Work as contribution

A short time ago, my priest gave a sermon that addressed the deep sorrow and sense of worthlessness internalized by our parishioners that were unemployed. The point of the sermon, actually, was how the unemployed felt “useless” and demeaned for being unable to provide for their families, but that nobody in God’s family should ever feel useless or demeaned. Fine sentiments.

It struck me, though, that we miss a big part of what work represents: contribution. We work to contribute to our society. The value of that contribution to society is often measured by the money we make (profit is a measure of value creation). Whether you design a new i-gizmo, manage a postal delivery room, mop floors or serve-up burgers at the big-M, you are contributing and, as such, your work is noble. A mind game that I like to play when people speak of certain work being beneath them is to ask, what if that job just disappeared: no ditch diggers, no burger flippers, no cleaning people, no garbage collectors (oops, “sanitation engineers)? Not a pretty picture, is it?

I once reminded my kids of this when they made fun of fast-food service workers. Both ended up working as restaurant help (my son worked at Taco Bell). It was good for them.

I suspect that much of the angst and ennuie that we see among the unemployed, trust-fund babies and the badly-employed (i.e., those that knowingly cause damage to society) is a deep seated awareness that they are not contributing. This leads to anger, antisocial behaviors and tantrums. In many case, not only they not contributing, but they feed off the productivity of the contributors. That certainly doesn’t contribute to self-esteem. On the other hand, if you contribute, you don’t need to feel bad about yourself. I am at an age where my peers love nothing more than to mentor younger employees and pass on the knowledge they have accumulated over their careers. There is a wonderful light in the eyes of these veterans – they are contributing!

Unfortunately, I sense that our society has been drifting away from this. Work is seen by too many as something that one is forced to do in order to survive, a necessary drudgery. Wage slaves. It’s so unfair!  Too many people choose professions because they want to make money, rather than by their sense of how they will contribute. I have known many such people, some very wealthy, most of whom were profoundly unhappy.

That’s too bad. I suspect that one big reason our country is in decline is because we measure tend to measure our lives by the material things we obtain rather than by how we contribute to society.

I suggest that one way we can really help our country is to re-ennoble the value of work by, as Book mentioned so eloquently in an earlier post, reframing its meaning. I don’t care what kind of work somebody does…just as long as they contribute, it is noble, it is good.

If you disagree with me, let me know. If you agree, then go let’s go and find some young kids and explain to them the nobility of work as a contribution to society. Don’t ask people what they do for a living, ask them how they “contribute”. I suggest that we could spread around quite a bit of happiness and self worth that way.

That’s just my two cents, of course.


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  • Marica

    Danny– As I began reading, I hoped to see a particular word. and sure enough you obliged.

    “Work is seen by too many as something that one is forced to do in order to survive, a necessary drudgery.”  

    Yesterday I was writing elsewhere about the so-called drudgery of housework. In doing a bit of research, I came upon this:

    “But the gains of drudgery are not seen only in the solid successes of life, but in their effect upon the man himself. Let me take in illustration a not infrequent case. Suppose a man gives up his youth to the struggle for some coveted degree, some honour or award of the scholarly life. It is very possible that when he obtains that for which he has struggled, he may find that the joy of possession is not so great as the joy of the strife. It is part of the discipline of life that we should be educated by disillusion; we press onward to some shining summit, only to find that it is but a bastion thrown out by a greater mountain, which we did not see, and that the real summit lies far beyond us still. But are we the worse for the struggle? No; we are manifestly the better … ” 

    The Gains of Drudgery
    The Making of Manhood, 1894

    By William James Dawson

    That’s not a typo. 1894. The whole thing is posted at

    Your argument about contribution is well taken. But for what it’s worth– I think part of the problem is lack of pride in one’s actions or product. If no one fails, passing is not a big deal. If no team looses, winning is not an accomplishment. 

  • suek

    >>I think part of the problem is lack of pride in one’s actions or product. If no one fails, passing is not a big deal. If no team looses, winning is not an accomplishment. >>

    Excellent point. And one that I agree is at the heart of a lot of dissatisfaction today. It starts out in young children, and proceeds right on through school…all the way up the line. Children are praised for being terrific human beings … just for existing. All of societies’ problems are diagnosed as being caused by “poor self-esteem”, so the answer society gives is to make everybody feel good about themselves – not for what they accomplish, but for just being. The result is that we have a very large portion of the population walking around feeling that they are enriching the world just simply by their existence, and oh by the way….we owe them something for that fact. You know…like a house, a car, food…whatever their little hearts desire.

    We need to take a step back and start raising our children to be appreciated for what they _do_, not for the fact that they simply _are_.

    Even though we may love them for simply being…we still have to instill self worth based on what they do.

  • David Foster

    “Too many people choose professions because they want to make money, rather than by their sense of how they will contribute”….and a lot of people choose professions because of status considerations, and/or because they can’t think of anything else to do. This seems particularly true of those going to law school.

    I think there is a huge gap in providing realistic information to kids about careers–what’s out there, what the work is really like, and what it requires. 

  • Charles Martel

    One reason I like football so much is that making a contribution is at the heart of the game. For every egoistic blowhard who pats himself on the back when he makes a spectacular catch or tackle, there are a couple of dozen young men whose eyes light up in joy when they know they’ve made a great play for the team, and you can see them kvell at the slaps on the back and affectionate helmet banging their deed evokes.

    Where the self-esteem movement gets it wrong is its timing. You don’t congratulate people for something they haven’t done yet—and may never do. You wait for them to make their contribution, whether it’s politely and efficiently moving a lunchtime fast-food crowd, or hauling in the winning score with one hand, or showing up on this blog, a new voice, and making wonderful, trenchant observations.

  • 11B40


    I don’t think that I ever internalized that “nobility of work” construct. I come from “the devil finds work for idle hands” and “make yourself useful” traditions. [with apologies to Sister (of Mercy) Frances de Chantal and my dear old mom] 

  • Gringo

    Until I was 24, no jobs I had paid better than 15% above minimum wage.
    The people who demean fast food jobs or the like don’t know what they are talking about. You can learn a lot from any job, no matter how low paying.  From  age 16 to 22, washing dishes and working the counter, I learned to appreciate the dedication and hard work of the restaurant owners who spent 100+ hours a week to make their restaurants a success.  I never thought about it at the time,  but as the owners were US citizens of  Lebanese, Chinese, Sicilian and Irish origins I was exposed to  1) the American dream and 2) the diversity of this county. (Not that the diversity was a surprise to me before I started working in restaurants.)  Of course I also learned: do your job.
    Regarding their being dead end? They gave me a track record of being a reliable employee. At age 22 I was able to change to a much more interesting job, even it if didn’t  pay that much more.
    When I quit my last restaurant job in early November, the owners requested that I come back and work Thanksgiving, which was a big day for them. I did so. As they had been fair to me, I decided to return the favor.  The night before Thanksgiving I worked the night shift at my new place of employment. After I got 4-5 hours of sleep, I hitched to the restaurant and worked Thanksgiving. I then worked the night shift at my new place of employment. Ah, the energy of the young.
    I was not required to work Thanksgiving. Turns out the restaurant owners are not the only ones who benefited. Several years later my brother wanted a “quick and dirty” money earner during his college’s Christmas break. I called up the restaurant, and got him the job- which  I doubt would  have occurred if I hadn’t worked Thanksgiving. My brother went on to get a second degree in Restaurant Management and work some years in that field. I  got him his first restaurant job.

  • jj

    I don’t know.  I find myself ambivalent.  I think if you’re doing something that actually serves a useful purpose, doing something that people actually need, then you are indeed entitled to feel as though you’re contributing.  But humanity – in spite of the advertisers – really needs very little to survive.  To me that’s the center of the problem: what we need, as opposed to all the rest of it.  (Some of it we want, as opposed to need – and a lot of it is completely unnecessary.)
    The human race needs people to grow and provide food.  We need people who know how to make clothing and build shelter.  We need doctors, and people who can figure out that stuff like acacia roots and moldy bread are good things.  When you strip it down to the essentials that’s about it.  That’s all the race actually requires for its continuation.
    Which means that 95% of us are engaged in stuff that we know, deep down inside, is, at root, BS.  Not necessary.  If all the accountants, lawyers, ad-men, writers, salesmen, astronauts, pilots, career counselors, etc, etc, etc vanished tonight at midnight, would humanity be in danger of extinction?  Of course not.  Those jobs are all nice, they’re all from time to time fun – but they’re irrelevant in any meaningful way.
    And the realization that what you’re doing is entirely unimportant and is in fact complete BS has been at the root of a lot of very good literature, from Death of A Salesman through A Thousand Clowns right up to today’s Up In the Air.  And it’s at the root of a lot of unhappy people, as depicted in the literature.
    It’s hard to get a sense of self-worth from selling Ginsu knives.  (Or selling much of anything – if you  have some sensibility you know you’re a huckster no one needs.)
    Having spent much of an entirely useless life in the halls of entertainment, I sympathize.  It’s very hard to take pride in, or feel you’re contributing to anything or anybody – except your own exchequer – from what the vast majority of us do.  I’m afraid most of us lead lives devoted to nonsense, in the grand scheme of things.  

  • Ymarsakar

    This is not so much different from the Japanese view of NEETs or freeloaders.


  • Danny Lemieux

    Gringo: “The people who demean fast food jobs or the like don’t know what they are talking about. You can learn a lot from any job, no matter how low paying.”

    I agree. My number one daughter now works on Wall Street. She learned sales, customer service and making change by waiting on tables.  

    JJ, Ginsu knives are good knives. Sure beats  knives made of chipped flint stone, don’t you think? If you provide people with a better, improved knife, isn’t that a contribution to society? I don’t think it’s a question of what we can survive with in order to prevent extinction but also of what contributes to quality of life.

    If material things or services don’t have value, people won’t pay for them. In other words, things of no value won’t be profitable… which gets to my earlier point about “profit” as a measure of added-value and wealth creation.


  • Oldflyer

    Good philosophical question. 
    If I had a  kid who made fun of the fast food worker, or any one else because of the job, say a trash collector; I would advise my kid to do the job personally and see if had value..  With respect to the learning value of menial jobs, I suspect that the kids who work at “In and Out Burger”, are as a rule pretty successful in later life.  They have learned to work hard, work as at team in which each does a small but essential function,  and to do it cheerfully.  Valuable lessons.
    My first paying job was in the tobacco fields.  It was drudgery, pure and simple.  But, I will never forget the pleasure I felt when I realized that my efforts had value.  $3.00/day.

  • Marica

    Oldflyer– in a former life, I followed in my dad’s footsteps: retail management. He told me, “Never ask someone who works for you to do something you wouldn’t do or haven’t done.” Good advise. Nothing will teach you respect for the janitor’s job more than cleaning a public restroom. 

    This is fun stuff. Can I bounce something off y’all? I think the motivation to work (I’m talking about having a job) changes over time. So I think, Danny, that there’s more going on with respect to the angst you’re talking about. When we are young, we work to pay the bills or buy stuff. It used to be the case (maybe still is for some) that girls babysat and boys mowed lawns. We did this because we wanted something and no one was going to just give it to us.

    Then, if we’re lucky, we work at something we love doing and are good at. It’s just part of who you are and even when you’re not “at” work, you’re still thinking about it, mulling over solutions to problems, and so on. Sometimes you had to try a few things before you found the right match. You’re still working to pay the bills, but you’ve matured. If you’re lucky. (I for one can’t imagine being in my 30-50s and hating my job.)

    Finally we work to contribute. You mentioned teaching. My dad, with his 40 years in retail, wound up working at a churches-based non-profit business managing the “retail” inventory. I don’t think you have to be retired to hit this phase. You could be motivated right out of college. Or what you love doing is really a contribution. But I don’t think it’s the prime motivator of younger people.

    That, at least, was the model I grew up seeing and living. So maybe, just as there are different motivators, there are different forms of angst among the un-, under-employed. 

  • Danny Lemieux

    Marica, do you think young people would like their jobs better if it was defined for them as “contribution”?

  • Marica

    Danny, I do not know. I will think about this while I’m digging up sweet potatoes  contributing to my family’s happiness. 

  • Old Buckeye

    Don’t ask people what they do for a living, ask them how they “contribute”.
    This question would undoubtedly leave many speechless. If you’re not contributing, are you necessarily taking? Or might you be in a dead-end job from which there is no escape? (For instance, many people stick with a particular job because their health care policy is tied to it, which, in my opinion, makes the case for  buying health care policies on the open market.)

  • Danny Lemieux

    Old Buckeye, you might be in a dead-end job, but if somebody is paying you with their own money, you are likely “contributing”, aren’t you? What would be your idea of a dead-end job that does not contribute to society (government is off the shelf on this question)?

  • David Foster

    jj…”Death of a Salesman” may be a great play, but I think it contains an unpleasant element of snobbism and has acted to deter thousands of people from what could have been interesting and profitable careers.

    I’m thinking particularly of this passage:

    “Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to life. He don`t put a bolt to a nut, he don`t tell you the law or give you medicine. He`s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”

    Miller actually thinks a lawyer is more similar to an assembly worker than to a salesman? The nature of law differs across practice areas, of course, but basically a lawyer *is* a salesman..he is selling his case, orally or via filings. The idea that selling to a judge is somehow more substantive than selling to other kinds of customers reeks of certain ideas of social class on Miller’s part. 

  • jj

    I don’t know what Miller actually thought, though he was probably not any worse than a bit of an intellectual snob.  I personally can’t stand the play, but I was referring to the idea that Willy knew his life was not necessary to to anyone, and of no importance – ultimately even to him.  Certainly not a ‘contribution’ to much of anything.
    The point is, most careers and vocations are – in the ‘contributing to society’ sense – built on not much.  And most people know it.  Some it causes despair, as it did Willy.  If you don’t like Miller, check out Glengarry, Glenross.  The general worthlessness – again, in the ‘contribution to society’ sense – of what most of us do is a sad reality.  The difference between what humanity needs and what it has, and how irrelevant to ‘need’ what most of us do turns out to be, means most of us are not, never did, and never will be ‘contributing.’  Are we all gainfully, if not usefully, employed?  Sure.  Would the race be in any danger of extinction if we flickered out this evening?  Nope. 
    Work per se is not a virtue.  It’s just work.  Damned little of it adds anything of value to the common weal.

  • David Foster

    jj, I think your definition of value to the common weal is too restricted. The human race could probably survive just fine without art, literature, theatre, or any architecture above the most utilitarian level….indeed, not even all that much *sex* would be necessary…40 or 50 times per lifetime would probably be sufficient to keep the numbers up. But are these things therefore valueless?

    I think for most people, if they are unhappy in their jobs, it has much more to do with the specific nature of the work and the management than with any existential despair about the ultimate meaning of the efforts. 

  • Old Buckeye

    Danny,  as to what job might be considered a dead end job: I think “dead end” might best be defined by the person in the job, but I’m possibly confusing “contribution” with “satisfaction.” Maybe not the same thing? 

  • Gringo

    David Foster, in your comment #16 you show an embedded link. At one time I was able to have embedded links in my comments, but a change in Book’s software has stopped that capability for some time now. I need to post naked links.  I wonder if the difference is in the browsers we use. I use Firefox. What browser do you use?

  • 94Corvette

    When I was putting myself through college I worked as a janitor.  I was responsible for the school’s administration building where the President, Dean of Students, Dean of Men and Dean of Women all had their offices.  My boss, Mr. Holloman, taught me an important lesson that I remember today.  He taught me that as the janitor, my contribution was even more important to the college than all of the Deans combined.  How?  If I didn’t do my job at 100% one day, I would know.  If I didn’t do my job at 100% for two days, he would know.  If I didn’t do my job at 100% for three days, the public would know and if I didn’t do my job at 100% for four days, the Deans would know. 

    On the other hand, if the Deans disappeared for a week, nobody would know and no body would care. 

  • Mike Devx

    As a test, I’m going to try to embed the same link that Mr. Foster did.

    Willy was a <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>salesman</a>.

    If it shows up correctly, then I would suggest doing what I did in my Safari browser: I clicked on Edit->View Source, and found his embedded link, which is formatted as an “a” (anchor) html tag. I searched for “Willy was a” to find the embedded link.

    Firefox has something similar to Edit->View Source that you can use to examine the html content to find out exactly how to type it in.

  • Mike Devx

    Well, how about that.  It didn’t work!

  • Marica

    The only efficient way to pull sweet potatoes out of the ground is to dig with your paws like a puppy. I’ve tried other means and they were unsuccessful. So after a full day of digging like a puppy, it takes a lot to make me laugh out loud. 

    Thank you, 94Corvette.  

  • David Foster

    Gringo, Mike Devx…the odd thing is that I did not intend to include a link….I just copied the text from the article. In the article, the link doesn’t point to itself, but rather (idiotically) to a definition of the word “salesman.”

  • David Foster

    Speaking of janitors..Nancy Ortberg, now a Presbyterian minister, was once a nurse:

    It was about 10:30 pm. The room was a mess. I was finishing up some work on the chart before going home. The doctor with whom I loved working was debriefing a new doctor, who had done a very respectable, competent job, telling him what he’d done well and what he could have done differently.

    Then he put his hand on the young doctor’s shoulder and said, “When you finished, did you notice the young man from Housekeeping who came in to clean the room?” There was a completely blank look on the young doctor’s face.

    The older doctor said, “His name is Carlos. He’s been here for three years. He does a fabulous job. When he comes in here he gets the room turned around so fast that you and I can get our next patients in quickly so that you and I can get our next patients in quickly. His wife’s name is Maria. They have four children.” Then he named each of the four children and gave each child’s age.

    The older doctor went on to say. “He lives in a rented house about three blocks from here, in Santa Ana. They’ve been up from Mexico for about five years. His name is Carlos,” he repeated. Then he said “Next week I would like you to tell me something about Carlos that I don’t already know. Okay? Now, let’s go check on the rest of the patients.”

    I remember standing there writing my nursing notes–stunned–and thinking, I have just witnessed breathtaking leadership.

    From my Leadership Vignettes series

  • Gringo

    Mike and David, thanks for the replies. Conclusion:  only if you copy a web article with a link in the article   can you have  a comment with an embedded link with Book’s software.  Just don’t copy it to MS Word first.

  • JKB

    One should never wrap up to much of their identity in their work, or rather, employment.  As we see with the unemployed today, work can be taken away.  Much better to take pride in whatever you do and do your best.  Hard sometimes when you evaluate against others but not if you do it for yourself. 

    It also helps, if you move up and get hit by politics.  When you lose in that game and they are trying to force you out, your work, your ethics, are attacked and you must have solid ground or you’ll give way to your enemies.  

    The hardest part of unemployment is the constant money worries.  Every dime is a deep thought problem and reminder.  For many, this remains as a long term problem even as they benefit from unemployment insurance, etc. for their and their family’s immediate survival.  And the money problems remain until the “work” produces enough consistently to be relied upon. 

  • Oldflyer

    Great story David.
    The view of work, and the value attached to it, varies with the social/economic climate.  I was a depression baby.  To my father, and his contemporaries, any job was a good job; and I heard that mantra too many times to count during my youth.  Any job that supported your family was valuable.  My Dad had a number of them over the years.  Sometimes he was the boss, sometimes he was down the chain.  Whatever it took.  The notion that work must be fulfilling is a bit of a luxury.
    If one stops and thinks about the matter, you could conclude that in prosperous times, the jobs that contribute the most are among the most menial.  The jobs that most will not do, even in extremis.   Most cities have experienced the horror of a garbage collector’s strike.  Here in Virginia it is rutting season for deer.  They go beserk, like teenagers, and the road kill is horrendous.  Someone comes along, in due time, and collects the carcasses.  If they didn’t, we would all suffer.  You can measure value in dollars, but that is not always a true measure of contribution.
    So often it is our own ignorance that leads us to believe that apparently simple jobs are just that.  I remember telling the great old fellow in South Texas who shod the girls’ horses, that I thought that might be a good post Navy retirement job.  He told me straight up that I could not do it.  I was twenty years late in hardening my body for the rigors of the job.  Not to mention developing the skills, of course.  (He was the farrier for the King Ranch stables, and a legend in the area).

  • Danny Lemieux

    JKB: “One should never wrap up to much of their identity in their work, or rather, employment.  As we see with the unemployed today, work can be taken away.  Much better to take pride in whatever you do and do your best.”

    This is a very good point. I long ago got fed up working for companies that could/would fire people by necessity. I realized that a job is just a job. But my work, my profession, is that in which I take pride, not the company that happens to employ me at any one point in time. 

    Now, I am self-employed. Every job I have now is because I sold my customer(s) on the value of what I could do for them. I know I contribute and I take pride in my profession. 

    My point was, though, every job that contributes is one in which one can take pride. Don’t work for a company, necessarily, but work for the contribution that your job makes to society, even you perceive it to be a small contribution.

  • Mike Devx

    Apologies… another test of the David Foster embedded link trick.
    I created a simple html file on my computer with such an embedded link,
    opened it within my browser,
    and now I’m trying a *browser window* cut and paste below:  (let’s see if it works…)

    Willy was a salesman
    End Test

  • Mike Devx

    Apologies for the intrusiveness again.  But it did work!
    So if you really do want an embedded link in your comment, this will work:

    Create and save a file on your computer that contains something like the following text:

    Willy was a <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>salesman</a>

    1. Change the sentence parts “Willy was a salesman” to your new sentence, replacing “salesman” with your embedded link text.
    2. Change the href=”http:LINK” part to the link you want it to point to.
    3. Save the file.  Open the file in a browser window.
    4. Cut and paste that browser text to your Bookworm comment.

  • Marica

    Danny: “My point was, though, every job that contributes is one in which one can take pride. Don’t work for a company, necessarily, but work for the contribution that your job makes to society, even you perceive it to be a small contribution.”

    Your first point rings true. But why is the contribution to “society” your focus? The better question, perhaps, is what do you regard as “society?” I’m not being intensionally argumentative. I’m wondering, for you, where does “friends and family” end and “society” begin? Where does community fit in?

    Maybe some background will explain what my worries are with you societal-based contributions. I do not work now for a pay check. That is, I’m a post-graduate university-educated graduate of the school of hard knocks vegetable farmer. At one point, I made some spare change teaching people to grow their own veggies & such. THAT was certainly a contribution to society. I then moved into the CSA (community supported agriculture) model. I did not like doing that, although I am great friends with my former “clients.” They now benefit from my over-growing things they love, and that I just give them now. Is giving friends excess fresh produce a contribution to society? Is it in light of the fact that I don’t do it for that reason? I over-grow to be sure WE have enough. It’s absolutely selfish. 

    I take pride in my harvest. I do not work to feed society, just my family. I do work hard. I do encourage others to grow their own veggies for obvious reasons. We do share our bounty. 

    To tell the truth– when it comes down to it, I don’t care if I contribute to Society. I do care about my family and friends. And I do care that my circle of friends (not fb friends, real ones) keeps on getting bigger. 

    I’m a reductionist. Things get built from the bottom up.  

  • Mike Devx

    Marica says in #33: I just give them now. Is giving friends excess fresh produce a contribution to society? Is it in light of the fact that I don’t do it for that reason? I over-grow to be sure WE have enough. It’s absolutely selfish. 

    I can give you my answer, Marica.

    First, you say “It’s absolutely selfish.”
    Well, if I volunteer at a soup kitchen, and when I leave, I feel absolutely euphoric about my contribution to helping the very poor, isn’t that selfish as well?  In fact, nearly all of the time, we do things of many sorts because of *some* perceived benefit to ourselves.  You can call that “selfish” if you want to.  I’d say, don’t call it selfish.  Don’t call it anything, just do it.

    Is it a “contribution” to society?  Sure it is!  Often time is money, and there’s no real difference between giving your excess vegetables away, and donating time at a soup kitchen, for example.

    Economically speaking, what you’re doing is:
    – Setting the market price for your veggies to zero.
    – Offering them first to a select customer group (your friends).  You can still do that (discriminate by customer set) in any of the 50 states I think because your price is zero.  

    Who knows if you’re breaking a law by violating some garden-produce regulation?  I’m thinking of the ladies who brought pies to a bake sale for people to eat.  They’d been doing this for decades.  They got shut down because 1. they baked those pies at home, and their homes were not OSHA-compliant, and 2. They were offering up the pie slices at a location where selling was going on, thus bringing the OSHA regulations into play.  This was in Pennsylvania if I remember correctly.  Sheesh.