I’m convinced that hard work pays off. At least it can pay off if you’re smart about it.
I learned this lesson as a teenager on an ordinary afternoon while hanging drywall with my dad when he casually said something that turned out to be the most valuable money lesson I’ve ever learned.
Hard Work Pays Off
I grew up hanging drywall with my dad and brothers. It’s hard, physical work that takes a toll on your body. Nothing about it is easy and Dad always made it clear that he did NOT want any of his boys to follow in his footsteps. “Use your mind, not your body” to make a living, Dad would say. “This crap is a whole lot like work, boys. Get your education so that you don’t have to do this for the rest of your lives.”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that from him, but it usually went in one ear and right out the other. Then one day Dad happened to deliver this same advice, but in a slightly different way.
One way or another you’re going to work hard for a living. You might as well get paid well for it.
It’s the same general message, but for some reason that small change in wording made a huge difference. Suddenly what Dad had been saying all those years hit home and made sense to me.
ANYONE CAN SWING A HAMMER
On this particular day when Dad tweaked his wording, we happened to be working in a very nice home; it belonged to a lawyer if I remember correctly (update: I talked to my dad about this and he confirmed that we were working on the home of a corporate attorney for a very well-known company). That day my dad told me the wealthy homeowner didn’t work any harder than we worked, that he didn’t work longer hours than we did, and at the end the day we all returned to our respective homes, tired and exhausted. The big difference between us, Dad said, is the amount of money we each made.
We all worked the same amount of hours, but the wealthy lawyer made more money because at some point in his life he’d made the decision to go through years of schooling and training in order to turn his mind into a valuable tool – he was working with his mind. “Anyone can swing a hammer. Not everyone can be a lawyer.” Dad said. “Make sure you get your education so you don’t have to swing a hammer for the rest of your life.“*
Who knows why certain messages stick while others fall flat. But on this particular day, this particular message hit home and I’ve never forgotten it. The picture Dad had painted was crystal clear: You can choose a profession that pays well or you can choose a profession that doesn’t, but either way you’re going to work hard. Why not get paid well for your hard work?!
In his own way dad was telling me to follow opportunity (really he was telling to create my own opportunity).
SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
My dad didn’t go to college and his work options were limited because of that decision. He didn’t want his kids to have the same limited opportunities so he constantly told us to go to school so that we could make a better living. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor confirm his advice: college graduates have lower unemployment rates and make more money than those that don’t graduate from college.
No surprises there.
I don’t come from a long line of college educated men. My dad was a drywaller and a factory worker. His father worked in a steel mill. My great-grandpa was a farmer.
What I do come from is a long line of hard workers, and you probably do too. I’m sure they’d all agree that hard work pays off.
These days I’m more like that lawyer than the drywaller and I can attest to what my dad said over two decades ago. The businessmen and women aren’t working any harder than the men and women in shops and on the streets. True, it’s a different type of work, but we all work hard for our money.
Interestingly, the longer I’m in my career, the less I seem to work and the more I get paid. Sure I put in the same amount of hours (maybe more), but the “work” is often done by others that work with or for me. The opposite was true for my dad’s construction business. As his boys grew up and moved out, he was left to do all of that hard, physical work by himself.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
Despite all of Dad’s advice I didn’t go directly to college. I graduated with my bachelors degree when I was a 29 year old father of two.
So, what took so long? Why the delay?
It wasn’t a conscious decision – life just sort of happened. Mandy and I got married. I started working and was making relatively decent money. We had a baby. Five years somehow came and went in the blink of an eye. During that time I always knew that I should be going to school, but it was hard to walk away and start over.
I wish I would have followed my dad’s advice to get my education much sooner than I did, but I didn’t. However, I am happy that Mandy and I recognized that something needed to change if we wanted different results and that we actually did something about it.
Change isn’t easy. Going back to school full time when I was in my late 20s, with a young child, was a hard thing to do but now, as a 42 year old man, I’m so glad we made this sacrifice. It’s one of the decisions that now allows us to thrive on a single income.
In the image below, which charts my income starting in 1999 (our first full year of marriage), you can see that my income dipped significantly when I went back to school. Keep in mind that my income wasn’t that great to begin with, so deciding to become a full-time student was going to make things even tighter than they already were.
Check this out (the green shaded area is my taxed social security earnings):
CHOOSING TO GET PAID WELL
Sure it was financially painful to eliminate the majority of our income so that I could go back to school. To make ends meet, Mandy kept working (she even delivered baby #2 during this time), and we also lived off of student loans and grants, but mostly we just lived a very humble lifestyle in order to make this work.
Those were really hard times, but looking back they were absolutely worth it. Just look at what happened to our income once I graduated – it began to skyrocket! We’ve even recovered nicely from that big dip in my income from 2010-2011.
That dip was a 14 month period of unemployment which began when I walked into work one day in late 2010 and was unexpectedly let go (baby #4 had been born with major health issues just a few weeks earlier, which required a special pediatric surgeon from a regional children’s hospital. And Christmas was just a few weeks away – this was the beginning our what I call our Dark Year).
I lost my job in late 2010 and wouldn’t find my next one until early 2012. We had to sell our home and move over 1,000 miles away to Seattle in order to land that job, but it was worth it financially (and we didn’t really have a choice – we were quite literally out of money, time, and options).
Hard Work Pays Off … Eventually
As a young man I chose to skip college and jump directly into the workforce, but my earnings quickly peaked and whatever financial advantage I got by skipping school and working full time ended up costing me in terms of options and opportunity.
Today I’m 42 years old. Decisions I made as a young man caused me to get a late start to the early retirement game. I even had to start over financially a few years ago, but we’re doing better than ever because I followed my dad’s advice. Had I not, I’m not sure where we’d be?
No doubt I’d be working hard somewhere, but I probably wouldn’t be on track for an early retirement. I’m so happy that we made that sacrifice many years ago! Short term financial pain – long term financial gain!
What sacrifices have you had to make to set yourself up for success? Are there sacrifices you didn’t make that you wish you would have? Do you agree that hard work pays off?
* To be crystal clear, I have nothing against anybody that “swings a hammer” for a living. In fact, I have great respect for those professions. To this day I feel more comfortable and at home in a cheap diner than I do in a fancy restaurant.