I wonder how much of a role unhappiness plays in peoples' ability to plan for success. I was thinking about this lately because I know a lot of successful white-collar types who had unpleasant manual jobs when they were young. In my case, I worked on my uncle's dairy farm in upstate New York.  And let me tell you, nothing makes you want to avoid farming as much as actually doing it. When I studied for a test in school, I was keenly-aware that it meant something.

Where I live now, in the San Francisco bay area, most kids either don't have jobs or they have the easy indoor kind, as in scooping ice cream or handing out towels.

During the school year, most college-bound kids in my area have no time for jobs. If you play a school sport and have four hours of homework per night, which is typical for college-bound kids, there's no room for anything else. Weekends too are packed with sports and more studying.

So what happens to a kid who has never experienced a truly shitty job? Will those kids have the same amount of career drive as the folks who have?

I realize every generation has asked the same question. But what is different now is the amount of homework kids are getting. When I was in high school I never took a book home. I could polish off my meager homework during study hall. And while I didn't love schoolwork, I never had so much of it that I developed any kind of deep hatred for mental pursuits.

But I imagine how different I might have felt if I had never experienced unpleasant manual labor - and lots of it - and instead was tortured with several hours of homework every night. I think I might have longed for a simpler future with no books and not so much thinking. In other words, I think the homework would have redirected me away from seeking a career in law or engineering and toward something that didn't require so much damned studying.

Obviously no two kids are alike. You'll always have a Mark Zuckerberg or a Bill Gates who are born into good situations and have the success gene in them. Apparently some people are naturally motivated and some are not. But for average kids, do their childhood experiences make much of a difference to motivation?

Research tells us that piling on the homework doesn't make kids smarter. Schools do it anyway, because although schools teach science, apparently they don't believe in it. We know that too much homework is bad for family life, and we can observe that it keeps kids from more fully enjoying their youth. What I'm wondering is whether homework makes it impossible for kids to experience genuinely shitty jobs that would motivate them to achieve something more comfortable.

I put the question to you, my unscientific sample. Did you ever have a truly unpleasant job as a kid, and if so, did it motivate you toward a career that promised an easier life?

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+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
The summer between my Junior and Senior years in high school I worked as a mitigation specialist which is fancy terminology for swamp cleaner. It was my job to hump around an eighty pound pack of chemicals in 100 degree heat in the swamps and ponds 10 hours a day and spray nuisance species of plants as well as removing them for $6.50/hr. I worked with a guy that was 55 years old, making $3/hr more than me that had about 6 of his original teeth, hep C, and was a recovering drug/alcohol addict that had maimed someone in a car accident while he was high/drunk 5 years prior. While his stories were entertaining, I realized pretty quickly that I needed to get a good education and stay on the straight and narrow. Now I'm an engineer and that guy is probably dead.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
I grew up on a very large Midwestern farm, picking up rocks, shoveling manure, and hoeing from a very young age. But rather than turn me off to it, I developed an appreciation for it. Because academics came easily for me, I was the one assumed by my family to be headed for college (my siblings ended up going as well). So I became an engineer and now practice finance, but I actually miss dirty, hard labor. There's something therapeutic about it. When I'm stuck at my desk, I often think "I'd rather being shoveling real sh*t right now - I'd be getting exercise and there's a genuine, physical sense of accomplishment (and no stress, just shoveling)."

But being raised poor made we want to earn plenty of money, which happens to be in line with your point.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
Unhappiness and success is entirely open to interpretation -


The last paragraph of the article really sums it up.

Work hard, get your degree, and suffer a PHB in a dilbert-like universe?
Sounds like utter failure.
Jan 24, 2013
I spent my free time since I was 5 years old (ok, the time where they could find me because I hadn't found something more interesting to do with my time) working on a farm. For Christmas one year we go insulated coveralls so we wouldn't be cold bedding down (adding straw to their pens for a dry sleeping area) the cows that day. In high school I ran harvesting equipment and I can say that nothing motivates you to find a new career than standing neck deep in barley chaff while trying to hold a wrench on a bolt that is at the limit of your reach.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
I always worked landscaping in the summer until a Professor I was doing research with during my MA looked at me funny and told me that I was going to work for him instead. I did 1/4 of the work for twice the pay that summer and didn't have to wake up at 6am. I've been an economist ever since. That being said I do miss parts of being a landscaper (mainly the muscles and tan)... so does my wife (for the same reasons).
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
"... Schools do it anyway, because although schools teach science, apparently they don't believe in it."

[giggle] Nice one!

To answer your question, I think I was born with a passion for the sciences. Even when I was in high school, I knew there was a doctorate in my future--turned out to be EE rather than medicine, but I ain't complaining. Still love what I do.

However, I did get stuck with a truly awful job in the mailroom for two summers before the company finally said, duh, let's put the little engineer into engineering summer jobs. The engineering summer jobs were heaven, but the mailroom jobs .... If you added up all of the IQs of all of the workers in that mailroom, the total was still a few points shy of my weight--and, yes, I am in the high double digits. That mind-numbing job didn't exactly motivate me, since I already had a passion, but it sure as hell confirmed that I needed to study me arse off.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
I tend to agree with the comment "...with all this being given to him, a modern kid feels entitled to having luxury in general and that's the reason he isn't motivated."

I don't know that a manual labor job motivates someone to get a degree, but I think it is a valuable experience. In my case, I spent two summers in a shop doing cruel things to little blocks of stainless steel with a lathe and drill press - but the value was the process of clocking in and out and linking that to my taking a part from one bin, changing it, and putting it in the other bin so the company made money. It is a lesson I think many college new-hires could use - that the company isn't paying you to just show up.

It wasn't until about 9th grade that I realized not going to college was an option. For me, and those around me, it was the expectation. I understand now how fortunate I was that the family and community around me formed those expectations and provided the means for following through on them.
Jan 24, 2013
Scott, I think you are right and wrong. You are right in that kids have too much homework and save for the last year of HS or two, the stuff is worthless. But I think you are wrong about a crappy job as a kid. Yes it gives you motivation for something better. I think that's why a lot of parents of the last generation worked themselves to death so their kids could go to college (and why the not hard working kids are blowing that opportunity). But you are wrong in that it puts things in perspective more so.

Work sucks, for the most part anyways. No getting around that. But doing awful work for a pittance makes doing more tolerable work for more money seem like a better deal.

You might be wrong in another manner: today's kids are too well off and have too many things provided for them. Figure, a kid born in america today probably has one sibling and two working parents. 50-100 years ago, he might have had 2-4 siblings and only one parent (a father unless he was injured or dead) that worked. They also didn't have a Playstation or Xbox 50 years ago. The first atari's were a few years off I think. Definitely no internet or anything like that for the average person. Some people argue that with all this being given to him, a modern kid feels entitled to having luxury in general and that's the reason he isn't motivated.

And I'd like to take your nurture argument and counter you with your moist robot argument: there's probably a lot of bad genes being passed on and non-nutritious food being eating. If lazy, irresponsible people opted out of breeding and if people ate better, maybe that's all the changes needed.
Jan 24, 2013
I think part of the value of such experiences is learning the value of money. I did do some pretty poor jobs - warehouse, postman and so forth but didn't mind them too much (at least in retrospect, now I don't have to do them!).

I don't really get your first paragraph. Surely no part of the moist robot paradigm dictates that the robot does not learn from his/her/it's experiences? Simply that the reaction to those experiences is not something that you can really decide upon. For example, if you are in a situation where crime appears the only answer, you'll do that crime, no matter how you've been conditioned.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
Not really. Worked in a slaughterhouse during my army time but at that time I was already enrolled into university for the next term.
The little bits of manual labour I did while at school (we had a class where we went working one day per two weeks, like an internship) didn't put me off very much. But they tought me lots of respect for the people doing it.

I think every bright and well off kid should do some manual work for a time so they learn on whose shoulders they're standing.
Jan 24, 2013
@ Phantom:
[WAIT a minute! Aren't we all just meat robots with hard-wired brains? Now you're saying that certain things in our environment (or even our innate genes such as those of Bill Gates) make us . . . DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER???? And not only that, we can CHOOSE to work hard and succeed, and even (now I'm really reaching) CHOOSE not to commit crimes so we won't get punished by a system of justice based on superstition? Oh, God, there goes my entire understanding of the Adams world view! I'm so confused!!! ]

Programs respond to input. Your environment and the things that happen outside of your control are the input that cause your program to function in different ways. There is absolutely nothing inconsistent with the moist robot theory, determinism, or (from what I can see) anything proposed within this post. Choice remains an illusion because your 'program' reacts to sensory input, adjusts your brain chemistry and emotional state accordingly, and outputs the data in the form of you acting in a certain way. Your 'options' were actually foregone conclusions, but the act of experiencing it subjectively doesn't feel that way; Perhaps that is just a workaround to avoid the bugs in the coding.
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
In high school, I worked as a busboy then a waiter. Early in college, I worked at the restaurant during the summer and over the winter holiday (New Year's Eve tips were the best). One customer was making small talk with me and asked what I was studying in school. I said, "Engineering," he said, "Why?" and I said, "Because I don't want to be a waiter my whole life." I was surprised that he laughed at my answer, I mean, who wouldn't want to do something better than being a waiter; while an honest job, not much upside. Summer of my college sophomore and junior years, I worked as a rail hand driving railroad spikes into ties at road crossings. The job paid good money at the time but was absolutely, physically exhausting. I kept a railroad spike on my bookshelf at school as a reminder why studying for a Thermodynamics final was better than "working on the railroad." I got my degree in Chemical Engineering and now just worry about "pointy haired bosses"...
Jan 24, 2013
I did have an unpleasant job (picked vegetables on a farm for a summer; 6 weeks work for $100, and I'm 33, so this isn't depression era pay rates).

More motivating was watching my dad have a cruddy job. He did manual labor type work for the airlines, loading and unloading mail. He had a master's degree in what he loved, but it wasn't one of those degrees people will pay you to have.

Now I have a very employable master's degree which nets a comfortable salary. I think all of the above were formative. And now I'm worried about my kids for this... Dang.
Jan 23, 2013
My eight and nine year old kids say they want a job where you do the same thing over and over again and never have to think, since thinking sounds too much like homework.
Jan 23, 2013
I worked at Luby's, a chain of slide-your-tray-down-the-metal-rails cafeterias in the south. I worked the meat station, which was the highest status one (funny how no matter how bad the situation in general, there is still sorting going on), but it was not a fun job. It didn't convince me to aspire to a life of the mind, though; I knew from the first time I interacted with a computer that that was going to be my career. My slow reflexes and weak arms cleared up any lingering thoughts of a career in sports, and my nasally, annoying voice did likewise for show business.

But this is precisely why I have my kids outside sweeping leaves, picking up sticks and pinecones, and generally doing lots of miserable manual labor: so I can remind them that they don't want to do it 40 hours a week. Plus it's fun to hear them !$%*! and moan. (Ironically, I now enjoy working outside.)

A similar story is told about Calvin Coolidge's son, who was supposedly working on a farm one summer. Another boy said to him, "If my father were President of the United States, I wouldn't be working on a farm." Calvin Jr. replied, "If your father were my father you would."
Jan 23, 2013
actually, i liked all the farm work i did, and got a masters degree anyway.

in support of your thesis though, my father, who is on the tail end of a successful professional career, says one of the primary factors in him going to college was that he was slow at picking cotton so he didn't make much money at it.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
ALL manual labor jobs are [censored].
That's made worse by the fact that they pay less and you're treated worse than white collar workers.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
No unpleasant job. Now I'm a lawyer, which is an unpleasant job.

Scott, has the ratio of crappy to good jobs changed? Because if it hasn't then your question is not about _more_ people having good/happy jobs; The question is who is getting the good jobs.

In the past, as population swelled the older more experienced people became managers or found ways to leverage the younger (and new immigrants). Those older people had the "good jobs". As population stagnates, there just isn't the same opportunities to do better on the backs of others. This was exemplified in the baby boomer era where the older children excelled, and the younger children couldn't find a job. It wasn't about motivation, it was about population distribution and experience
Jan 23, 2013
I got a good work ethic for manual labor jobs by doing manual labor jobs.

School taught me that I need someone to set goals and timelines for me to follow. I don't do well if the business atmosphere is not well structured. I do better with pressure from authority. Self-motivation is not my strong suit. Example: I am reading your blog instead of working.

Jan 23, 2013
WAIT a minute! Aren't we all just meat robots with hard-wired brains? Now you're saying that certain things in our environment (or even our innate genes such as those of Bill Gates) make us . . . DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER???? And not only that, we can CHOOSE to work hard and succeed, and even (now I'm really reaching) CHOOSE not to commit crimes so we won't get punished by a system of justice based on superstition? Oh, God, there goes my entire understanding of the Adams world view! I'm so confused!!!

OK, now that I've blasted apart your perception of reality, let me get to your question. Yes, I had some !$%*!$ jobs, as you put them, when I was younger. For example: my father was a competitive pistol target shooter; during matches, I would work all day at the shooting range in Torrance, running targets back and forth over dusty trails for about ten hours a day for a whopping five dollars. That's per day, not per hour. I also worked as a boat assistant for the fishing barge that used to be offshore in Huntington Beach, helping people on and off the boat, riding it back and forth between the pier and the barge, hauling lines to secure the boat to the pier or barge, etc.

But I don't think those jobs affected me as yours did. They didn't make me hate outdoor, physical jobs, nor did they motivate me to want to study hard so I wouldn't have to do them as a career. I think what they taught me was that hard work and self-discipline pay off, no matter what kind of job you choose to do.

A lot of my motivation to succeed came from my parents, who both demanded performance and encouraged me to succeed. I also went to a college that required hard work both mentally and physically (the US Naval Academy) and chose a service selection that also demanded a lot of performance and discipline (carrier fighter pilot).

To me, motivation came from a combination of encouragement and pressure, coupled with a belief that I could achieve what I set out to do. I think that this kind of motivation from parents and peers is becoming a thing of the past, coupled with government's demonizing of the successful while excusing the slothful. If you're brought up believing that you can't achieve, or that you shouldn't achieve, then you won't succeed.

Take a look at the Asian culture. Exceptional performance is expected from Asian children, and failure is not tolerated. Look at the perpetual belief in victimhood in some other cultures that sap them of both the desire to succeed and the belief that they can succeed.

I remember seeing one of those jokes-with-a-point that was making the rounds of the Internet. It was titled something like, "Why the Chinese are going to win." All the post had, besides the title, was two pictures. The first was a picture of a Chinese (the country of China) engineering graduating class. It showed serious-looking, dedicated students in shirts and ties, looking disciplined and determined.

The other picture showed a graduating group from a US fraternity. The guys were lounging around, beer and whisky bottles in hand, while a bunch of topless co-eds were dancing around them. Point made.

Environment matters. Focus, desire and belief that you can succeed matter. Coddling failure is nothing more than empowering failure to continue. And all the meat-robotic hard-wired brains aren't going to put a dent in that reality.

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