All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1981

Help Wanted: Laborers

Mr. Peterson of East Greenville, Pennsylvania, teaches economics and history in junior high school.

Among the old books at the local thrift store I came across a two-vol-ume set entitled Little Visits with Great Americans. I scanned the pages, always searching for useful materials to share with my junior high history students. Here was a treasure indeed! I could hardly wait to purchase the find and examine the first-hand accounts of how these several persons had achieved success.

From the yellowed pages of those old books came a handful of recurrent principles which, if applied in our own generation, could produce not only more great men but also an even greater and stronger American nation. Such greats as Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, John Wanamaker, Theodore Roosevelt, John Philip Sousa, Helen Keller, and Philip Armour shouted to American youth through the printed page the requisite characteristics for success and prosperity.

Perhaps the principle or characteristic most often mentioned by these examplars was work—hard, persistent, dedicated work.

Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Armour: “You cannot give the world anything without labor, and there is no satisfaction in anything but labor that looks toward doing this, and does it.”

T. Roosevelt: “The ability to work hard is, perhaps, the most valuable aid to success. One can’t have much success without it.”

Such talk often is plentiful, but it is seldom transformed into real action. A look into the lives of the men interviewed in those two rummage-sale books, however, revealed that they did possess such desire and character as to enable them to become successes in their specific fields.

For instance, the more than one thousand inventions of Thomas Edison did not come from any exceptional bursts of creative genius or intelligence. Rather, they were the results of long, arduous hours spent with assistants in laboratories.

Edison made hard work a habit. He rose early each day, was scanning the newspapers by 6:30 a.m., and began his labors in the laboratories by 7:30 a.m. In order to direct the 50 to 75 different subjects being researched by his assistants, Edison would often spend his evening hours at home preparing instructions and activities for the next day’s work. He did his own share of work in the laboratories, too, spending sometimes as much as 60 hours at a time experimenting with a single problem or idea.

Work to many people is a nasty expletive, something to be avoided at all costs. This is not unusual, for since time began man has been searching for ways to eliminate work. Each of us daily strives to get things accomplished with less effort than before. This is commendable and has led to many great inventions. But the attitude is growing that work is bad.

As a teacher of junior high school students, I become more aware of this growing attitude each school year. Not a few students are forgetting (or were they ever taught?) that school, and life, is made up of work. School work. Seat work. Board work. Written work. Homework.

Labor unions, ostensibly to protect the worker from exploitation, limit the number of hours one may work, or establish a ceiling on the amount one may produce in a given time period.

Government, by increasing taxes to burdensome levels, encouraging inflationary practices, and opening wider the doors of the welfare dole, kills what little incentive many individuals might have. Why work hard if the reward for that effort is confiscated? Why labor when one can make as much from Uncle Sam without working?

These obstacles, coupled with a lazy streak, present workers with a difficult, uphill battle. Despite these enemies, formidable as they seem, each can win his own battle if permitted the freedom to try, to fail or succeed, and to suffer the consequences or reap the benefits of his attempts.

Work is required of man. The first man, Adam, was commanded by God after the Great Fall to work: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” (Genesis 3:19). Since that day work has been man’s portion on the earth. Deep within man is placed an innate desire to achieve, an urge to accomplish. The method provided by the Creator for the fulfillment of this urge is work.

Successful men, as we have seen already, recognize the importance of persistent hard work to their achievements. It was said of Andrew Carnegie, the great man of steel, that “he was full of the notion of thrift and its twin brother, hard work.” The revered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow intoned this principle when he penned:

The heights by great men reached and kept
      Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
      Were toiling upward in the night.

Work is also fulfilling and satisfying. There is nothing more rewarding than working, sweating, toiling over a task and then gaining the satisfaction of knowing that the job has been completed and that one has done his best. Experiencing such satisfaction is an incentive for further work. Success and accomplishment breed more of the same.

Each of us should think carefully of the words of the one who wrote, “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave . . . .” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The work we have to do, the tasks we have before us, the jobs large and small we would like to see done all of these things, if they are to be done, must be done now. It is too late after time has stopped for us. As Philip Armour said, “Every man can do something, and there is plenty to do.”