One of my favorite quotes attributed to Thomas Edison seems appropriate as our nation celebrates Labor Day 2013. He once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” A few weeks ago actor Ashton Kutcher offered a paraphrased version at the Teen Choice Awards when he said, “I believe that opportunity looks a lot like work. I never had a job in my life that I was better than.”
Perhaps Kutcher has never heard of the Edison quote but the impact of his brief speech has been quite remarkable. It made headlines and various versions have been viewed on YouTube millions of times. Perhaps it created such a stir because we have become a nation of slackers.
When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, the value of hard work was ingrained in my family and the rural farming community where I was raised. Idleness of any kind was frowned upon and most people I knew, including teenagers, held part-time jobs or performed regular chores around the house. Today, public opinion seems more inclined to sympathize with loafers, whose situation is probably caused by someone else so they are not to blame.
My Grandpa Peachey, who was disabled from a work-related injury, still found ways to contribute to household activities. He could shell peas, snap beans, or dry dishes. I was certainly influenced by the effort he made in spite of his disability. Grandpa Byler remained physically active after he retired from running the family farm by repairing and building furniture, maintaining a garden, cultivating a small orchard, and milking this cow by hand every day. He died in the stable doing the work he loved.
Kutcher understands what my grandparents also knew—work matters because it creates a sense of self worth that can’t be duplicated through any government or charity program. I’m not opposed to a hand up when it is absolutely needed for the short-term, but it is only through perseverance and hard work (at any job) that a person will begin to see the opportunities all around him.
On a day when we honor labor (ironically by taking time off from work), perhaps we should use this holiday each year to reassess our own willingness to do whatever it takes to overcome obstacles and seize opportunities. Maybe we should stop blaming others for our circumstances or resenting the success of our friends and neighbors. Let’s use the occasion to don our overalls and get something done, for ourselves and our nation. Even if it looks and feels a lot like work