The Story Economy Blog

Honest Work, Dreaming Big, and Other Clichés I’m Annoyed With


I got a pedicure the other day at my regular pedicure place (Deluxe Nail Salon & Spa, if you’re curious: they are THE BEST in Cincinnati). Anyway, I get a different nail technician each time I go, because I always just drop in. This time, as usual, I sat down with my feet in the soaking basin. My nail tech, a very slight older Asian gentlemen with a warm smile, asked me if the water temperature was okay. I smiled and said yes and settled into reading my magazine.

Everything was normal . . . until he started massaging my feet (part of their standard pedi).

I say “massage,” but it was immediately clear this man was highly trained in reflexology, as he hit pressure point after pressure point. I must have had a stunned expression on my face, because he said, “Okay?”

“Yes!” I said. “More than okay! You are trained in reflexology?”

He nodded and said something akin to, “People come to see me for this.”

For the next 20 minutes, I sat in the pedi chair, trying to look like a normal person. Although when someone is hitting the pressure points on your feet and you feel mounds of tension all over your body just melt, one after the other, it’s hard to stay looking normal.

“How do I make sure I get you every time?” I asked when he was finished. He wrote down his name for me and I said, “I will ask for you next time.” He smiled and nodded and was off to his next pedi. What I wanted to say, but didn’t, was Why are you here? Don’t you know that you could be charging more than $100/hour for this on your own?You are more than just a nail tech!

Lately, I’ve recognized this tendency of mine to see “potential” in others and point it out to them. On the surface, it seems positive, like, “You are SO good at what you do!” But it quickly turns condescending, because what I really mean is, “Don’t you aspire to more? How can you be satisfied just doingthis?” It reeks of imperialism (“Let me civilize you!”) and presumptiveness.

What I need to do is shut my mouth, appreciate someone who is amazing in their craft, and recognize that they are a grown-ass person and have reasons for being where they are and doing things how they do them—and unless they ask for my advice, don’t offer it.

Basically, don’t be a patronizing, know-it-all, pain-in-the-ass human being.

It makes me think about how I got this idea of what “aspiring to more” means, and its strange relationship with the notion of “honest work.”

I’m writing a lot lately about different facets of honesty, and what it means to live an honest life. It’s thorny enough to write about honesty in romantic and family relationships, but honesty as it applies to work is its own strange thing. “Honest work” seems like a positive thing (kind of like the question: “Don’t you aspire to more?”), but it’s mostly a backhanded compliment. 

Think about it: have you ever called something “honest work” before? If so, I’d venture to guess you meant it to describe a kind of work that is either not well-paid or not well-appreciated—perhaps manual labor, or an exhausting minimum-wage job. Case in point: When I searched “honest work,” one of the top results was “Labor Quotes, Sayings About Hard Work, Physical Work.”

Does this mean that physical work is inherently more honest than cerebral work? If we have to think too much, does it compromise integrity? If we are paid too handsomely for the work, does it somehow make it more dishonest? Leo Tolstoy famously said, “Honest work is much better than a mansion.” I dig the spirit of what he is saying, but I’m not quite ready to pit honesty against having a mansion (at least until I experience what it’s like to have a mansion).

I think it’s that, as a culture, we don’t value laboring jobs as much, so we label them “honest” as a consolation prize. As in, how good of you to do this “honest” job that I don’t want to do.How earnest of you to fix my toilet, repair my roads, take my drive-thru order, and paint my house.

We save the sexy verbs like aspire, strive, empower, and dream for non-laboring careers, and the jobs that we decide are less-than-desirable, we simply call “honest.”

It’s something akin to telling someone who is struggling with his or her choice to be a stay-at-home-parent that they are doing “the most important job there is”—as if that answers anything. All it does is absolve the person saying it from having to think about the complexity of the issue, and somehow, they get to be the hero for pointing out that the mom or dad in question is doing something so much more “important” than what they are doing (which may be paying six figures or more).

So, on one hand, we are holding up the notion of “honest work”—work you do for purity of spirit, or with your hands, or . . . whatever. But in the same breath, we have this obsession with “aspiring for more”—particularly around the messages we give to young people.

I’m reminded of a story my sister has told before, about when her youngest graduated from high school about five years ago. The commencement speaker told a story about his grandson, and how one day, he asked his grandson what he wanted to be when he grew up. His grandson, who was enamored of his toy dump truck at the time, said that he wanted to drive a dump truck. I guess the speaker was trying to make a point about empowering young people to dream, and he recounted how he said to his young grandson, “But you can do anything you want, and learn anything! Why would you limit yourself to that? You’re so much more than that!” At which point, my sister’s husband (who has been a plumber by trade for 30+ years), leaned over to my sister and said, “Who the fuck does he think built the giant new addition to the high school we’re sitting in right now?”

I’ve certainly been guilty of saying similar things as that commencement speaker: trying to encourage people to dream bigger and not settle. But at what point does it all become a condescending cliché that says far more about you than the person you’re talking to?

Where is the balance between not limiting oneself and not letting someone else define what is limiting?

The reality is that someone has to build the roads. Someone has to take care of sick people. Someone has to teach children multiplication. Someone has to enforce laws. Someone has to make people laugh. Someone has to make sure that the pipes do what they’re supposed to do so we’re not walking down the street, stepping in piles of crap.

What if we thought of “potential” as merely the ability to find your place in this tangled mess of things that make a society work—so that it isn’t all about what you do, but how you feel doing it? I think our framework for success and pushing kids to achieve and the obsession with everyone going to college is kind of messed up right now. It’s breaking a lot more hearts than it’s filling, causing disappointment, anxiety, and a really insidious feeling of inferiority.

I don’t think there is anything particular “honest” about any of it.

When it comes to how we talk about careers and the choices we make around them, the only honesty that we should be talking about is self-honesty. The problem is that it’s a lot more nuanced and complicated message than either “dream big” or “do honest work.”

It isn’t just about not being condescending to my reflexologist nail tech. It’s about thinking differently. That’s always a doozy. Let’s try though.

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