This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.
Over the weekend, a friend of mine came to visit. She's a career counselor and, while I wasn't looking for free advice, the conversation naturally turned to my job hunt.
“How's it going?” she asked.
“It's bleak,” I complained.
“Oh, I know.” She told me about clients she's worked with who went on second and third interviews. Those clients were sure they got the job. Then they found out they justâ€¦didn't.
“Employers can choose from the cream of the crop right now,” she told me. “Some companies aren't even actively hiring. They put out job ads just to see what else is out there.”
She's gotta be kidding, right? I might be applying to companies that are, for all intents and purposes, keeping their options open?
“That's like asking someone out when you're married,” I joked.
I've always been a firm believer that hard work pays off — and in the past, it has. Last year, I was a testament to that clichÃ©. I made six figures doing something I really love — writing. But now, on my third month of searching for steady work, I'm starting to second-guess myself.
“Hard work doesn't matter,” a co-worker once told me, after he'd been fired. “It's all how you play the game,” he said.
Back then, I rolled my eyes and chalked up his perspective to his being a negative person. But now, I can kind of relate to the cynicism. While I'm not into playing games, I can't help but scoff, at least a little, at the whole “hard work pays off” clichÃ©.
Yet something in me still believes it's true. The past few months have been extremely stressful. Depressing, even. Sometimes, I want to give up just to spite Fate. But somehow, I'm persistent. Somehow, I do still think hard work pays off — here's why.
I've seen it work
On top of hunting for work, I've been reading a lot about wealth inequality. So, you know, that hasn't done much for my cynicism. It may be true that the rich get richer and the poor and middle-class take two steps back for every step forward. Maybe hard work isn't what it used to be, but I've seen it pay off for one persistent couple: my parents.
“We bought a new car,” my mom told me a couple of months ago.
“Huh?” I asked. “What about the Toyota?” I thought for sure she would drive that thing into the ground to really get the most out of it. This is a woman who can't throw away takeout containers because “they're still perfectly usable.”
When I asked her why they decided to buy a new car, my mom went through a series of justifications that weren't necessary. Having both grown up in poverty, I can tell my parents still feel a bit guilty when it comes to spending. Perfectly good reasons aside, my parents simply wanted a new car and, for the first time in their lives, they can afford something they “simply want.”
My mom grew up third-world poor, and my dad spent part of his teen years living on the street. They met at the grocery store where they both worked. They continued to work there through the first half of my childhood.
My parents always felt bad for not being able to provide enough for their children. So now, I can't help but feel proud of them when they tell me:
“If you need anything, just ask.”
To reach a place my mom calls “financially blessed,” my parents were resourceful and persistent. But they also worked their butts off through all the tough times.
Getting rich slowly requires hard work
From having goals to living below your means to being OK with failure, getting rich slowly means working for your wealth.
Paying off debt isn't easy. Neither is saving money when you can barely cover your bills. But many of you have done it or are doing it now.
So far, the idea behind getting rich slowly has worked for me. And it worked because, even when I felt like giving up, I kept going. No, I was never in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of debt. And yes, I got lucky with a couple of great jobs. But there were plenty of times that I wanted to stop saving, live it up and forget about the future. While tempting, I worked through those thoughts — and I'm glad I did. I think if I work through this tough time, my future self will probably thank me.
Cynicism doesn't help
Bouncing from disappointment to disappointment, it's hard not to become cynical.
But there's cynical, and there's being realistic. I'm learning to tell the difference between the two. It helps to ask myself whether my attitude helps or hinders or me.
Knowing that I probably won't get the high-profile job I've seen posted for the past three months is, basically, realistic. It helps to remind myself not to get excited about this job. Realistically, my chances are slim.
But the cynical side of that is, “It's probably not going to happen anyway, so why even bother?” That doesn't do me any good. It's just not practical for me to wallow in cynicism and self-pity.
Ultimately, I work hard for myself
Not that it's anyone's fault, but when I was laid off, I couldn't help but feel angry. Even though they acknowledged my hard work, even though it was out of anyone's control, I felt resentment for having given it my all.
But the thing is, ultimately, I work hard for myself. I don't even really do it for my career. I like to work; I like to feel useful and skilled. I like knowing that I've earned my keep, no matter where it comes from.
There's no other choice
Sometimes, you just don't have the option of giving up. You can stop paying off your debt, but you'll just be in even more debt. I can give up on looking for work, but struggling to pay the bills for the rest of my life doesn't sound good. I don't give up on “hard work pays off” because, well, I don't have a choice.
Although it's unfair to compare situations, and although it sounds remarkably futile, it could always be worse.
Somewhere, someone is working way harder for way less. And not just in third-world countries — in this one, too. Some people don't battle with cynicism as much as they simply struggle to survive. My cynicism and doubt would be considered entitled and spoiled to many people in the world.
This isn't to say you shouldn't question the cards you're dealt. It's not to say that, when something isn't right, you shouldn't do something about it. But sometimes, there's nothing else you can do. Sometimes, you just have to put your head down and keep going until it gets better.