Hard work is not the key to success

 

I live on a golf course in Hilton Head, in a wealthy gated community.  So I’m surrounded by lots of extremely intelligent people who worked extremely hard at something for an extremely long time, so they could make enough money to retire when they’re 60 and play golf on private golf courses for the rest of their lives.  Many have something else in common, as well:  They tend to have adult children who are very intelligent like their parents, with lots of potential, but they tend to be underachievers.  Which tends to bother their hard-working parents.

I was at a community party this weekend, sitting there drinking bourbon (surprise!), minding my own business, when this topic of conversation came up.  The mothers sitting at our table started complaining about their kids, who all seemed to lack drive and focus.  One said that her daughter didn’t like her job, so she quit.  She didn’t have anything else lined up – she just quit.  So now she’s living at home at the age of 26, with her extremely expensive elite college diploma on the wall, eating their food and watching their TV.  Mom and Dad are frustrated.  The other Moms all had similar stories, each sounding more outlandish than the first to my blissfully sheltered ears.

The Moms all agreed that they had sheltered their kids too much, and left them unprepared for the difficulties of real life.  One of the Moms pointed at me and said something like, “His kids are doing great.  His wife told me how hard he worked those girls, and now they know how to work.”  I responded that I didn’t think that was right.  She asked what I meant.

In response, I asked her, “Your kids didn’t work hard?

She said they did.  They were in sports, marching band, honors classes, volunteer activities, and Lord knows what else.

So I asked, “So if they worked hard as kids, why do you think they don’t know how to work as adults?

An exasperated Mom asked, “Why don’t you enlighten us?”

I meekly responded, “I don’t know, of course.  But I’ll give you my theory.  I’ll let you decide if it’s valid. 

My kids worked at all those things too, of course.  Although probably not as much as your kids.  We avoided honors classes, for example – it seemed like a lot of busy work, and not much real advanced study.  They didn’t really do much volunteer stuff or band, either.  They worked hard at sports because they were good at it, but their time spent on activities was probably a lot less than your kids.

But we lived in a log cabin in the woods.  We used a wood furnace for heat.  We burned six cords of wood a year – that’s A LOT of wood – every year.  So the girls and I spent a lot of time cutting, hauling, and stacking firewood.  Not to build character or to learn work habits – we did it to stay warm in the upcoming winter.  We did electrical and plumbing repairs.  We caulked the log joints.  We fixed the roof.  We plowed snow.  We worked all the time, on things that mattered.

I never said so, but it was clear that we were doing work that needed to be done.  It was important.  It wasn’t busy work to build character.  When a 10-year-old has to make a paper mâché volcano for earth science class, they know it’s just busy work, and it doesn’t really matter.  But when that kid is carrying firewood that will keep her family warm in the winter, she knows that matters.

My girls learned to associate hard work with a better life.

Kids that are constantly faced with busy work to build character will learn to associate hard work with annoyance – hard work is something to be avoided when possible.  When your kids spend their time making paper mâché volcanoes while they watch hired hands mow the lawn, I think that’s sending the wrong message.  That volcano will not improve anyone’s life.  So why work at it?  Hard work is to be avoided. 

My kids continue to look for ways to work hard to improve their lives.  And you’re right, they’ve been extremely successful.

It seems like a small difference, but I think it’s huge.

At least, that’s my perspective.  Who knows, right?

All the Moms looked at each other for a few seconds until one of them asked, “Ok, so how do you do that in a wealthy suburb?”

I said, “I don’t know, which is why I built that log cabin in the woods.  I was terrified of raising kids who were soft.  Now that our kids are grown, my wife and I live on a golf course.  It’s nice here.  But I’m so thankful that we didn’t raise our kids here.

I got the sense that I had overstayed my welcome, so I wandered off to find my wife, and see if she was ready to head home.  I got pulled into another group, and didn’t find my wife for another hour or so.

Later, on the way home in the car, my wife pointedly asked, “WHAT did you say to all my friends?”

I looked uncertain and said, “Um, about what?

“Oh, you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about – what did you say?”

I said, “Well, they asked why our kids did so well, and I just said that I thought it was because they learned to associate hard work with a better life.  Not because they learned to work hard.  And now we have happy, successful kids.  Or something like that.  I don’t know.  I was just talking.  I’m sorry if I…

She interrupted me and said, “They ALL agreed with you.  That’s all I heard about the rest of the night.  They’re so unimpressed with their kids, and even more unimpressed with their kids’ friends.  These are very successful people who expect a lot from their kids, and they’re frustrated.  Whatever you said, they thought it was awesome!”

Me:  “Oh that!  Right!  Well, I’m glad it was well received.”  As I thought to myself, “Whew…

As I was lying in bed not sleeping that night, I wondered what comes next.  When a bunch of people who have been trained that hard work is to be avoided – when those people raise kids – what happens?  What kind of kids do THEY raise?  Yikes.

I was relieved to find that, for once, my actions at a party didn’t get me in trouble.  But I think that lots of parents out there are just starting to realize that their actions – actions taken with only the very best of intentions – putting their kids in the best schools in the best neighborhoods – that perhaps those actions were unhelpful.  Or worse.

And for once, the Moms drank more than I did.

I can’t blame them.  Some actions are difficult to undo.

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  1. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Peter Drucker observed that work done as a student is not the same as work done in the Real World…because you’re doing it for yourself, not to create value for other people.

    • #1
  2. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    My only quibble with this argument would be that presumably all/most of these High Achieving children with expensive college degrees ended up with some type of office/desk job.  They’re not out there putting roofs on houses.

    And I don’t care how stressful or demanding your lawyer/management consulting/physician job is, it’s not “hard work” the way cutting and stacking 6 cords of wood, or putting a roof on a house is.

    Like I said, a quibble more than a disagreement.

     

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Dr. Bastiat: “Whew…

    Good job, Doc.

    Dr. Bastiat: So now she’s living at home at the age of 26, with her extremely expensive elite college diploma on the wall, eating their food and watching their TV.

    This is why we need to restore the Ottoman Empire. What do you do with useless daughters if you can’t sell them into the Sultan’s seraglio?

    • #3
  4. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: “Whew…

    Good job, Doc.

    Dr. Bastiat: So now she’s living at home at the age of 26, with her extremely expensive elite college diploma on the wall, eating their food and watching their TV.

    This is why we need to restore the Ottoman Empire. What do you do with useless daughters if you can’t sell them into the Sultan’s seraglio?

     

    • #4
  5. Annefy Coolidge
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Where we raised our kids didn’t start out as a “wealthy suburb” but it sort of became one. Many of our neighbors and the kids my kids went to school with were certainly wealthy. 

    A good friend (who is not only wealthy, but famous) called me a few years ago in frustration about her previously-perceived-to-be-perfect-God’s-gift-to-the-world then 26-year old son. 

    “It was easy for you” she said. “You were poor when you raised your kids.”

    “Gee, thanks,” I said. “But don’t I get a little credit for no TV and no A/C?”

    (Her son is now 30, good job and living independently. Delayed launch, not failure to launch)

    • #5
  6. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    A family friend who was quite successful once said that the first generation creates the wealth, the second generation spends it and the third generation tries to get it back but is unable.  This was true of his family.  He and his brothers were successful corporate types in manufacturing in the 1920s-1970s, so much so they bought other manufacturing businesses for their sons.  The businesses were all held by a brother who never married, and given to the sons at the appropriate time.  One son ran a commercial roofing business, another returned home to run a wire manufacturing company.  That one didn’t want to come home from his fancy post-college existence, but he did.  Do you know how much money there is in wire?  Plenty.  The third generation is a bunch of woke, guilty, unproductive twits scattered to the four winds, but was still management of those businesses on paper…until they went out of business.

    I do think there is something genetic about work ethic.  Some people have it regardless of their circumstances.

    Oh,and that family friend with the pithy saying?  My dad rode his bike 8 miles and mowed his lawn with a push mower.

    • #6
  7. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    I think there might be such a thing as too much money.   If kids come of age knowing that they are set for life no matter what they do, or don’t do, it’s not surprising if they end up far along the path of least resistance.

    • #7
  8. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    As usual, great post that makes you think.  
    For what it’s worth, I would never talk down my kids at a party, or anywhere else, no matter their circumstances. 

    • #8
  9. Annefy Coolidge
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    As usual, great post that makes you think.
    For what it’s worth, I would never talk down my kids at a party, or anywhere else, no matter their circumstances.

    I’m with you on that, Tim. It’s one thing reaching out to a sister or a good friend; or in my case, my small group of rosary friends. But I’m always uncomfortable when someone complains about their kid in “company”.

    I’m similarly uncomfortable when someone does the opposite, bragging about their kid’s achievements. My mother always called people like that “bloody yankees”. Granted, my mom was an immigrant who, if someone complimented one of her kids (like me) she’d put forth an argument against.

    • #9
  10. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    A friend of mine likes to say, “These kids never had to crop tobacco in 100 degree heat and it shows.”  I grew up like your girls, making sure we had plenty of wood, but year around. We had one of those wood stoves that also heated our water. Funny, once all us kids moved out, daddy got rid of that stove. 

    It’s gotten harder for kids to get summer/after school jobs now, too. It’s a shame. They learn so much from that experience. Not the least of which is the paycheck that comes with it and what to do with the money. 

    • #10
  11. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):
    For what it’s worth, I would never talk down my kids at a party, or anywhere else, no matter their circumstances. 

    Yes, I also found that a little disturbing.  

     

    • #11
  12. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):
    For what it’s worth, I would never talk down my kids at a party, or anywhere else, no matter their circumstances. 

    If I’m with close friends who I trust, I would speak honestly about my kids. They are good, but not perfect.

    • #12
  13. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):
    For what it’s worth, I would never talk down my kids at a party, or anywhere else, no matter their circumstances.

    If I’m with close friends who I trust, I would speak honestly about my kids. They are good, but not perfect.

    I agree with that exception, but only with a close friend.  My kids have their problems, and there is a time and place to discuss them.  I don’t think a party is that place (especially with a known reprobate like Dr. Bastiat).

    • #13
  14. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    As usual, great post that makes you think.
    For what it’s worth, I would never talk down my kids at a party, or anywhere else, no matter their circumstances.

    I was sitting at a table with four Moms, who are neighbors and close friends, who are all worried about their kids, for the same reasons (except for one lady, I think).  They’ve talked about their concerns before with each other.  The one whose daughter quit her job had had an argument with her that day and was upset.  And had had a bit too much wine. 

    Our perhaps just the right amount. 

    Hard to say. 

    • #14
  15. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    I think what Dr. B is getting at is the need for purpose. When you grow up without a lot of money, you are likely to be highly motivated to work to earn your own. And yet I remember being appalled by a fellow student in college whose aim was purely to make as much money as possible. I suppose that’s a purpose, but I think it’s as empty as the purpose of all the grades, sports, and other extracurricular activities designed to pad a college application. When parents are steering their kids to college, I think the kids often achieve that goal and then ask, “now what?” Their purpose, for as long as they can remember, is gone. 

    I’m currently reading Elon Musk, the biography by Walter Isaacson, and it’s so striking how Elon has always been working to achieve a mission. Becoming one of the richest people in the world is a side effect, not a goal. Also, he started with nothing but a totally crazy family. I haven’t finished the book, but I am already pretty sure that’s not the model for parenting financially successful children.

    • #15
  16. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Well done, Doc.

    We raised our six on a farm in the middle of Nowhere, Missouri. They spent two hours a day in homeschool, and the rest of their time chasing escaped livestock and mending fences (fencing isn’t my long suit), shooting snapping turtles in the catfish ponds (shooting is one of my long suits), hunting and fishing, riding horses, reading, and helping farmer friends out with their chores.

    I don’t know to what extent two stay-at-home parents and a complete absence of screens contributed to their current success. I do know that they’re all good workers, and they all seem to be happy.

    • #16
  17. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    Dr. Bastiat: I live on a golf course…

    • #17
  18. Annefy Coolidge
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    I think what Dr. B is getting at is the need for purpose. When you grow up without a lot of money, you are likely to be highly motivated to work to earn your own. 

    And … it depends on the kid. My sister’s oldest daughter, recently wed, has done very well in tech. (UC Berkeley. Degree in microbiology). She and her husband are currently on a one-year, world tour of the world. My sister pointed to her once and said : that one, I don’t worry about. She likes nice things and will work hard to get them. 

    Her other two, a boy and girl, are just as bright but are content to afford their burning man tickets every year. (And before you roll your eyes, the daughter just started at a private bio firm after meeting the owner of the company at … Burning Man)

    Bottom line: People are different, it’s a big world, and there ain’t no magic formula. 

    PS. JY and I often joke that if we stuck to one kid, we’d be insufferable because we would think we’d cracked the magic formula. Having four is nothing other than humbling and makes you pray. A lot. 

    • #18
  19. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    We didn’t have much money. Watching other parents who had a lot of money was interesting because honestly, it is a problem that I didn’t have. When parents have a lot of money, many times when they say no, it’s contrived, and the kids know it. When I said no, there was no conflict about it. 

    The biggest problem wealthy parents have, at least from what I observed, is that they are so busy they don’t have time to spend with their kids. And the kids don’t have time either–they are always busy keeping up with their parents. In some ways, it seemed as though they were living their parents’ life instead of their own. Our most advanced music students were actually middle class like our family. That was because they had a few long afternoons to master a Mozart piece.

     

    • #19
  20. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    Annefy (View Comment):

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    I think what Dr. B is getting at is the need for purpose. When you grow up without a lot of money, you are likely to be highly motivated to work to earn your own.

    And … it depends on the kid. My sister’s oldest daughter, recently wed, has done very well in tech. (UC Berkeley. Degree in microbiology). She and her husband are currently on a one-year, world tour of the world. My sister pointed to her once and said : that one, I don’t worry about. She likes nice things and will work hard to get them.

    Her other two, a boy and girl, are just as bright but are content to afford their burning man tickets every year. (And before you roll your eyes, the daughter just started at a private bio firm after meeting the owner of the company at … Burning Man)

    Bottom line: People are different, it’s a big world, and there ain’t no magic formula.

    PS. JY and I often joke that if we stuck to one kid, we’d be insufferable because we would think we’d cracked the magic formula. Having four is nothing other than humbling and makes you pray. A lot.

    Completely agree! I think the biggest material differences are often between siblings. And some people are really interested in earning wealth and living at greater expense while others just want enough to enjoy their hobbies. I don’t think success is just monetary, and often striving for money can really lead people astray. i wish more people would measure success in terms of good relationships. On your deathbed, what matters more?

     

    • #20
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Blondie (View Comment):
    It’s gotten harder for kids to get summer/after school jobs now, too. It’s a shame. They learn so much from that experience. Not the least of which is the paycheck that comes with it and what to do with the money. 

    And the tax bite.

    • #21
  22. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Blondie (View Comment):
    It’s gotten harder for kids to get summer/after school jobs now, too. It’s a shame. They learn so much from that experience. Not the least of which is the paycheck that comes with it and what to do with the money.

    And the tax bite.

    These days, it seems that too often people figure that rather than vote to reduce everyone’s taxes including their own, they’ll vote to give themselves more of other peoples’ taxes. 

    • #22
  23. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    @drbastiat – I think you are partly missing something.  You don’t need to have a neo-primitive existence to learn to work hard.    You need to have motivation.  For me, despite my upper-middle class lazy upbringing, it’s risk and loyalty.

    I’ve been unemployed.  It sucks.  I need the money in order to do what I want.  I have been poor, and would prefer to avoid it.  The risk of losing my position is a motivation.    If quitting means not eating, as opposed to vacation with parents at Hilton Head, that’s a different story.

    On a day to day basis, I find that not wanting to let the rest of team down a more powerful motivation.   Not sure where this came from, but it makes me work harder than otherwise.

    • #23
  24. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    @drbastiat – I think you are partly missing something.  You don’t need to have a neo-primitive existence to learn to work hard.    You need to have motivation.

    Very true.  And it seems that many people find their motivation eventually.  The responsibilities of life have a way of doing that.

    There’s more than one way to create success, obviously.  Great point.

    • #24
  25. Teeger Coolidge
    Teeger
    @Teeger

    Parents need to foster the development of a well-rounded character, not just make sure they do well in school leading, hopefully, to a high paying career. Moral formation must go well beyond “work hard and you will do well.” 

    I was surrounded at the college I attended with a lot of intelligent, hard working, but generally immoral people. I know it seems normal to most Americans when young people drink and fornicate and get into all kinds of trouble, but it is not how virtuous people act – at any age.

    The only virtues were being “cool” or “nice” as well as being hard working. I am sure that most of them gave up their wild ways when they left school but have few regrets about it. 

    I know that the more libertarian among us don’t care about sexual morality but I do. 

    • #25
  26. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    @ drbastiat – I think you are partly missing something. You don’t need to have a neo-primitive existence to learn to work hard. You need to have motivation. For me, despite my upper-middle class lazy upbringing, it’s risk and loyalty.

    I’ve been unemployed. It sucks. I need the money in order to do what I want. I have been poor, and would prefer to avoid it. The risk of losing my position is a motivation. If quitting means not eating, as opposed to vacation with parents at Hilton Head, that’s a different story.

    On a day to day basis, I find that not wanting to let the rest of team down a more powerful motivation. Not sure where this came from, but it makes me work harder than otherwise.

    It used to be called the Protestant Work Ethic.

    • #26
  27. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    This isn’t scientific, of course … but the world abounds with stories of people who overcame hardship and achieved greatness. And it also abounds with stories of the children from wealthy and successful backgrounds who do nothing of value with their lives.

    I think we saw this illustrated pretty clearly in the mid-20th Century. The Greatest Generation were made great by what they endured, in part because they knew how important it was. They came back from the war and built the most prosperous and innovative society the world had ever seen. They built a comfortable, affluent world for their children — the Boomers — to grow up in.

    And we’ve been living with what that generation became ever since.

    • #27
  28. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Dr. Bastiat: Kids that are constantly faced with busy work to build character will learn to associate hard work with annoyance – hard work is something to be avoided when possible. 

    Kids face a lot of pressure to take on such busy work, because universities look for that. It’s not enough to be highly accomplished and clearly capable to excelling in your field; the applicant must also be a “well rounded person”, with priority given to “socially conscious” activities. A number of elite universities now publicly admit that they reject highly qualified applicants who cannot “check the boxes”.

    • #28
  29. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):
    I do think there is something genetic about work ethic.  Some people have it regardless of their circumstances.

    Parents know that every child has a distinct personality from birth. The Blank Slate was a fatuous delusion. See the Big Five personality traits, one of which is conscientiousness.

    • #29
  30. John Stanley Coolidge
    John Stanley
    @JohnStanley

    It is my belief that we have moved toward an “accreditation society”, and not toward an “accomplishment” society.

    The accreditation society looks at where you went to school and college, not to the quality of work, nor to your work ethic.   Parents and children are more worried about signs of accreditation, such as Ivy League school and volunteer work, and not the ability to do productive work.

    To a certain degree, accreditation society looks at a college degree as the end of the journey, and not the start of a life of work.  The realization of a lifetime of work is a shock to some people.

    • #30
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