I pulled myself up by my bootstraps a half dozen times over. And I resent every minute of it.
Hard work does not, in itself, improve character. For a talented and spirited young man, especially, doing menial labor for pitiful wages under idiot supervisors not only fails to build character—it can destroy it.
Man does not exist to labor for the sake of laboring. Work must serve a purpose. It must be fit to the nature of the one doing it. The modern liberal bureaucratic corporate state—with its hatred of excellence, beauty, and strength—actively seeks to destroy the natural hierarchy of labor and laborers.
Digging ditches won’t automatically make you a good person. For the man who has the soul of a warrior, being a day laborer can be soul killing. The same is true for the man with the nature of a craftsman forced to do repetitive rote tasks. For the highest and best human types, work might not even be tangible at all. The work of the excellent teacher might appear to some as mere leisure and conversation. But can we really say that the life of the mind is lower than that of the body? At the very least we must think about such a proposition.
For plenty of American parents, especially of the Boomer variety, this distinction simply doesn’t register. “Kids these days just don’t understand the value of a dollar. They aren’t willing to work hard. They don’t respect the grind needed to succeed.”
I am well aware of these arguments. I have been surrounded by conservatives issuing such proclamations my entire life. In fairness to these tropes, they do contain a grain of truth, otherwise they wouldn’t persist. No doubt many young people are socialists. Many of them have contempt for those who work hard and would like nothing better than to expropriate their property.
But, far more young Americans—myself included—feel utterly disillusioned and cynical about the nature of modern work for other reasons, and rightfully so.
For one, the Bible itself presents menial work as a curse. In Genesis 3:17 (NIV), God tells Adam, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”
Just because menial labor is sometimes necessary doesn’t mean that it is noble. It certainly doesn’t mean that it is beneficial for those who do it.
I was not, contra the Boomer meme, a lazy young person. I had perfect grades in high school, perfect AP test results, and a near perfect SAT score. I was an Eagle Scout, school tutor, and active member of my church. In college, I worked an unpaid internship for my local congressman and did groundskeeping after football games. I did telemarketer fundraising for my college. At one point, I spent 28 hours a week calling in the evenings while doing schoolwork during the day. I worked every summer, too.
The summer out of high school, I worked as a store clerk for a summer camp selling high-fructose corn syrup filled candy bars and soda to Boy Scouts. We generally worked up to 10 hours a day to keep the camp running. Because of the camp schedule we only got one day off a week—from midday Saturday to midday Sunday. I spent the whole summer living surrounded by natural beauty, unable to explore much of any of it. This was, by far, my worst-paying job. After the camp pulled out our living expenses (we paid to live at the camp, don’t you know) we made roughly $3.50 an hour. I do not recommend such employment.
The next summer, I worked nights cleaning gigantic industrial solar panel fields in the central valley of California. From 6 p.m. until 2 a.m., I walked in a team of two through the endless rows pushing a giant mechanical brush along the panels. We worked as the blistering hot sun faded to cool night. The spray from the cleaning equipment, no matter how hard I tried, got onto my face, under my shirt, and down my leg into my boots. Soaking wet, tired, and cold I trudged through months of that work for $10 an hour. An improvement over Boy Scout trading post job, to be sure, but not by much.
The summer after my sophomore year I moved up further in the world. I got a job at a document shredding and copying firm. This time I made $10 an hour but there was air-conditioning, overtime, and a daytime schedule! Lucky me. So I sat in a windowless office for a whole summer turning rooms full of bankers boxes of legal documents into PDFs. At least I could listen to books on tape. Better than an electric motor droning in your ear all night.
After my junior year I went to Officer Candidate School. I spent a summer getting screamed at, drilling in circles (gotta learn to fight a modern war, Marine!), and grinding away in hours of classroom instruction on uniform regulations and sexual assault prevention—all while averaging between three and four hours of sleep a night. I am told this made me tough and taught me how to protect America. Though I have to wonder, considering that none of my instructors had ever known the taste of victory in war.
But none of this compares to the summer after my senior year. I graduated in May, commission in hand, but my training company at The Basic School for the Marine Corps didn’t pick up until October. This gave me four straight unencumbered months to do with as I pleased. I could have prioritized learning a language, studying military strategy, or physical training. I might have even emphasized continuing with my liberal education through self-study.
But I had embraced the “hard work builds character” mindset. I understood the value of a dollar, see. I wasn’t a lazy bum who just lived in his parent’s basement. No, sir. I knew how to work. And work I did.
I got a job as a groundskeeper for an upscale retirement center. I spent a golden summer in the flower of my youth mowing lawns and picking up trash for wealthy Boomers. I regret every second of it.
What an utter waste. I did not need the money—I earned plenty later in the Marine Corps. I certainly didn’t need something just to keep me busy; I have always had an active intellectual life and a strong sense of purpose. I should have followed my natural inclination and pursued the kind of work fitting for my actual talents.
Instead, I worked for serf-wages doing mind-numbing work in triple digit heat. Far from improving my fitness, I degraded it. The long hours, early waking, and unpleasant conditions did not allow me to focus on the sort of physical development I actually needed. Instead of cultivating my mind by focusing on the higher and more critical tasks of war and peace, I spent my days thinking of inanities. How does one patch a broken sprinkler line? What is the easiest way to kill gophers? What is the most efficient way to use a lawn blower to move grass clippings from the sidewalk back onto the yard?
Sometimes, if there was a lull in my day, I would walk over to the edge of the retirement community and look out at the mighty Sierra Nevadas rising in the east. I dreamed of those mountains—of scaling the peaks and seeing the vistas stretch out before me. I could have spent the whole summer among the ancient forests and crystal-clear lakes of the high mountain meadows if I had really wanted.
I dream of them still.
As a boy, those mountains taught me real character. When I was 12, my father took me to our “namesake mountain.” At 12,264 feet, Mt. Lippincott stands tall in the Great Western Divide. Named after a distant cousin who worked as a surveyor on, among other things, the Hoover Dam, the peak soared high above the San Joaquin Valley where I spent my childhood.
Climbing that mountain with my father was far more memorable and meaningful to me than any summer I spent grinding out a minimum wage paycheck. It certainly shaped my character—for the better—in ways that no menial grind ever could.
One might ask what exactly is the utility of climbing mountains. It doesn’t “produce” anything. It doesn’t cause the GDP green line to go up. What’s the point?
I answer: the heart of some men calls them to the ascent. They long to conquer—to master space. They long to master themselves. That longing—pre-rational, burning, and potent, explains in large part the success and vitality of Western civilization. Some men yearn for nothing but life in a hut tilling the fields and aging with the seasons. But others look out on the vast ocean and wonder what lies beyond. They yearn for more.
As I pass from youth into middle age, I am struck by just how much of my life thus far has been spent in pointless and degrading work. I will never get those hours back. They have been spent and not well. An older adviser once told me when I was a boy that I simply needed to learn to “play the game.”
But I ask now: what if the game is stupid? What if I don’t want to play?
A life of hard toil is a peasant’s life. For the kind of human being who, if left to themselves, would incline towards wicked and dissolute degradation then doing menial labor does build character. Compared to committing murder over Nike shoes, a day spent mowing lawns is a high point! For the more noble type of man, however—for one who seeks glory and wisdom—such hard labor represents a decline.
One might criticize me for not doing more to do work in line with my supposed talents. If I am so smart, why didn’t I find better summer employers? I throw the question back in the critic’s face: why didn’t these better employers come looking for me?
Why is the burden on talented 18-year-olds to properly wargame every minute of their lives and not on our educational and economic institutions to properly cultivate those who are bright but inexperienced? Why do so many parents fiercely insist that their children work, even at demeaning jobs with pitiful pay?
My apologies to guidance counselors and career advisors everywhere, but American teenagers don’t need more work experience. They already have high school. Showing up at 8:15 every morning to sit in a room all day listening to people who are usually dumber than oneself is preparation enough for corporate life.
I am fortunate. I actually did pull myself up by my bootstraps. I didn’t take out a single loan for college. I paid in cash instead. It took virtually every dollar I had but I made it happen. But it shouldn’t have required the sacrifice that it did.
America is filled with millions of people doing make-work jobs for ridiculous sums of money. Colleges are no exception. Somehow our institutions can find millions to pour into administrator salaries, building projects, and lavish awards dinners but young people need to grind out shitty summer jobs and unpaid internships just to get within hailing distance of a decent middle class life.
This is wrong. More importantly, it is vampiric.
Our society encourages the weak, old, and mediocre to sink their fangs into the young, strong, and excellent in order to drain them of their vital energy. The COVID lockdowns explicitly operated on this basis. Young people, at no risk of illness, were ordered to give up years of freedom and normalcy for the sake of those who’s prime of life had already long since passed.
This is a despicable inversion. The old should sacrifice for the young, not the other way around. That which is by nature better and stronger should be given deference and pride of place. In return, those who are in decline should be treated with charity and care. Modern America rejects the natural order. This is why a gaggle of octogenarian oligarchs like Anthony Fauci, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden run the country.
A society that embraces spiritual vampirism doesn’t actually benefit the elderly and weak. Feeding off the strength of the young comes at a deep cost—one that we are going to pay for on a society-wide scale in the coming decades. The rule of decline means death.
Western civilization, as a whole, finds itself caught in this trap. One wonders if there is anywhere left in our declining order where youth, strength, and ambition might still find an outlet for achievement and greatness.
If our civilization is to have a future we must find such a place and we must find such men. This, and not the menial labor of the groundskeeper or ditch digger, is the most pressing and serious work of our age.