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?

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +154
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Feb 7, 2013
There's also the flip side, which is very common:
Kids get a McJob, survive it, and then realize that they can live OK at a crappy job and still be lazy, showing no career oriented drive at all. Maybe YOU don't know those people, but the America (and it's trailer parks) I know are stuffed full of them.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 1, 2013
"What I'm wondering is whether homework makes it impossible for kids to experience genuinely !$%*!$ jobs that would motivate them to achieve something more comfortable."

I contend that the homework overload is my generation's version of a !$%*!$ job.

I experienced genuine unhappiness during it and it motivated me to finish and never return.
Jan 30, 2013
Never had anything other than office jobs, some I loved, some I hated, some were so-so.
Didn't stop me from getting a degree in physics followed by a career in IT with a pretty decent salary, a car I didn't need a loan for to buy, and no debts whatsoever except a mortgage that's being paid off every month and should be free by the time I retire hopefully.

And now I sometimes long for the outside world, being locked inside an airconditioned room in an office building with sick building syndrome (are there any others?) from before dawn to after dusk 5-6 days a week, 50 weeks a year, and spending most of the rest of my life commuting, cooking or eating dinner, catching up on lost sleep, or reading the score of books and websites needed to stay anywhere close to current in my profession.
Nice job? Yes. But is it better than a job as a gardener mowing lawns and pruning trees in parks, who's home an hour before dinner every day and in the morning has time to sit down with his family for breakfast, has time in the evenings to play with the kids rather than shush them to silence because he has to study for yet another certification exam for some technology that 6 months from now will have been forgotten?
Jan 28, 2013
I've worked many !$%* jobs. I weeded cranberry bogs. I fried Quarter Pounders With Cheese at McDonald's. I painted construction sites. I cleaned toilets in office buildings. I worked the shipping line in a factory. I was a clerk at a drug store patronized only by the enraged elderly who would battle you to the death over prune juice coupons. I telemarketed. Meanwhile I attended good schools that assigned unholy amounts of homework.

There's such a thing as too much, when it comes to learning the value of work. The lesson I learned in my bones is that all work sucks and will crush you. The best you can hope for is to avoid it. Later in life, my white collar creative job still felt like cleaning toilets to me.

Brief chronicle of my McDonald's experience:


+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 26, 2013
I worked in a supermarket, and then in a big department store from 3pm on Friday until 8pm, then all day Saturday. I wen thome with my hands smelling of metal coins, and I used to dream about working the till. There were no barcodes in those days, we had to know hundreds of prices because the shelf packers didn't always price everything. We stood for 5 hours at a time and then had a 15 minute break. I was a "temp" so all the permanents got their breaks first, so now and then you would stand for 6-7 hours. We didn't know labour law existed.

My parents wouldn't pay for further education for a mere girl (other than secretarial college), so I became a secretary but I studied by correspondence at night. It took me 6 years to get my first degree (BA), and another six to get the second (BSc) - it turns out my mother was right - typing 120 words a minute is a REALLY useful skill! I went into IT, started my own business. I don't know if the lousy jobs made a difference, but thumbing my nose at my parents was something of a critical factor in terms of ambition. My sister and I both had part time jobs while at school, and we have multiple degrees. My brother was handed it all on a plate, and failed first year twice.

Success isn't about being smart or lucky (although it helps). It's about perseverance, so having something to prove does give you a head start.
Jan 26, 2013
I think you make a lot of broad statements in this entry without any facts to back them up. I don't think easy is defined by what you do that you consider work unless you mean heavy physical labor which can tax a person's energy, especially if they are not paid enough to sustain the exertion. Then there's the work that taxes your cerebral resources. People who've never trained extensively in academics cannot possible understand what it means to break that threshold where you can pull the all-nighters 7 days a week without losing focus or hitting a wall. I've done both and the heavy academic work is ten times more draining on your body, mind and spirit. I will not give solutions to the education crisis for free on your blog because I'm not paid to do so. Overall, our species is a far cry from true modernity and this is illustrated by our approach to younger generations, as well as methods they've adopted to handle the environment they're thrust into. We blame them for failing to acknowledge seniority but we cannot expect better if we refuse to look at your own contributions to this state of affairs. We set an example of how we wish to be treated in how we treat those who would never harm us unless there was no longer any option for survival. I've heard it said a society can be judged by its treatment of the elderly and infirm. I incline to agree, and I feel children are also among the vulnerable. I would like to think those who give the most of themselves and have shown the capacity to do well under exorbitant pressure deserve to have access to the basic means for survival.
Jan 26, 2013
My first real job was fairly easy and indoors; by any estimation I was a spoiled brat (my parents gave us all choices; I was the only one who chose brat). But I had friends and relations who DID take the **** jobs. Even my siblings put in summers of agricultural labor. As other people's hours, working conditions and finances naturally impacted my own life, I was constantly aware just how unusual and fortunate my own situation was.

I don't pretend I can appreciate air conditioning or non-portable plumbing as much as they do. But I comprehend how damn lucky I was and try to be respectful to whoever is doing the hard work around me. To this day, I'm motivated strongly by the fact I lack the skills, strength or work ethic for **** jobs.

My thought -- and this is obviously an old guy talking -- is that the worst **** work should go to the young, ideally in their intended career field. Sure, you'll always need the old janitor who knows how stuff works. But ideally some of the executives hauled trash cans for him when they began, and consequently learned how stuff works. Plus, one hopes, an appreciation and respect for the lower ranks they managed to rise above.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 26, 2013
I think there is merit to the argument regarding the tough, menial job as a motivator. While in college, my perceptive father always figured out how to get me summer jobs doing physical work. Two summers I reported to a celery packing shed in Guadalupe California, where I was the only 'anglo' on the line. I didn't even try and use the one year of Spanish I'd had in the eighth grade, but I learned a lot. For instance, you will actually wear your finger nails right to the skin if your hands are wet all day and you keep touching the counter that they stack the stalks on with your finger tips. He also got me a job one summer as an assistant 'bean inspector' walking mindlessly up and down the rows of green bean plants looking for 'bean blight' (and listening for rattlesnakes, as you couldn't see your feet). As usual, I learned from it all. Oh, also having the Viet Nam draft to keep you motivated to stay in school also helped a LOT! My father thought he might have overdone things when I didn't exit college til I had a Phd.
Jan 25, 2013
Yeah, gonna have to agree in part with this. I delivered newspapers as an adolescent, and it could get mind numbing at times with NO parental help in the least. My first paycheck job was as a janitor cleaning up schools during vacation periods (you know, why your desk is in a different place when you return), then working at a pre-7/11 where I worked until 11PM and the boss wanted me back in a 7 to open up. Then working as an early morning cleaning crew at a Montgomery Wards until my boss disappeared for a 2 weeks leaving me and an ancient guy to clean up. I quit when they wanted me to clean up some little kid's heave at the main aisle intersection. I enlisted in the military and on first KP got stuck in pots and pans. Last KP I was 3rd alternate and the first two got 'sick' or just disappeared - I actually peeled potatos for 3 hours. I made E-5 and 1 month before discharge I was cleaning urinals as E-5's were the lowest rank in that section. When my wife got pregnant and illegally lost her job, I got a second job as a night janitor. Needless to say, I doubt any of my 3 (now adult) children would have put up with much of that (except my son was in the Navy and I'm thinking was on their crap list for his first 2 years until he wised up). But you know, you do what you have to, and some motivation certainly helps focus your life pursuits. I finished my BS (Math) got an MBA, now a health facility consultant and teach part time at a local college. And I'm financially supporting my two way past 25 adult daughters in their return to educational improvement.
Jan 25, 2013
As a kid, I did farm work with my friends. I lived in a small town in Illinois so almost all my school friends were farm kids and doing work baling hay and walking beans (a job which has disappeared) was just like gravy money. I made $1.25 an hour! I was rolling in dough.

The job that convinced me to get into another line of work was the two summers I worked as a painters/carpenters apprentice. I painted 1000 closets and carried crap around from one side of the house to the other and if it rained I didn't work and didn't get paid. I wanted a job where regardless of the weather I got paid.
Jan 25, 2013
I don't know about all this. I worked crap jobs, and I've worked good jobs, and excusing some a-holes that I had to deal with, it never really mattered to me where I was or what I'm doing. I mean... I'm a VP in a software job at a fortune 50 company, so compensation has played a deciding factor in my career choices. I wasn't interested in being broke.

But I've worked in a daycare changing diapers, cleaned theaters, put up welded wire fence in the Texas summer, drove tractors, done plumbing and renovation... It's all good work if you have a good attitude. If there was money in any of those things, I'd be happy to do them.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2013
Scott, I don't think you're looking at the correct causal relationship here.

The important part of your post is actually about kids being saddled with large amounts of homework. An excellent read, free online, is John Taylor Gatto's "An Underground History of American Education," which points out that education bureaucrats, whose philosophies are rooted in a mix of Marxism and Prussian authoritarianism, actually WANT to saddle public school kids with a bunch of mindless busy work. Not only that, but the busy work is usually in a form that is demonstrably proven to be less effective at increasing intelligence.

For example, schools favoring whole-word reading over phonics, or that present abstraction of mathematical concepts before basic routine arithmetic is ever memorized enough for this to be useful. The correct way to teach is to first learn the basic facts, then broaden them to general concepts later, but they seem to be doing it backwards these days. Also, very young children are not as good at this abstraction, if I recall my developmental psychology.

Gatto's thesis, with which I largely concur, is that all of this (1) conditions children to get used to being told what to do all the time, and never be able to make decisions for themselves, (2) usually makes them hate school, knowledge, and learning, and (3) prevents them from having any time to learn or grow independently.

That level and type of control and conditioning is quite favorable to governments and corporations alike, especially ones that collude. Remember, public education was originally pushed for and financed in this country by corporate interests (Rockefeller, Carnegie), with the ulterior motive of manufacturing a homogeneous corporate working class. Once the system was put in place, it was also seen as a tool that could be used to shape peoples' role in the rest of society as well.

The truth about education is this: it starts at home, with the parents, with the family, reading with and playing with their children -- not dropping them off at a day-care for structured, planned, social activities (yes, I realize many people cannot avoid doing this). Even the Obama administration released a report saying that Head Start is ineffective in the long term (although they released this news on the Friday before Christmas of 2012, because it was such an embarrassing failure). Give kids the tools to do basic reading and math, and then let them explore, discover, learn, and grow.

I'm pretty sure my generation, the end of Gen X / beginning of Gen Y (I was born in the mid-70's) is the last one where parents let us go run around and play unsupervised. I was off in the woods for hours at a time as a kid. Except for the occasional essay/term paper, I probably only had 1-2 hours of homework a night until high school, and I was a perpetual honors student, then dean's list student, summa cum laude, Phil Beta Kappa college graduate. And this was all before grade inflation really took off (although, admittedly, we had some of it already).

And, since we have this really new attitude that everyone's kid is a precious little snowflake who must be coddled through college and even into what is ostensibly supposed to be adulthood (stories of parents calling potential employers are becoming more common), few children will ever know the misery of a truly crappy job, at least until they show up at the unemployment office because their BA in English literature isn't as useful as they were told. They'll just know a quieter kind of emptiness, but they won't quite know why, and they won't quite ever escape from it, because the system was designed to do exactly that.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2013
It is a mixed bag. Growing up in Oklahoma, my father and two brothers worked in the hay fields to make extra money. He used to say that baling and hauling hay would motivate us to go to college. My oldest brother is a lawyer; my older brother is an engineer; I am a physician. But now that I am a physician, with all the hassles of the job, factoring in the time and money it took for me to obtain my degree and training, I can vouch that there is something to be said to the relative simplicity that a manual labor job offers in one's life. There is nothing like having an illiterate drop-out for a patient telling you (the physician) that you don't know what you are talking about. I do not have any professional cartoonists for patients, however, so I don't know how they act.
Jan 25, 2013
Didn't have a crappy job and doing quite well today. Plus my own unscientific polling of friends etc go in a similar direction, i.e. no correlation of crappy jobs when young and extra motivation later. You can take it with a grain of salt because I don't live in America - we don't have the silly 'you-have-to-go-to college-because-it's-the only way-up-in-life' over here.

On homework: I think you are comparing apples and oranges, as you would have to know how much homework a current Scott Adams equivalent would be doing today. Again, non-US, but my son did just as much or as little homework as I did even though other parents were constantly complaining about how much homework their kids had to do.
Jan 25, 2013

I believe working a crap job at a younger age definitely helps build a stronger work ethic and drive to succeed As long as you utilize the job as a learning experience.

And yes! Too much home work is a mind killer... Home work is used more as punishment than a learning tool. How do teaching administrators expect kids to learn if they are not conditioned to enjoy learning.

In my elementary and middle school years , my parents sent me to my grand parents farm to help out during the summer. During my first two years in high school I Built decks and side walks. And During my last two years of high school, I worked up to a management position in the catering department at a large hotel while still in school.

The best crap job learning experience I have had was When I was 23. I got a job doing manual labor at an uncles heavy bridge contracting firm. Even though I was only doing lowly labor, I spent the time learning hands on, how a bridge works and is built.

After working bridges, I landed a job at a engineering firm.

Now I work hours a day studying bio molecular physics... Knowing how much labor sucks....

But each job I had.

I learned.

I leaned how to learn outside of school.

Something I feel schools may no longer teach.
Jan 25, 2013
If New Year comes, can summer be so far behind? Summer is the cool season for most women since they can wear bikini and sexy swimwear on seaside or swim pool. Take a glance on wholesale swimwear, you will find some suitable for your business. The good quality and fast worldwide shipping of Dear-Lover make it top China Swimwear Manufacturerand famous worldwide.
Jan 25, 2013
If New Year comes, can summer be so far behind? Summer is the cool season for most women since they can wear bikini and sexy swimwear on seaside or swim pool. Take a glance on [url=http://www.dear-lover.com/wholesale-swimwear/]wholesale swimwear[/url], you will find some suitable for your business. The good quality and fast worldwide shipping of Dear-Lover make it top [url=http://www.dear-lover.com/wholesale-swimwear/]China Swimwear Manufacturer[/url] and famous worldwide.
Jan 25, 2013
If New Year comes, can summer be so far behind? Summer is the cool season for most women since they can wear bikini and sexy swimwear on seaside or swim pool. Take a glance on <a href="http://www.dear-lover.com/wholesale-swimwear/">wholesale swimwear</a>, you will find some suitable for your business. The good quality and fast worldwide shipping of Dear-Lover make it top <a href="http://www.dear-lover.com/wholesale-swimwear/">China Swimwear Manufacturer</a> and famous worldwide.
Jan 25, 2013
Working in Construction industry in India in that inclement outdoors as a field engineer is the worst. We can have a worst-job face-off if you like :)

It was my first job right after a college degree in engineering. The afternoon of the first day at the job, as a saw an older engineer standing in the summer's heat and dust taking some measurements with a dumpy level, I sensed that I am not going to last this one. I still stayed there for two years and picked up an important life-skill (acc. to me) : "to do and complete !$%*!$ tasks no matter how much you hate it and cultivate the habit of finishing things.

Then, I came off to grad school and never left the haven till I got my PhD until recently ... never left till I lapped all the degrees-level till they have no more left to hand out ...

If not that for that 2 year stint, I would have been sitting at my desk job with my ass coolly parked but it's the outdoor job under the Indian climate that set my ass on fire ... and made me run ... at least i think so ...

+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 24, 2013
Another chance to talk about myself? Yeeeeeeeeaaaah!!!

Well, I don't know if you could call that a job, but since my weekly allowance was too small, my father used to let me wash his car instead of him for a bit extra cash. I don't quite remember why I hated it so much, but it sure gave me a boost to finish school and college. Also, my parents were very clear that diploma is a sure way to get more money and an easier job.

When I was at the army, I was a very disobedient private, so I got sent to the pig's farm as a punishment. It did not last long, since I enjoyed it there - not too much work and hardly any officers or drill sergeants to yell stupid orders at me. All I had to do was keep everything clean and make sure someone's always there fro inspections.

But since punishment must not be enjoyed, I got a boot from the farm and back to the unit.

All was not lost, since I got back to the farm after my successors made quite a mess (drinking, abandoning their posts, living quarters looking like a pigsty), so a high ranking officer asked his subordinates who was running the farm before, when everything was tip-top during inspections?

Ooooh, they hated to admit it was the least obedient soldier in a whole garrison, but they did it. So I got sent back to the farm for another month.

And thus, everything is a matter of perspective. Following stupid or unreasonable orders - or orders just for the heck of it, or orders made to keep you in line - was a much harder task for me than dirty physical work at that time (I was 19).

But I think you're onto something - I'm wondering how much homework will my daughter get at school when she enters the education system (which is broken at all levels except maybe kindergarten)...
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog