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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Jan 23, 2013
I worked day labor sometimes while going to college. Didn't improve my grades. Part of it was I just didn't make the connection you're talking about, Scott, part of it was pre-college school was just too easy for me. Didn't challenge me enough.
Jan 23, 2013
You're right, but it didn't take much in my case. A few days of potato and strawberry picking plus a weekend bar job at university made me desperate to get a decent job.
Jan 23, 2013
At school I used to get in trouble for not doing any of my homework and not paying attention in class. Outside school I had 6 different clubs (sports/music) I did every week. I spent most of my final year playing cards and chess in the common room and listening to music. I had summer jobs that were to become my career (writing software).
My parents insisted the exams at the end of year were important, so I spent the week before them reading through the course notes, finally understanding most of the content, with a rule of not skipping past something I didn't understand, then I flew through the exams with some of the highest marks in the country.
For me motivation is important in terms of being 'interested' in what I'm reading or learning. I dislike classes that involve heavy rote learning so I avoid them if they are topics I can't see a use to know *e.g. plant names. I need to want to learn something for a reason, and then I can focus on it and cram it in easily. If something doesn't interest me but I feel I have to learn it, it's a chore and really not fun. And I also found at university I literally couldn't do the assignments if I attempted them when I got them, I had to wait till they were due before I could feel they were important enough to focus on.
The thing that strikes me about school is they dumb it down so that half the people can pass it, and that makes it boring for people with a fast learning capacity, then they teach a whole lot of things that most people will never use in their career, which removes motivation.
So as a tool for sorting out people based on capability or making sure smart people get educated, it ultimately fails. It just shows you who wants good school marks, and then it doesn't show you whether they got them by hard work, cramming or extensive tutoring.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
Detasseling corn is a big thing in my area, too, and kids younger than 18 can do it. That is supposed to change, however, due to new OSHA rules. So all that will be left for most kids around here will be fast food jobs.

My brother worked one summer for a person who raised veal calves, and you can talk about miserable and smelly on a dairy farm but this was really bad! His duty was to help direct the *highly liquid* waste into holding tanks and then hose down the tiny stalls. The process may have changed since then, because it was considered by some as inhumane. As soon as he could, my brother went into the military and had an okay twenty-year career and is now on pension. He used skills he learned to get a fairly decent job in civilian life and will have twenty-five years work years within the Social Security system.

One of my friends pulled a neat trick on his daughter. She was intelligent but somewhat undirected toward possible career choices. He arranged for the Quality Assurance Manager here to hire her as an assistant. The manager was supercilious, to put it nicely. Also unethical, stingy, a self-proclaimed intellectual, and basically a pompous jacka--. The girl would write excellent analytical reports for him that he would take credit for. The kid of course wanted to quit. My friend knew this would open her eyes, and he made a deal. He would pay for her initial schooling if she chose to embark on a quality career, but she must tough it out for one full year. She is now a CPA.

She met a student there in the same department, with the same boss. In commiserating together they eventually became engaged and married after their schooling was complete. He is now an engineer in an aerospace company. They earn a total of about $200,000 a year.

The QA Manager was never aware that the best result of his miserable existence was to serve as a bad example. My friend was tempted many times to thank him for it.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
I agree completely. I notice that many kids don't work at all or have a relatively easy job. My own job experiences closely mirror yours. The 5am paper route (rain or snow), the fast food joint, the shipping container company (rats), auto paint prep man (dust, fumes), then a 3 year enlistment in the US Army (clean everything all the time). By then I was very motivated for college with a few of my summers spent on a lawn mowing crew. It all led to a successful career as an engineer.

I wish our local high school partnered with various trades such that kids not well suited (or motivated) for college had job prospects right out of school. I think there is too much emphasis on the college track to the detriment of the kids. There's no wood shop in the high school, no metal shop, no construction courses to be had. Just a focus on math and computer science.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
I had a HORRIBLE job between high school and college and as a result my gpa in college was almost a 3/4 point higher than high school because I always had it in the back of my mind that if I didn't succeed I would be doing that job I hated for the rest of my life.
Jan 23, 2013
Indeed, my life-changing !$%*!$ job was working swing shift in an office supply warehouse. I was 23. I had been working there a year, the longest I'd stayed at any job ever. That must have gotten me thinking, because the conclusion was: if I don't go back to school, I will still be here five years from now, grabbing handfuls of pens in a dimly-lit grubby workspace.

That terror spoke directly to me, and was the wake-up call I needed.

All in all the job was far from the !$%*!$%*! I have ever had, and even since getting out of college, I have had worse. But I end up with desks, sometimes offices, occasionally with a window. No more heavy lifting, crummy hours, worrying about making the rent. Now my biggest worry is being an inert lump for eight hours a day, ruining my eyes looking at a computer screen and growing slightly more tubby every year.
Jan 23, 2013
Yes. I grew up on a farm, and my summers in high school spent doing manual labor in the 100 degree heat were enough to convince me to bust my tail and make a better life for myself.
Jan 23, 2013
My first jobs weren't unpleasant - worked making pizzas, and worked in retail, but I must have known that though the money was good for a teen living at home, I would have a hard time making it on my own doing that.
Didn't get a lot of homework, but my Dad was on me to do yard work all the time - much more so than I see many kids doing today. Hey, I don't even get kids coming to the door to shovel snow for a few bucks anymore.
So, in this case, 'no' to the lousy job, but still had motivation to do better.
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
I had plenty of unpleasant jobs - but most of what made them unpleasant was the boss. I worked fast food and waitressed for iHop. In both cases I worked for a little hitler (different men, same evil streak) who knew he wasn't going anywhere and took undue pleasure in making life h e l l for the uppity little strivers under his control.

That motivated me to first train as a lifeguard/swim teacher - so that I could get paid more for a job that commanded a modicum of respect - and then pursue a professional degree. It has always impressed me that the toughest, most demeaning jobs are also the ones that pay the least. The easier the job, the more I get paid to do it (assuming I pick a job that is a good match for my skills).

I was not a motivated student in high school. That did change in college - and knowing what was at stake was likely part of the story - but so was the fact that the work was more interesting and challenging.

Part of the problem with middle school/high school homework is that a lot of it is designed to impress parents and administrators -not engage students and promote learning.

That isn't a guess. I student-taught middle school in the early 80's when the public was complaining about the lack of rigor in school. I watched teachers change the way the taught, piling on homework - in direct response to the criticism. They essentially shifted the responsibility home. If they assign multiple essays for example and the student fails to turn them in, or does them poorly -they can point to the pile of assigned work as evidence they were doing their job.

That experience - and the clear negative impact on a lot of the students is part of what motivated me to homeschool my own kids through 9th grade. We were always done by 1pm. My kids read a lot and did hands on science, etc - but no homework - and they entered High School well ahead of their peers. We also moved to a small goat farm outside Seattle - so they had a taste of manual labor as well.

The work load in high school is pretty intense - especially when you add in sports and other extra curriculars. My kids did (are doing) IB -which is challenging and interesting - and competitive. They don't have time to work - but school, etc. is their job.

The problem, in my opinion, is middle school. That is where we lose kids. If they get knocked off track there - it can be tough to get it back together in high school. I think middle school should be a lot less intense. Kids are undergoing significant changes. They need time to adjust. They should spend more time reading good books, doing science and math at a reasonable level and exploring other interests. They should be done with school by 1pm with no homework - and zero teacher-generated busy work. (This approach worked for my kids- so it must be right for everyone, right?).

I'm not convinced everyone needs to work a c r a p p y job to know they want more from life. In washington state, we've been surprised by the success of a program that promises low-income kids they can go to college (funded by the state) if the meet academic (and a few other) requirements. The program has been so popular, they are running out of money early. It turns out that knowing there is a payoff for hard work in school is a great motivator. Why work hard if you think you can't afford college and are just going to end up like your parents anyway?
Jan 23, 2013
I never had a high school job any harder than stuffing envelopes and filing. And spent plenty of hours doing meaningless homework. I went on to get a PhD and am now a college professor. While some would suggest this is an "easy" job, my 80-100-hour work weeks and unpaid summer research work would beg to differ. My brother, who made pizza throughout high school, went on to become a rocket scientist and computer chip designer.
Maybe we just had good genes.
Jan 23, 2013
I had several unpleasant jobs of varying degrees. As a really young kid I had several paper-routes. This was a great job in the summer, but I am from the East Coast of Canada, not so fun in the winter.
Then in junior high, I worked for a retail store doing maintenance which included cleaning bathrooms (public, I might add), dealing with garbage (including restaurant garbage) and bringing the carts back into the store (very hateful in the winter, again). At the same time I raked blueberries in the summer, a back-breaking all-over body destroying task.
In high school I worked in the warehouse of a large truck parts outlet. One of the main duties I had was stacking brake cores. If you have ever seen the brakes when they come off a big rig you will understand how filthy they are. They also stink to high heaven and do not stack as well as one could hope (resulting in many do-overs of full pallets).
I was more than a little motivated to pursue a desk job, hence becoming a programmer.

Disclaimer: I do not claim that any of the jobs above are the worst. I had a friend in high school who worked on a sod farm in the summer. That may be the most hateful job in the world (they have to hire kids because worker burn-out rates are unbelievable). I count my blessings that I never worked with him.
Jan 23, 2013
The short answer is yes. Working on a farm, having live rats leap on my head, motivated me to study for 60 hours per week, starting as a junior in high school, and going for 10 years of full-time college work.
Jan 23, 2013
I think you're on to something - my dad never let me work at the bagel place I wanted to work at in high school. Instead he forced me into an unpaid internship at a government research lab - an air conditioned cubicle. It was better on my resume, for sure, but to this day (I'm 40) I've never had a !$%*!$%* job. My GPA in college was below average, could a different job during summers in college have changed that? Good questions.
+20 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
Too many teachers these days seem to actually hate children. Instead of embracing their jobs as preparing the children for the future and trying to make them want to enjoy life and look forward to a bright future, many teachers seem to want to take any sort of light out of the students life and make sure their life is as dreary as the teachers own. I have always said that the amount of homework assigned on a regular basis is inversely proportional to the quality of the teacher.
(Note: I'm 38 and childless so my comments are based on observations of nieces, nephews, and coworkers children.)
Jan 23, 2013
I never had a truly horrible job as a kid, and I had what I considered to be an unconscionable amount of homework in high school. But, I never made the mistake of conflating school work with what you refer to as "mental pursuits;" school work is just mindless drivel you do to get a good grade in school and avoid disappointing your parents too much, or (in college) to get the credits you need to graduate. There doesn't have to be, and often isn't, any learning or direct value in the work. But I don't want to have a !$%*!$ job. I've grown accustomed to not having one, and don't want to change that. That's why the engineering degree I recently earned is important, and why I'm now willing to do some more reasonably mindless work just because it seems like a good way to build a career in that field.

I think that you have to be slightly disinclined toward learning in the first place to hate it just because you got a lot of homework. Not that I haven't met that sort of person; I've known people who avoid reading at all reasonable cost, because all they've read before is mindless textbooks and sh it. But, in my experience, they're the exception. And somebody has to work at McDonalds, or it would go out of business.
Jan 23, 2013
Interesting. I went to a private high school, jacket and tie dress code, highly structured, lots of homework. I had a weekend job as a carpenter's helper which I liked more than dealing with school. In college I knocked out a quick ecology degree and never imagined myself working inside. After a few years of working outdoors I realized how hard it is on the body and would be not much fun for the long haul. After taking some IT classes I ended up in an office and have to rely on the gym for exercise, but I have full benefits, enough salary to take good vacations, and don't ache from every joint in the morning. The college kids and recent grads that I meet are even more clueless about dealing with the real world than I was at that age, and that's saying something. I have to side with the argument against over-schooling on this one.
Jan 23, 2013
maybe indirectly. I had a paper round and found work in the summer painting a local petrol (gas to our US readers) so nothing too bad (although 6am starts 7 days a week was a pain).

but my father was a plasterer (ok a time served master craftsman, but still a very physical job). on occasion I would help him and that, along with seeing him come back from work covered from head to foot in s**t made me determined to do well.
Jan 23, 2013
My mother grew up on a dairy/tomato farm. Having to hoe tomatoes motivated her. She became a doctor, her brothers a lawyer/judge, a real estate magnate and a rocket scientist (yes, a real one).

She passed on this method to me by arranging a job for me in the summer between high school and college on an asphalt crew...she had to pull strings with one of her patients to get me past the union rules for this coveted position. There was nothing like shoveling 3 tons of asphalt every day of the summer to make you certain to finish your college degree.

However, I WAS in great shape at the end of the summer, the best of my life.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2013
I didn't have a !$%*!$ manual job but many grown up people around me did. My motivation during school since elementary school was to avoid having the same future
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