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Key to Getting Ahead in Life is a 'Lucky' Trait to Have

by on September 01, 2014 10:00 AM

I had one of those parenting moments recently when I overheard my son talking on his phone.

My not-so-objective analysis of teenage cell phone use suggests that communication with peers, even when making plans to go somewhere, generally happens via text or some other technological means other than talking.

When he came into the room, I asked "Who were you talking to?" He said "My manager at work. I heard that a kid I work with just called in and quit without giving his two week's notice. I called to see if they needed me to come in."

Proud parent moment #457. The kid has a work ethic.

In my half a century plus of living on this planet, I have developed a list of qualities that I believe contribute to one's success. Kindness and the ability to empathize with those with whom we interact is number one on that list. Close to the top of that list is this thing we call a work ethic.

Thomas Jefferson reportedly said "The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."

What is a work ethic? The literature generally describes work ethic as not only one's attitude about work or a particular job but also the manner in which we conduct ourselves while doing the work. In other words, in addition to the effort or initiative that we put into the tasks to which we are assigned, work ethic also includes the manner in which we conduct ourselves on the job in terms of accountability and integrity.

In this writer's opinion, work ethic and effort trump skill and talent in many situations.

To understand the concept of work ethic, it is important to understand the evolution of the concept of work. Historically, how we humans view "work" has been impacted by cultural, economic, religious and historical factors. Our attitudes about work and occupations have evolved from the Greeks and Romans viewing work with disdain to the advent of organized religion and work as a way to serve one's God.

The Pilgrims arrived in America with the knowledge that it would be work that would serve them in their independence and freedom. America's eventual industrialization and the shift in where and for whom we worked and how we earn the money on which to live planted the seeds for how we view work today.

Capitalism, the development of the need for management and our work being supervised by others, advances in technology and other social factors have purportedly emphasized the importance and empowerment of those who demonstrate what we think of as a work ethic.

Integrity. Responsibility. Accountability. Motivation. Initiative.

In today's society, we value and admire the quality of putting one's nose to the grindstone and, even more so, doing it with a positive attitude and with conviction.

I was reminded of the concept of work ethic as I finished up summer semester grades. Teaching undergraduate students is an exercise in observing work ethic in action. Each semester it is obvious which students are able to make the connection between effort and success. I can't tell you how many times I have seen the kid who did little or nothing all semester end up frustrated and angry with the final grade in class.

Some of those students – those who cheat, procrastinate, make up excuses, etc. – will spend more effort complaining or trying to change a grade after the fact than they put in all semester. Others will accept responsibility and say "I didn't do what I needed to do" or "I need to work harder next time." Some never make the connection.

We see it in the workplace as well. The first people to leave at the end of the work day or who do "just enough" are often the first to complain about their position within the organization or to express frustration that they aren't getting ahead. Those who go the extra mile and seek out opportunity – and work – are those who move up the ladder.

Confession. I've been there myself. I had my first job waitressing at the Waffle Shop when I was 15-years-old and learned that, in waitressing and in life, there is a direct correlation between effort and success. On the occasional bad day or watching others who didn't make the effort, the results (and reduction in tips) were immediate. When I compare my undergraduate GPA to graduate school, I just shake my head. If only I had made the transfer of work ethic in a job situation to effort and sweat in the classroom a little earlier.

Our work ethic can and is directly related to motivation and, sometimes, our understanding of our ability to influence the outcome.

Where do we get our work ethic? Is it personality or do we learn it from others? I believe the answer is both. Our children watch and learn from our actions every day – often before we understand that they are capable of making the connection. If they see us calling off work when we aren't sick or paying attention to the time clock instead of the tasks, it should come as no surprise when they develop those same work behaviors.

When they see peers get ahead by working hard or the impact that one person can have on the whole team by not working, our children learn and develop values about work.

Our goal as parents is to prepare our children for success in life after they leave the safety of our nest. Being kind to others and the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes is, in my opinion, one of the keys to success. Another is understanding the value of work and the gratification and personal benefits that one can get from doing a good job.

It's been neat to watch our son put into action the work ethic that we have hopefully instilled in him (and his older sisters) through our role modeling and reinforcing the notion that hard work pays off.

Now, if only I could get him to clean his room.


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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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