Yesterday, I made the apparently controversial point that hard work and smart work can lead anyone to success. I heard all the usual responses to this – that some people are born with genetic gifts, that a “white man” has all the advantages, that people can work their fingers to the bone and never get ahead, and the blind accusation that I must have never been poor.
I grew up in a loving household with two wonderful parents. We were financially poor – at times, we were very poor. My parents were faced with a lot of difficult choices and they made a lot of sacrifices to give me some great opportunities in life. We weren’t the poorest around, either – I constantly witnessed people in much worse situations than ours.
What I witnessed time and time again is that most poor people do work hard – very hard. They go into their jobs and do back-breaking work, day after day. They grind their youth away in the factories and the mills, and they go home at night utterly exhausted. The next morning, they get up and do the same thing again. Most of them are intelligent, too. They see it happening – and they don’t like it.
This is the crucial point where the “work smarter” aspect comes into play. Most of the people I grew up with answered this problem by drinking it away. They’d drink beer to dull the pain, then go into work again the next day and do it all over again. They’d sit around and complain about how “the man” in his various forms was out to get them – folks of various ethnicities would complain about white folks, women would complain about men, white men would complain about rich people, liberals would blame “trickle-down Reaganomics” conservatives, conservatives would blame “socialist” liberals. Everyone had “the man” holding them down, and they looked for someone else to blame.
The first step to working smart is to stop blaming “the man” and start looking for every foothold you can grab to climb out of your situation. You don’t have to be educated or anything else to start doing this. You don’t need extra money laying around. You don’t need anything except a desire to accomplish more than you’re accomplishing and the work ethic to do something.
Don’t believe me? What’s keeping any member of the working poor from trying any of the following?
Turn off the television at night. Instead of coming home and relaxing in front of the television, how about turning it off and then spending that time looking for some way – any way – to improve yourself? Turn the average television off for two hours a night and cancel that cable package and suddenly you’ll have an extra $60 a month.
Do everything you can do at work as well as you possibly can. It’s much easier to just do the minimal job, but don’t just stop there. If you’re standing idle for a few minutes, help someone else out. People will start to notice this and you will be looked upon well by others – the ones who count. If you stand around doing nothing, you look like a waste of an organization’s resources. If you work hard, you look like something valuable.
Give up expensive and self-damaging habits. Many people are not impressed by a compulsive drinker or a chainsmoker – it puts off socially negative signals. Work hard to break these habits and you’ll find yourself feeling better, appearing better to others, and saving money.
Ask your supervisor what you would have to do to get promoted. Even if you’re a janitor or a person on the factory floor, go to your supervisor and ask what you need to do to get ahead. Several things will happen, all of them positive. You’ll create a positive impression on your supervisor, likely some advice on how you can get ahead, a possible mentor, and if there really is no way to get ahead, you’ll figure that out, too.
Keep a clean and tidy appearance at all times. Shave every day. Take a shower every day. Brush your teeth. Wear deodorant. If you have visible body piercings and tattoos, try to get them removed or take effort to minimize their visible effect. In short, put forth an impression that you care for yourself – it will imply directly that you care for other things as well.
Take an evening class. Take that cash and that time you gained from turning off the television and enroll in an evening class down at the community college in anything that you can improve yourself with. That $60 a month can pay for a good class at the community college. If you’re scared that you’re “too dumb to learn,” use that money to take very basic classes. Show a strong desire to learn. If you’re willing to put in the work, teachers will love to help you. Ask questions, even if they seem stupid. Swallow your pride.
Build your social network as much as you can, especially with positive people. Talk to everyone. Find out more about them – where they work, what their interests are, how they spend their time. Make a special effort to talk to people who have made it out of a situation like yours – the guy who “made it.” Treat everyone as if they have something valuable to say, even if you think they’re a complete fool. You’ll build a connection there, one that will someday prove valuable to you, often in a way you completely don’t expect.
Always keep on the lookout for a better opportunity. If you’re working at a minimum wage or other low-end job, keep your eyes and ears open at all times for other opportunities. Perhaps there are openings in the postal service, or maybe a penitentiary near you is hiring and providing a strong salary. Every once in a while, tug the strings in your social network and see what’s available and what’s happening, because you might know someone who knows someone who happens to be hiring at that place. Management-oriented classes are never a bad idea for anyone.
Learn a trade. If you work as an unskilled worker in a place with skilled workers, take every single opportunity you can scrounge up to learn their trade. Absorb as many of the skills as you possibly can for free and save up for any certifications you might need. If you work as a handy man while people around you are making good money as electricians or you’re sweeping floors while carpenters are busy at work, spend every spare second absorbing what they’re doing, and look for opportunities to show the people in charge that you’re learning. Look for opportunities to be an apprentice, too.
If you have specific limitations, seek every bit of help you can. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, either. Contact social services, describe your problem, and ask for help. Western society offers help for almost every kind of social, physical, and mental need, but you have to stand up and ask for it – it won’t come to you. At the same time, don’t come to rely on the crutch. Learning to stand completely on your own will make you stronger in every way. Use help to get up off the floor, but don’t use that help to live – use that help to get back on your feet and start walking for yourself.
Be patient. Your problems won’t be solved overnight. I’ve worked hard, failed, worked hard again, failed again, and kept trying. The success that I’ve achieved with The Simple Dollar – or anything else in my life – didn’t come quickly or easily. It doesn’t for everyone. The greatest danger is giving up.
More than anything else, stop blaming other people. Blaming other people is just an excuse to not do your best. Realize that when you fail, a good chunk of the blame does fall squarely on you. You didn’t do all that you could do to succeed, or else you pinned your hopes on the wrong place. Figure out why you failed, get up, and try again.
There isn’t an able-bodied person in the Western world who couldn’t apply most of these things to their own life, they just choose not to. It’s easier that way. However, the easy road today is often the very hard road over the long run.