When I picked up my dry-cleaning the other day, the bill was $31. I mentioned it was worth every penny, as it saves me so much time. The manager said she was glad she didn't have to do the pressing herself. She said that the people doing the pressing worked non-stop, moving laundry through the system in a hot, humid environment all day long.
As we talked, we both agreed the job would not be pleasant, but that the people working in that position had chosen to do so. The manager added that if those people quit, many others were waiting to take their place.
We then reflected on how entry-level and menial labor jobs are mostly filled by people gaining experience and learning life's lessons, but also how the media sometimes paints all employers as exploiters.
Yes, some bad apples exist. Greedy people may exploit others, and some lazy people demand a free ride. But the majority of people are striving to live the American dream.
Earlier in my life I worked my share of entry-level jobs. The time spent in those positions gave me the motivation to want something better for myself, even though I occasionally believed the silly notion that promotions were somehow "owed" me.
However, I eventually learned that moving beyond those jobs required additional education and skills. I learned that I could not have what I wanted without working for it – without learning marketable skills that somebody was willing to pay for.
In other words, I learned that to achieve my American dream, I was going to have to earn it.
As a result, it bothers me that people are being told they're being selfish for wanting to keep what they earn. Almost everyone I know who's living their dream got there through self-sacrifice. They chose to study when other people were watching TV or out having fun. Some took out student loans which they are still paying back, and some took huge risks that others would never think of taking.
The main point is that advancement - to whatever level one wants - comes through personal effort.
The manager of the dry cleaners was in agreement with this philosophy. She told me how she arrived at her current position by learning what was required and then making sure she could do it. She also said she had no desire to move beyond where she was. She said the money wasn't great, but that she made enough to get by.
She said she thought it was selfish for poorer people to expect rich people to share their wealth just because they had more of it. "They earn it, for crying out loud!" she said. "If people want more money they should find ways to earn it!"
Keep in mind this woman is in no way rich. She simply believes in a hand up, not a hand out - that learning is part of the formula for living your dream.
Granted, a select few are successful simply by being in the right place at the right time while others can't seem to get a break no matter what. For others still, health issues make life a constant struggle. There's no denying these things. But, for the majority of people, achieving their dream means determining what they want and then doing what it takes to achieve it.
Again, the reality is that some people will struggle more than others, but allow me to get a bit philosophical here and quote the closing words from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on self-reliance:
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.
Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
In an ideal world, everyone puts forth the same efforts and reaps the same rewards. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work that way. The world is in flux. What works well for one person may not work for the next, and the same efforts don't always reap the same rewards.
As Emerson points out, the principle that brings the best triumph is self-reliance. It involves setting goals for what we want, a practice of lifelong learning, and taking opportunities as they present themselves. To do otherwise might reflect a wonderful ideal, but it does not allow for true peace nor the triumph of principles.
We all need a hand up from time to time, and some more than others. But Emerson was right, and so is the manager at my dry cleaners: We can't rely on others to give us the triumph of success.