more meaningful in my life. I know I want to make a difference in other’s life, particular to those less privileged.

Determined and ambition as I always am, I got myself into a Tier 1 MBA program, aiming to build a more rounded skill-set and a strong network so I can have a good foundation to get started on my life ambition. I dream to establish an institution that teaches and builds people’s character through simulated activities, particularly for disadvantage children in various parts of the world. I see that many people in influential positions today do not exemplify good character such as integrity, courage and compassion. They often get to where they are because of their privileged background and network, without many tests and trials in their lives. It is very disappointing reality for me. I want the institution to raise the awareness that character building is first and foremost and through various activities to instill admirable characters to young children.

As I have no money to start, I tried leveraging on my network to find job opportunities in existing organizations of similar purpose/field and wait till the right moment to start. Maybe it’s the current state of the economy or just bad luck, I joined 4 organizations so far, none of them were able to offer a full-time role. Now, a year and a half after my graduation, I am penniless and with a huge school loan to pay back. The reality of life keeps haunting me and thank goodness I do not need to support a family. I am now applying to any job that I see fit to my previous banking background as I must deal with the reality of life. Yet nothing comes my ways, except a few small consulting projects here and there which is hardly predictable nor able to cover my basic expenses. In my most despair moment, I’d ask myself what’s wrong with me? How big is the price to pursue my dream? Why wouldn’t anyone wants to hire a motivated and highly-skilled with individual? And many more such questions…

I am not giving up my dream. But my question is, what would you do if you were me at this juncture of life?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Very gratefully,


Develop Interpersonal Skills for Career Success

Jack, 72, has had a varied and highly successful work life. Forced to drop out of full-time college for financial reasons, he worked at demanding jobs while pursuing his engineering degree at night (he eventually got a Master’s degree in the same way). He began working in “a really arcane area” in the electronics industry. He did well, but was denied a permanent position because his superiors thought – incorrectly – that his part-time degree was somehow inferior to a  conventional one. This set-back proved to be an opportunity that shaped his career; he landed an excellent job in the airplane industry, which in the 50s was taking off  (literally and figuratively).

Jack was thrown in with a hundred and fifty other employees, in an exciting, intense environment. And it planted the seed of the most important lesson he learned about work: Develop interpersonal skills. Jack’s views have even more weight because he worked his entire life in highly technical fields – the kinds that when you start talking about your job, people stare uncomprehendingly until their eyelids start to flutter. Nevertheless, it was the people skills that counted.

Our job was to make sure that the government got whatever it paid for. I was able to work at the top level of the company. At that time it was very, very hard to hire engineers, and I loved it. It was a completely different world. You’re just on your own with your wits, you’re dealing with people who have twenty, thirty years experience running departments with hundreds of people. It was enormously exciting. And it was scary and I loved to be in a little over my head. Right, you developed a cool under pressure, you develop a sense for not saying more than you had to, you developed a sense of being in command but being respectful of the other people’s positions.

When I asked about the key to his success, Jack made it clear that people often fail not because they don’t know their jobs, but because they don’t know people. He was known in his jobs as a problem-solver, and the more insoluable a problem seemed, the more likely it was to be handed to Ed. His people skills helped each time. He gave the following example.

In one of my jobs, they developed a new machine to replace the old ones, supposed to be four or five times more reliable. And  it wasn’t looking that way.  We were sending them it out into the field and the reports were coming back rom service, “Oh, it’s terrible, it’s really bad.”  And I pondered and pondered and pondered and I thought, “Look, this can’t be.’ And there was acrimony between engineering and service, people weren’t communicating. It had to do with interpersonal issues, lack of communication.

I said, “This can’t be.” Something was fishy. So here’s what we’re going to do. I made a proposal, which I sent to the board. We’ve got to take several thousand of these reports from the field and we’ve got to have a team with field staffers,  technical services, engineering, quality, manufacturing – bring everybody together. And we’ve got to go over every single one of these complaints and we have to classify it as to what the problem was, what’s the outcome, who’s responsibility it was. We’ve got to do this by service person, and by account, and whatever. And I had enough credibility that they agreed to do it. So we took five or six people, we went through thousands of these things. We laid the whole thing out. Low and behold, it was completely different from what everybody thought. My ability to bring people together helped solve the problem.

Jack attributes his ability to work so effectively with a wide range of employees, ranging from scientific experts to sales staff, to one basic principle: take yourself down a peg (or two). The idea is to focus on the others in the workplace as experts who need to be consulted, including (and perhaps especially) those who are lower in the hierarchy. The concept that one should enter a leadership position as the overseeing boss who knows best works far less well than a position of humility and willingness to learn from others.

Jack put it like this:

I think I had the attitude that I might have certain skills but mostly everybody here knows more than I do. Everybody. And that if I’m going to add value it’s going to be by making use of these people or by collecting information from them or marshaling what it is they’re doing. The last thing you want to do is assume you are superior. Everybody there is a genius, I knew nothing. I had a lot of innate skills which came out of my background, and I tried to diligently do my work. You really have to have the attitude that ‘I’m really going to honestly do my best to do a good job. And that doesn’t mean fudging it, doesn’t mean sucking up to anybody. It just means that whatever they give me to do, I’m going to try to do that to the best of my ability, working with whomever I have to work with.

Beware of Multi-Tasking

Oliver’s (age 81)  lesson: Do one thing at a time, or you get “stress and chaos.”  

It’s a scientific fact that you can only think of one thing at a time. Accept that  fact and work accordingly. Make a list of your projects and follow each one as far as convenient, then tackle the next. Many people take pride in handling several things at once without a plan. Their attention is constantly redirected, allowing stress and chaos to build, with nothing completed.