We all have a belief system. It tends to stick with us forever. I’ve always had mine. It’s not very novel or different. It’s one shared by millions of people across the globe. It’s probably bigger than most religions. In a nutshell, it’s ‘You get out what you put in’. You know – work hard and you’ll get your rewards, that sort of thing. I’ve lived my life by this creed and have always and still am, actively encouraging my kids to live by it. I’m sure many of you do too.
It’s treated me very well. I’ve been moderately successful – many of you will have done as well or better, but I’m happy with where I am. I’ve built and sold a couple of businesses, worked with and employed a lot of people and had a pretty good time. Now I’ve got a few of the trappings that go with that- the house, the car, the holidays, all that usual stuff. Nothing special, but everything I wanted as a young man starting out.
But just recently I’ve been challenging my entrenched beliefs and it’s not very comfortable. I didn’t work very hard at school, leaving at 16 with a few O levels as we then called them (I later put that right with more education when I was older and got a few more gongs). After what turned out to be an atypical sojourn in the NHS, I found my spiritual home in the private sector. I started my first business when I was 28. It was a spectacular failure – I had no idea what I was doing, but I learnt a lot. So, with my tail between my legs I went back into employment. I worked my tripe off. First in, last out – I was that guy. And it paid off. So, with a bit of corporate success behind me I started another business. I’ve never looked back. They’ve gone reasonably OK and I’ve had a great time. We were famous for our ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy. If we weren’t working around the clock we’d be partying. Our motto was failure is not an option. We’d work whatever it took to get the job done. It largely worked and we were all well rewarded for it.
Along the way I’ve aspired to all the things many of us do, nicer homes in nicer areas, better cars, better holidays, look after the kids, eat in the best restaurants, lots of stuff. And I’ve tried to instill this ethic in my kids. So that’s it, lived the work-ethic dream. Now, beginning to throttle back a bit, enjoy the fruits of labour a bit more. Perfect, right? I thought so, but just recently I’ve had a niggle.
Let’s look at it another way. In our 20s/30s/40s most of us are in our prime. Mentally and physically. A lot of us are making our life-long relationships, bearing our kids, peaking at our pastimes, sports etc. The world is our oyster. It’s the time when we can really grab life by the collar and have it. So what do we do at this time? We follow our work ethic. We do the ‘putting in’. We work all hours we possibly can. We stay late to get the work out because our clients or bosses expect it of us. We make sacrifices and don’t see our young families as much as we could. We don’t holiday as much. We spend more time with our work colleagues than our family and friends. We stay late at work. Why? Because that’s the way it works. You work hard now to get your rewards in the future. If you run your own business you are ‘always on’. Taking calls, answering emails in the evening, at weekends, on holiday comes with the territory of an entrepreneur.
But let’s have a look at these ‘rewards’. With the bigger house comes the bigger mortgage and a bit more stress. Blow your money on that car and that’s where the money earned from the hard work goes. Live in that area so the kids can go to the ‘good school’ – more expectations, more stress. Buy all the latest ‘stuff’ – laptop, tablet, mobile. All so that everyone can contact you instantly, and expect you to reply just as quickly – “Sorry, love, the mobile’s going, it’s the boss/client”.
But it’s all worth it in the end? Well, maybe. Unless your relationships have gone down the pan. Or your health. But even if it hasn’t, you’ll never get those golden years back. My brother in law makes me think. 64 now, he has never had the slightest interest in a ‘career’. Since school, he’s gone from job to job, doing anything that turns up as long as they fit in with his lifestyle. Recently he’s been a bookmaker’s assistant, worked in the Tote windows at racecourses and is currently a postman. If you suggested staying late at work he would look at you as if you’ve suddenly started speaking in tongues. He and his wife live in a tiny cottage in the Yorkshire Dales and spend every spare moment playing Tennis and Golf – their passions. They’ve not much cash, a 20-year-old car and have never, ever pushed their kids to do anything they don’t want. One is now a teacher and the other an aid worker. I have never seen them anything but happy. They have no tablets, aren’t on any social media channels and the only thing they use their ancient mobile phones for is to make phone calls. So, all their, very frequent, interaction with their friends and family is either face to face or spoken. How many of us can say the same? I’ve also got two very successful mates, both about my age, whose wives have died suddenly in the past year. Just as they’re reaping the rewards of their years of toil, their lives have been turned upside down.
Like a religion, we expect our kids to follow the same path. I do it. “get that homework done, get stuck into that revision, you need those grades to get to Uni or you won’t get a good job, etc., etc.” I’m not the pushiest parent in the world but I still have expectations of them. What can be wrong with that? Suddenly, I’m not so sure. Maybe there is another way?
So I’m torn. My primal instinct is to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve. But now I’m wondering, are the sacrifices worth it? I read a book recently and it described how, about 7,000 years ago, man changed from forager to agriculturist by learning how to cultivate wheat. A giant step forward. But what was their reward? Here’s an extract from Harari’s book, Sapiens;
“Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. Worldwide, wheat now covers about 870,000 square miles of the globe’s surface. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?
Wheat did it by manipulating Homo Sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was attacked by rabbits and locust swarms, so the farmers built fences and stood guard over the fields. Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.
The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us”.
I wonder if from the industrial revolution through to the technology revolution, ‘work’ has done the same to modern mankind?