In late September 1966, Dr. Taylor passed back the first paper I wrote in his English 1 class.  I had worked hours on this paper, written 15 drafts, back when we used typewriters.  Each draft was poorly written.  I can still see the angle of the red “E” on the paper.  I was devastated.  

“But I worked so hard!” is what I told my stunned parents. That paper alone kept me off the Dean’s List for the only time in my college career.  I got a C minus in the course.  I got an A in English 2.  One of the reasons I like science and math is that subjectivity is less an issue.  I did not suddenly become a good writer by the spring of 1967, any more than I was such a poor writer in the autumn of 1966.

Spring 2003.  I am teaching a statistics class for business students in Nogales and give  a group a B on their presentation.  One man said: “But we worked so hard!! We deserved an A.”  I explained that while hard work is a virtue, such does not itself deserve an “A”.  Results matter.  For every Olympian, there are hundreds of others who worked just as hard or harder but didn’t have the ability or the time, got hurt, had a bad day during the trials, and didn’t make it to the top.  Hard work is necessary but not sufficient.

I worked for years to become a better writer.  It was never a goal of mine, but I discovered that I communicate better by writing than by speaking.  I have published 60 papers in 9 different fields; won two writing awards; been an astronomy columnist for the newspaper for 20 years, writing nearly 800 columns; and been a 9 year columnist for the medical society.  I have  240 posts on my blog.  I’ve written several op-eds in the newspaper, and 75% of the letters to the editor I write get published.  I am a writer.  I am not an exceptional writer, but I am good.  Last July, my letter to the editor appeared in The New Yorker, not easy to do.

I’ve heard hospital advertisements saying how hard their staff work to care for patients.   I assume people work hard.  What I do want to know is should I get operated on, and I’m a clean case (no bowel perforation or gun shot wound, for example), my likelihood of a wound infection is less than 1%, not 4%, which it was in the hospital where I was medical director. Hard working people who work in bad systems deliver hardship.  A hospital that has a 3% higher wound infection rate for 10,000 clean cases a year has 300 more wound infections.  The human cost is significant in longer hospitalizations and possibility of permanent complications, including death and lawsuits.  The cost of these 300 infections is several million dollars.  Yet we still argue that quality costs money. I said twenty years ago, in vain, that quality saved money.

I worked hard to get my Master’s in statistics, and while I obtained it my hard work didn’t substitute for my inability to become a successful statistical consultant.  I trained hard to be a platinum bike rider, to complete the 112 mile El Tour de Tucson under 5 hours, and I missed it by 7 minutes.  I worked as much as many of the riders who beat me.  I achieved my potential, and it was less than theirs.

The concept that hard work is all people need to do to escape poverty annoys me.  Mitt Romney’s son got $10 million to start his business.  Very few of us get that “seed money.”  Many connections get some kids into the top schools, where they meet other people, network, and get good jobs.  It isn’t all hard work.  Some is genetics; there are some very talented people.  A lot of it is networking.  If one is good at networking, one will do better than somebody like me, who is not good at it.

I knew David Levy nearly 30 years ago when I was an astronomy columnist for the paper and he had yet to discover his first comet.  David discovered his first comet and had the personality that led to his connection with Eugene Shoemaker.  That led to Comet Shoemaker-Levy and Mr. Levy’s becoming famous.  I was dismissed from the paper with hardly a “by your leave” in 2004, after 20 years of writing.  Networking….and luck.  No comet in 1994,  no fame.

A Nurse’s Aide who is a single mother works hard on the night shift in a nursing home.  She does things that would repel most.  I know, because I have helped these women change soiled patients, dress bed sores, try to get the patients out of bed, and dodge blows that demented patients throw at them.  She makes a little more than minimum wage, but she works hard.  She might not have been born with great intelligence, and she might not have done well in school. Many of our politicians weren’t great students.  Vice President Dan Quayle couldn’t spell “potato.”  Arizona’s governor didn’t go to college. But these NAs aren’t blue bloods.  Yes, I wish they hadn’t gotten pregnant, but the Republican Right is trying to defund Planned Parenthood, which will exacerbate the problem.  We all make bad choices.  These women are going to be poor all their lives, no matter how hard they work.

Achieving success requires many factors, in addition to hard work and intelligence.  It is being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, and a lot of luck, too.  A lot of luck.

A country that pays rock stars, athletes, and entertainers millions of dollars, most of which is taxed at far too low a rate, has its priorities wrong.  A country where financiers who only move money around and collect fees ought to tax their bonuses, which annually are more than I earned in my lifetime, at 80%.  Teachers provide more value than these people, and research has shown that.  I have forgotten what rock concerts I have seen; I was lied to by financial advisors about the economy in 2007, and the list of sports stars who went bankrupt is long. I can still remember the name of my kindergarten teacher, my high school math, chemistry, and physics teachers, all of whom had a profound effect on me.

No, Mitt, and Sarah, and an especial NO to Ted and Rand; most of the millions of poor people in this country are not lazy.  A lot of them have decent ideas, want to work, and want to work hard.  If you think hard work is all that is necessary, then start with yourself in Congress, by working hard for THIS country, rather than your petty party. Your behavior is shameful, and if I were a believer, I’d call you horrible sinners.  When a person fails to achieve his potential through his own behavior, that is a shame.  When another prevents him, deliberately, from achieving his potential, that is …. I don’t have the word for it.

Perhaps if I were a better writer or had the right connections I’d find that word.


One Response to “BUT I WORKED SOOOO HARD!!!”

  1. Dennis Says:

    Amen, and amen.

    I’m not sure where the sense of entitlement springs from. I wish I did: it would make parts of my job easier. I’d like to say that hard work is its own reward, and sometimes that’s even true.

    It’s a lot of work to reach the top of Mt. Whitney. I know: I have done it. The work to reach the peak was the reward.

    It’s cliche, but perhaps it is cliche because it’s also true. Life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the journey. There is joy in mastering new skills, although it takes work to master those skills.

    I’m going to be referring some of my students to this essay.

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