When I was in college I once commented to a professor in my department whom I admired that he had a lot of publications in top journals. Being in the middle of a senior thesis on Nietzsche – and an aspiring ubermensch myself – I waited for him to share the secret of his creative genius. Instead he said: “Yes … lots of hard work” and stared at me in silence. I couldn’t have been more disappointed.
You see, I’ve never had an especially high opinion of hard work. My first job ended after I decided mowing my father’s lawn for $1 every other weekend was just way more effort than it was worth. After a tense negotiation where my father refused to release me voluntarily from my duties, I systematically mowed his beds of rose-bushes to the ground as a symbol of my discontent. Our relationship has never been quite the same, but I haven’t had to touch a lawnmower since.
After that, my father made me seek employment outside the home, and highly recommended I get a paper route. He had me shadow some paper boys for the Buffalo News, the daily paper servicing the pile of snow where we lived. About twenty minutes spent with these future M.B.A.’s was enough to know that this job wasn’t for me: who would want to get up early on a Saturday, to slosh through the snow, when you could have been at home in your bed watching Saved by the Bell and eating the pancakes your mother made especially for you was beyond me. And besides, my general fiscal policy – you have money; I don’t; therefore, you should give me some – rendered a job mostly unnecessary, philosophically speaking, anyway. Nevertheless, reality – in the form of a six foot-four mustachioed workaholic also named Klipfel – won out, and I got a paper route for a once-a week-local rag so obscure you didn’t even have to subscribe to it. I found the diminished level of responsibility involved in this enterprise highly attractive. It suited my inclinations almost perfectly, until my mother found all the papers I was supposed to have delivered at the bottom of my closet, and made me go in and formally resign.
My first “real” job wasn’t much better. One day I walked into the restaurant where I purportedly washed dishes and was told I’d have to be let go. “We really like you, Kevin” the manager said. “We really do. It’s just … you don’t do anything. Like … you don’t do any work.”
Um … exactly: “Work puts people in bad moods, honey. You don’t really want to work. In fact you should avoid work.” Frankly, I’m offended it took you so long to notice.
So how I ended up this weekend extolling the value of hard work to a group of incoming freshmen is mildly perplexing. But I’m here to tell you that it happened. There I am, a volunteer faculty mentor, discussing with incoming freshman their expectations about college, when I asked them “So what are you afraid of?” and they responded, nearly unanimously, “Failing out.”
And then I started to say things my 13 year old self wishes my father could hear. “It’s all about working hard” I said. “You can totally do it.” “It’s not about how smart you are, or where you came from; it’s about being willing to put in the effort. I believe that if you work hard, follow what you’re passionate about, and ask people for help, you will succeed here.”
I might even have uttered some variant of “I believe in you,” although certain psychological mechanisms working around the clock to preserve my self-concept are trying very hard to block that out.
What happened to me?
Well, the intelligence literature, for one thing. You see, as a determinant of success, it turns out, intelligence just isn’t that interesting: it’s all about what educational psychologist and Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls “mindset.” As Dweck puts it, “my research has shown that the view you adopt of yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.” You see, there are two basic attitudes one can take to learning: intelligence is something that is fixed, so I need to prove that I’m smart (so working hard and putting in effort sort of means I’m … dumb) vs. a growth mindset, where one’s “ability” can be changed through learning, practice, and … hard work.
When I first heard about this I said to my Ed. Psych. professor that I found the existential aspect of this profoundly hopeful. He looked at me like I was nuts and said “Well I don’t think it’s very nihilistic, Kevin.”
Right. As we’ve touched on before, the existential attitude is about freedom, choice, and taking responsibility for recognizing that the locus of control for one’s life comes from within. And something I like about the intelligence literature is that, as Dweck puts it, “I recognized for the first time that I had a choice” (15). That is, although certain facts will constrain me: where I was born, my education (and therefore background knowledge), and so forth, these facts don’t determine my fate: the attitude we choose to adopt about ourselves does. So, when talking to my group of students, I realized what I was stressing was that the locus of control for their success wasn’t determined by something outside themselves. It was through encouraging them to adopt an existential attitude toward themselves that I was all of the sudden the biggest advocate of hard work this side of the Midwest. This seemed to resonate with them. We spent some of the rest of the session talking about practical study skills recommended in the ed psych literature. Some of them actually shook my hand at the end of the session. It was pretty all right.
Recently, in a new faculty workshop at my university, a veteran faculty member shared a piece of advice he’d heard given by John Updike.
“The hardest thing about writing a novel,” Updike said, “Is writing a novel.”
It was the most interesting thing I heard all day.