Among great Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr stands as one of the best representatives of who we are as a nation. When we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy, one sermon in particular stands out. It’s not as well-known as his address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial but it is equally important. Even more so this year as we end the Obama-era and enter the Donald Trump years. Dr. King preached:
And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.
These words ring out in sharp contrast to the pop culture and street protester narratives that have infected our national character as of late. Menial or entry-level work is no longer viewed as something of value. Indeed, over the past eight years we have lived through a time in which, for many (and in particular many millennials), the very idea of taking such a job has been viewed as offensive. Or racist. Or unfair.
We have been peddled a basket full of deplorable ideas from Hollywood and the halls of the Democratic Party. That’s where the expectation that life’s trajectory should automatically travel from graduation day, to a highly compensated job preferably working in tech, with the obligatory luxury sedan, beach body, and arm-chair activism made easier via social media comes from. In fact, there are some young people that expect to live an upper-middle-class lifestyle as career activists.
The idea of doing hard things, or making hard choices, is one people have been insulated from to their own detriment.
Many readers know that I work in information technology and have done so for a while. It wasn’t always like that. Before I ever answered phones working at a help desk in Washington DC, I held other jobs. At one time, I showed up at the local mall at around midnight to work through the night as a janitor, buffing the floors and making things right for the next business day. At another point I was a janitor at a major chain grocery store. As a janitor, I could have dawdled about doing the bare minimum – some of my peers did. Instead, I made it my business to make sure the store and especially the restrooms were spotless. For my efforts, I was able to move from part time to full time, and from janitor to better paying work stocking shelves.
Later, I worked at a plastics plant that made school bus dashboards. I was hired on through a temporary staffing firm with a group of others. It was full time, just above minimum wage work. I diligently worked my 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM shift turning out the best products I could. For my efforts I was moved from an entry level position on the assembly line into a more complex position not normally given to temps – because I’d proven that my work could pass through quality assurance with better marks than others who elected to do the bare minimum. Not long after that, the plastics company offered to hire me on directly (cutting out the temporary staffing firm) and there was talk of me moving into a supervisory or quality assurance position. It was around that time I made the move into what then was a very nascent information technology industry. That I’d scrimped and saved – no government aid at all — and took community college classes when I could certainly helped me make this move.
What we’ve lost in this country is the willingness to dig in, and do the unpleasant things with a positive attitude. I remember when I was fourteen, my dad’s union went on strike and times were tough. It was summer though and my dad had a truck, a trailer, and some lawn equipment. I helped him that summer doing lawn care. My dad worked hard and I followed his example. Within a few weeks of being in business his client list was such that we were taking care of yards almost every day of the week, ranging from an historic estate on one end of town to typical yards in typical middle-class neighborhoods to an apartment complex in the next town over. By the time the strike was over, my dad was in a position where he had to decide between pursuing his own lawn care business or going back to his regular job. He chose the latter and in just a few years was moved up into management because of his work ethic.
I’d venture that if you went to a college campus today and told many of the precious little snowflakes earning degrees in their own inherent greatness, “you’re going to have to graduate, work at the mall as a night janitor, then take an assembly line position for a while, and in the summer you might have to cut lawns to bring in extra money”, they’d melt in their own tears. After all, aren’t they supposed to leave college and make millions by creating apps and websites that stop climate change while creating sustainable communities?
That’s one of the big reasons Americans know that their country is on the wrong course. Unlike previous generations, we no longer respect hard work and a great many Americans have no desire to do it. Many deride work. Fact is, hard work isn’t just a way to earn a living. It’s instructive for one’s character – as exemplified by Dr. King’s sermon.