The definition of the American Dream has been stated in different ways. But, one way or another, one aspect has been boiled down to, “If you work hard enough, you can do anything!” I’m beginning to realize that there’s a level of common sense embedded in that thought. There’s a presumption of the limits of the hard work it speaks of that will see you through. That common sense isn’t so common anymore. No, the days of rewarding effort regardless of accomplishment and the sports leagues where everyone wins have diluted this message into something that is actually destructive. It’s now been watered down to imply that working hard at anything will guarantee a reward.
That difference may seem subtle, but it’s huge. This is the difference between effort and value. If I were to spend eight hours digging a ten foot hole in my backyard, how much would you pay me? Those of us with half a brain would recognize that I’ve done nothing to earn payment. A hole in my backyard has zero value to anyone else, so nobody will pay me for that. But, there is a wide swath of thought in American society that the mere exertion of effort deserves a reward. If I spend eight hours doing back-breaking work, I should be paid! The key link in the chain that is missing is the question of value. You can work yourself to death doing things nobody cares about and you will never earn a dime. The effort is not what pays off, it’s the value of your labors.
The lack of this knowledge has led to some situations that would be laughable if they weren’t so sad. Some feel they’ve figured out the loophole: work hard at what you love and the rewards will roll in, right? Well, that depends. If what you love is collecting and categorizing Star Wars action figures, then there may be a small minority of people who will appreciate your efforts. And, there may be an even smaller minority of people who will pay for the results of your efforts. But, you have pigeonholed yourself into a “profession” with very little value. You cannot demand that the universe increase the value of your choice. It doesn’t work that way.
Now, if your passion is repairing cars, then you get very different results. If you love working with engines, rebuilding carburetors, and adjusting brake pads, then you are generating great value to society. A huge percentage of people have cars and vehicles that need repairs. Your passion will be in high demand and you can earn great rewards. Work hard at THAT passion and you could very well become independently wealthy! The effort is the multiplier. The value is the starting point. If you start at zero, the multiplier doesn’t do much for you.
Matt Walsh recently had some great insights into the mindset of people who argue that they won’t work hard because they’re paid so little. He points out how the hard work comes before the reward. That’s absolutely true. But, even before the hard work is finding out how you can offer value to your employer or your customer. Without the value, all the hard work in the world is pointless.
Please do not misunderstand me as assigning value to the person involved. We are all equal in God’s eyes and have equal value as human beings. What I’m describing is a matter of economics. The passion you pursue and the work you do has some value to other people in the world. If your work has no value, don’t expect a reward. If your work has great value, expect a greater reward. It is certainly the case that Christians and others may choose to do work that has lower value to society because it has great value to God. That’s praiseworthy and admirable. But, notice, that’s just a different measuring stick for value. At the end of the day, it’s still about being rewarded based on the value of what you are doing. And in every case, the value is determined by someone else. You do not get to determine the value of your own work.
Let me say that again: You do not get to determine the value of your own work.
So, spare me the sob stories of racking up hundreds of thousands in student loans only to find that there are no careers for owners of degrees in Social Justice and Gender Studies. You must have some level of intelligence to enter college, so how hard is it to do a little logical analysis of the value of those degrees? As I entered college, there was still a feeling that any degree would pay off in the long run. The higher starting salary would build over your career and be well worth it by the time the loans paid off. That changed as I was paying off those loans. I would still vouch for the value of my degree, but that’s because I picked a valuable major: Computer Science. I work in an industry where there is a high demand for developers. My skills have value. That same cost for a degree in history or literature would not have made sense. There is a need for teachers of these subjects, but not as much. Again, this is not about the value of people, but the value of your work to the rest of society.
By all means, find your passion and work hard to fulfill your dreams. But consider the value of what you do. If it’s valuable to society, then you can expect to be rewarded, if you work hard at it. If it’s valuable to God, you can expect to be rewarded if you work hard at it. If it’s valuable to neither, don’t be surprised when you find yourself broke. Effort is not the same as value.