How I Learned the Value of Meaningful Work

Read how learning what meaningful work looks like changed this author's perspective on his career.

Life, so far, had been fairly easy for me, and I’m privileged to be able to see “hard work” as a relative term. Struggle and sacrifice came only when I wanted a challenge, knowing full well it came with an expiration date — or I could quit when I had enough.

Then, five-and-a-half years out of college, when my peers were taking exotic vacations, buying houses, or at the very least paying off their own private college debt, I was working five jobs (or more, I’ve lost track) just to get by — when I wasn’t applying for an unemployment insurance payout, that is.

That’s when I learned what hard work actually looks like — that’s when I came to value the struggle and sacrifice that came with it. The experience changed me into the man I am today.

Something bigger and better

My parents provided me and my siblings with a good, if modest, upbringing. We lived in a simple split-level house in Coon Rapids, Minn. — nobody would have accused us of being cake eaters. Sure, I worked a few jobs in high school, but they were the type where my buddies could come and play Risk with me while I worked. Not exactly baling hay.

I performed well in high school while barely doing what was required of me. I had a nice combination of comfort, talent, and contentment with the status quo. Sure, I had done challenging things — like varsity basketball and cross country, or a gap year — but I was mostly unaccustomed to any sort of real difficulty. Up to that point, desperation had meant pulling an all-nighter in college to compensate for not studying all semester.

After graduating from university, I took up teaching and coaching, and within four years was offered something of a dream job at the premier Catholic college prep school in town. The world was my oyster. So when I was let go from that same job less than two years later, I figured it was an anomaly and that I’d move on to bigger and better things as soon as I wanted.

Spoiler alert: I did not.

My confidence took a hit

I called up a buddy who owned a liquor store and asked if I could pick up some hours, and he obliged to the tune of $10/hour. Not much to really move the needle, but it was something, and it did come with a pretty sweet discount.

I had mostly decided that I didn’t want to teach anymore, but after getting nowhere networking and meeting with recruiters, I applied and interviewed for a teaching job or two that I was never offered. With the summer winding down and no meaningful work in sight, I accepted a role as a substitute teacher at a local Catholic high school.

Subbing is actually a pretty decent gig. It can be fun mixing it up with the kids and doing my best Mr. Garvey impression. But it was sporadic work and it became hard to show up to work feeling good about myself. Here I was, five years out of college — five years into a teaching career — and the best I could do was substitute teaching. Teachers and students alike assumed I was in college or just out, not struggling to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing with my life.

I was applying for jobs and had a decent idea what I was looking for, but with every cover letter and résumé that received no response, and with every bill that came due without an accompanying paycheck of substance, my confidence in my own abilities took a hit.

I’m a terribly social person, and it was a lonely place to be, even in a crowded room. It was a struggle to look around and see other people with exciting careers and disposable income when I couldn’t decide whether to introduce myself as unemployed (was “funemployed” really an improvement?), “between jobs,” or desperate for any help — networking or otherwise.

A humbling break

Through an acquaintance, I was offered a hosting position at a brand new restaurant in town set to open in just a few weeks, with the idea that I could move behind the bar eventually. A few weeks in, I found out what I was making during my training period: minimum wage, at $7.25. I felt sick to my stomach. Minimum wage?! My first job at age 16 paid more than that. Here I had thought I was working at the liquor store for peanuts. I had dramatically cut my spending and expenses, but there’s only so much you can cut.

While my bank account was hurting, my ego was in rougher shape. As much as I appreciated the opportunity at the restaurant, I was training alongside other hosts who were much younger. Heck, I was trained by a 17-year-old. I was asked to do the most menial tasks in the restaurant and was often treated like I was on the bottom of the totem pole — because I was.

I wasn’t exactly longing to eat the slop that the pigs were eating, but I couldn’t help but think how far I had fallen. The worst part of all was that there was no end in sight — no light at the end of the tunnel to think that things were going to get better anytime soon.

A way through

So what did I do? I picked up every shift I could. I would substitute teach beginning at 8 a.m. and then head straight to the restaurant to host, sometimes until the bar closed at 2 a.m. There was a stretch during that first month the restaurant was open where I worked two or three weeks in a row without a day off, pulling double-shifts as much as possible. It was brutal, and it still didn’t approach what I was making on a modest teaching salary. But it was strangely satisfying.

Never in my life (before or since) had I worked as much or as hard as I did during that first couple of months at the restaurant, subbing at not one but two high schools, taking shifts at the liquor store and one or two other odd jobs I had picked up, not to mention freelance writing. And never before had I really known hard work and what it really meant to struggle to make ends meet.

The experience was terribly humbling. My ego simply couldn’t survive seeing my bank account drain to the point of working for minimum wage as a grown man and putting my social life completely on hold — not to mention substantial career development — simply to pay the bills. And as difficult and painful as that time was for me, it was something like a deep cleanse for my soul, stripping me of whatever self-importance and false pretenses I was carrying around.

The value of hard work

Within just a few months, that hard work paid off, and the restaurant promoted me to manager. And just a few months after that, I was offered my first position in communications and marketing, my initial career of choice when I first left teaching. It was just a part-time job to start, but at that point, ego-less, that was just fine by me. Six months of hard work in that position earned me a promotion to full-time and I bade adieu to the restaurant industry for good.

As I look back to that time in my life, I think a lot about how much I took for granted when I had a steady income, and then how little I took for granted when times were hard. I’ve never prayed so hard in my life, and I learned to rely upon God in new ways.

Another thing I learned is the value of hard work — and I’m not talking about the value of the paycheck I earned. Looking back at my time teaching full-time, there were summers when I did little or no real work and was just content to bask in a three-month-long vacation. There’s nothing wrong with a good vacation, of course, but this extended time without much responsibility helped me develop a complacency and a false sense that I had “made it,” not to mention an aversion to hard work itself.

As a boy, work was a bad word, and so even the jobs I signed up for had room for play. And I carried that mindset well into my adult years. But a man knows that there are greater things to be done than games, fun, and vacation — as good as those things are — and that nothing great was ever accomplished, and no virtue ever achieved, without good, old-fashioned hard work.

I just had to learn that lesson the hard way.

Grotto quote graphic about meaningful work: "No virtue has ever been achieved without good, old-fashioned hard work."

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