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Posted: September 4, 2011 12:00 a.m.

The value of work

In my hands was a small, multicolored clay turtle that I had made and painted at elementary school. I carefully walked up the steps to the front of our home, excited to show my mother what I had made and give it to her. As I opened the screen door, I dropped my handcrafted treasure, and it broke into pieces. I sat down and cried.

My mother found me a few minutes later, gathered me in her arms and gave me a hug. After I stopped crying, we picked up the pieces, took them inside and glued them together. This turtle sits in my mother's kitchen today.

Why did I cry? Happy and proud that I had crafted something for my mother with my hands, I was devastated when it fell and broke into pieces. My mother inherently understood that what was important was that I had created something for her, and she helped me fix it. The turtle was an outward sign that I was competent, that I could make something of value, that I had improved her life with something that I had made.

My work had value.

As a child, my "work" consisted of helping with vacuuming, laundry, making beds and cleaning the house. My mother's favorite remedy for my complaints of boredom was to give me a spray bottle of Formula 409 and a rag, so I could clean the baseboards and the doors in our home. I learned that reading was a lot more fun and rarely complained about being bored.

When I became old enough for a "real," paying job, I worked in our church cleaning the bathrooms. It certainly was not exciting work, but I was pleased when I finished my job. The bathrooms were left gleaming. Overhearing comments on Sunday morning about the "clean and sparkling" bathrooms made me proud.

My work had value.

Since then, I have worked as a skating waitress, switchboard operator, ice cream scooper, babysitter, inventory taker, bank teller, financial analyst, telemarketer, marketing manager, financial planner, financial director, speaker, author and columnist. My best work comes from using my God-given talents to help others.

The value of work is measured in more than monetary terms. It includes the accomplishment of being creative, expresses our uniqueness and makes a difference, however small, in our world.

The easiest way for us to track the "value" of work is through compensation and payment. We work; we get paid. We hope that what we get paid is what we think our activities, our efforts and our creations are worth.

This weekend marks Labor Day. For the more than 25 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or discouraged, the idea of celebrating Labor Day must be ironic. Alanis Morissette's song "Isn't it Ironic," reminds us that life is often filled with irony: "An old man turned 98," notes the tune. "He won the lottery and died the next day. It's a black fly in your Chardonnay. It's a death-row pardon two minutes too late. And isn't it ironic...don't you think?"

Isn't it ironic that we are celebrating Labor Day when we have so many that would like to be laboring at work, but are not.

The working conditions of the late 19th century, when the first Labor Day event was held, were very different from those of today. Industrial workers often worked 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to get by. Young children often worked in dangerous, industrial jobs. This environment led to the labor movement and a demand for better conditions and better pay.

Today, overall, we have better labor conditions in our country, but we have a lack of jobs. We have 25 million Americans who would like to be working, but are not (unemployed, underemployed and discouraged workers). This is a personal financial tragedy and a national economic tragedy, but also could be a great opportunity.

If we can just figure out how to get those 25 million people back to work, we would have reason to celebrate Labor Day. Imagine 25 million people, creating new products, new ideas and new processes. Whether it is cutting grass, reconciling bank statements, scooping ice cream, cleaning floors or providing strategic advice. We all should strive to be able to say: My work has value.


To find out more about Jackie Gingrich Cushman, see www.creators.com.

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