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Work, the 4-letter Word

Paul and I had a Chemical Engineering professor named Dr. Holman. And at the beginning of every course he taught he would always say, “This is going to be an interesting semester.” At hearing this, most of the class would groan because we interpreted that phrase to mean, “This class is going to be difficult and hard work.” I now find myself wondering if Dr. Holman really did think the semester was going to be interesting and if any of my classmates were able to see all of those homework assignments and tests as interesting. Is it possible to see difficult tasks and hard work is interesting?

Do you view work as a necessary evil to be avoided like the Mark Twain quote? Or do you believe Confucius that if you choose a job you love; you’ll never have to work a day in your life? What if you have to do a task you don’t like?

I want to test you here. What emotions come to mind when I say, hard work, effort, obstacle, challenge, exertion, toil, labor, chore, or task? Do these words elicit excitement, interest, and I can’t wait to get started emotion? Or, do they elicit negative emotions in you like they do me? Would you like to be able to change that?

I have often found myself wondering why I feel so negative about concepts involving work and effort. I have also pondered what I could accomplish and how much happier I could be if I could see the effort of overcoming an obstacle as an exciting and interesting challenge to be learned from, rather than with more negative emotions. Why I’d probably even procrastinate less!

I find my negative emotions about work go back to an early age. When I was little I found picking up my toys, cleaning my room, and organizing to be things I didn’t want to do. My mother found fear and negative consequences to be great motivators to get my brothers and me to do our chores. Sometimes she would set the timer with enough time to accomplish the assigned chore and tell me that if I didn’t complete it to her satisfaction by the time the timer rang I would be spanked. Then I did get spanked if I had not completed the chore by the time the timer rang. So most of the time, I got busy and completed my chores whenever Mom threatened. Other times I couldn’t leave to do what I wanted to do until my room was cleaned up. But I still procrastinated anyway. I realize now that I did this because I saw it is a battle of wills and as being manipulated by my mother from her position of power and my position of weakness. It was the only way I knew how to rebel.

There is also this culture in our education system where every child by the time they hit middle school needs to say that they hate school and school work in order to fit in. Moaning and complaining about work becomes a way to fit in and a habit.

Carol Dweck says fear of effort comes from a belief system she calls the fixed mindset. In my new favorite self-help book, Mindset, she explains that we can look at the world from two different mindsets, the fixed mindset or the growth mindset. These mindsets are the lenses we used to view and interpret the world. From my experience I’d say that our culture and most people in it are dominated by the fixed mindset in many areas of their thinking.

The fixed mindset comes from the belief that IQ, talents, beliefs, personality, and character are fixed traits that we can’t do much to change. It’s an either – or type of thinking. You’re either smart or your dumb. You’re either talented or you’re not. You’re competent or incompetent. You’re either a winner or a loser. There is no middle ground. Once dumb, always dumb. And God knows, none of us wants to be seen as dumb, not talented, incompetent, or as a loser.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about how our society values natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort. Our heroes have superhuman abilities that lead them towards their greatness. Christians usually see Jesus is this way as a kind of superhero, born with superhuman wisdom, knowledge, and abilities because he is, after all, the son of God. He’s truly Jesus Christ Superstar complete with a magic golden halo. And as a result of this thinking, Christians then don’t really believe they have a chance of becoming like Jesus, because he’s not really human.

From the fixed mindset perspective, if you are already a great genius and were born that way you don’t need to work at. Just needing to work at it then casts a shadow on your ability. From this perspective, effort is only for people with deficiencies and those losers that don’t have talent. The idea of trying and still failing is the worst fear of the fixed mindset. It leaves you without excuses if you do fail. People who have a fixed mindset are always trying to prove themselves because they desperately want to be worthy. From this viewpoint, failure means that you are a failure – that you lack competence and potential. And that hurts! This is the real reason we avoid risk.

In contrast to a fixed mindset, a growth mindset sees failure as an opportunity to learn something like Thomas Edison suggests. A growth mindset understands work and effort are necessary to improve intelligence, talent, and any skill we want to attain. Scientific studies now debunk the old, long-held belief that a person’s IQ stay’s the same throughout life. A person can grow their IQ by indulging their curiosity to figure things out and continue learning throughout life. Duh, we grow smarter through learning.

To me the wonderful thing about using this mindset model to evaluate my thoughts and actions, as well as those of others, is that it’s easy to use. I am working at changing my beliefs from seeing things as fixed and seeing work as something to be avoided. I am working on developing a growth mindset in all things. Having a growth mindset will give me the ability to embrace challenges, develop persistence in the face of failures and setbacks, learn from criticism, find lessons and inspiration in the success of others (rather than needing to put them down to build myself up), and to see work and effort as the path to learning, growing, and getting better at things.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Blessings on the person who has labored and found life.” Even in Ecclesiastics that is written by an existentialist, writing mainly about the meaninglessness of life, the author comes to the conclusion that we should enjoy our work and see it as a gift from God. This is in contrast to the Augustine view that hard work in life originated as a punishment for disobedience to God when Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. He felt that all of mankind had to pay the price for this original sin with hard work – which by the way stems from a the fixed mindset view of the world. My understanding is that the Jews actually interpret this story in Genesis from a growth mindset point of view which is very different from the Augustine one I learned.

I want to share a brief story of our son, Keith, with you to illustrate what it looks like to shift your viewpoint of work from negative to positive. Keith was one of those kids who didn’t want to grow up, to work hard, or take on responsibility. He was always the smallest kid in his class in spite of us holding him back a year, before starting school. He had problems learning to read and was diagnosed with a learning disability, some type of dyslexia in the first grade. He qualified for Special Ed. and was either pulled out of the classroom to be given extra help or given that extra help in the classroom because of his disability until he started high school. He thought he was dumb. It also didn’t help that we lived in Los Alamos where a third of the kids qualify for the gifted program and most of them are science and math nerds.

Keith always had a great imagination and spent his time dreaming up and designing new video games and worlds on paper when he wasn’t playing Nintendo, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic, or one of those games with little painted figures with complex rules. He was able to read and assimilate the rules of each of the figurines in the game that filled these half-inch thick rule books. I knew he wasn’t dumb and was capable of learning complex things. But he still struggled with his schoolwork and reading for school because it was hard and boring. As a young adult in college he partied too much, started smoking, drank, struggled to find employment, and struggled with depression. He was mad at his parents for ruining his life and we were naturally upset with him as well. As a result of all these hard feelings, there was a period of four years when he refused to communicate with us.

Today at age 32, I think that he’d agree that hard work along with finding his passion has given him a real life, a life free from depression with a lot of satisfaction. He has become a writer and he works hard at it. He spends several hours writing every day and feels deprived when he can’t write for a few days because of other activities. He has found that job that Confucius talks about, a job that he loves and doesn’t feel like work.

His first novel was published last summer and he has made a few thousand dollars from its sale. Another novel of his will be published in just a couple of months. Keith currently holds a job to earn a living working in a bookstore, but has the goal of making a living entirely from his writing in the next few years. He knows he can do it if he just keeps working at it. He can already see his progress. His latest book is better than the one before it and he gets excited seeing his own growth.

When it comes to writing, Keith has a growth mindset. He has read biographies and autobiographies about writers and he knows the stories about new writers coming out of nowhere with a successful first book are just that – stories! The true stories are that they had been writing for years in obscurity and have written at least several books that haven’t been published and probably never will be, because they are their early work and just aren’t as good. This early work sitting on a file in the computer, in journals, and on bits of paper are evidence of their learning and growing process, and the hard work of learning the craft of writing. Keith knows you have to put in the time and lots of effort to become a good writer. He is offended by the thought that somebody is a natural born writer because he knows, it’s not true! He is proud of how hard he’s worked and so are we.

Jesus said don’t stop seeking, struggling, working, and learning until one finds. He then says that when we figure it out we will find it troubling and then we will marvel at our new perspective, which gives us a deeper understanding of life. At least that’s how I find a switch from a fixed perspective to a growth perspective for me. It totally changes how I approach life! I believe a shift to the growth mindset is a step towards enlightenment. When our view shifts, we change. This change isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a process. Growth is an ongoing process! We learn more, grow more, and get better and better.

I’m glad I won’t go to my grave with the fixed mindset that my mother has. My mother sees aging as being a process of giving up more and more things and abilities until you finally give up life. I find that point of view depressing. Instead, my plan is that as long as I keep my mind, I am going to keep learning and growing until I take my last breath and then who knows? I’m beginning to believe what Jesus says in John, it is possible to do even greater things than he did. So in conclusion I would like to challenge all of us to see work or effort as a means to learn, grow, and achieve a higher and more fulfilling level of living.


Work is a necessary evil to be avoided. ~Mark Twain

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. ~Thomas Edison

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise to all whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil – this is the gift of God. ~Ecclesiastics 5:18-19

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. ~Confucius

Jesus said, “Blessings on the person who has labored and has found life.” ~Gospel of Thomas 58

Jesus said, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will reign over all. ~Gospel of Thomas 2

Gathering Words:

The Power of And By Susan Deininger

One: Belief in Or makes winners and losers. All: Belief in And builds teams. One: Belief in Or closes minds. All: Belief in And grows minds. One: Belief in Or stops discussions. All: Belief in And encourages discussions. One: Belief in Or shuts people out. All: Belief in And invites people in. One: Belief in Or divides and limits. All: Belief in And unites and expands. One: Belief in Either-Or separates, While thinking And unifies. All: Let us gather our wisdom into one giant force With the power of And, with respect for all.

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