My dear friend Vivek Patwardhan wrote an article with the title, ‘Work ethic is important because it is a choice’. http://vivekvsp.com/2021/06/work-ethic/
I love that title. It is so clear and powerful. It is a mirror in which I can check myself to see if I have a work ethic and if so, what it is. As Vivek says, ‘ethics’ and ‘ethic’ are two different words. Ethics are morals, code of conduct, the difference between right and wrong. To quote Vivek, ‘Ethic means “a theory or system of moral values” or “a guiding philosophy.” Work Ethic is knowing the right thing to do, and then doing it.’ In my experience, that is the difference between winners and losers. The difference between those who know and do and those who know but don’t do. That is why work ethic is a choice. The choice of anyone with self-respect. The choice of all leaders.
I am having some fairly extensive work done in my garden. I engaged a Guatemalan called Ancelmo Ortiz (Ortiz Landscapes). He was recommended by a friend and when he got out of his truck, he was using a cane to help him to walk. I asked him about it, and he told me that he had cut his tendon in a freak accident while working with an axe. He had to have an operation for the tendon to be reconstructed and has been limping since. I asked him if he should even be working at all, let alone work that keeps him on his feet all day. He said, “The doctor told me to rest. But not how to earn to eat. So, I have to work.” It is when you talk to others that you become even more grateful for your blessings. I gave him the work and asked what time he would start. He said, ‘Tomorrow morning at 7.00 AM.’
Guatemala was the heart of the great Maya Civilization before it was destroyed in the 16th century in the Spanish conquest and incorporated into the New Spain Viceroyalty. Not too difficult to ‘conquer’ people who were so peaceful that they had no weapons to speak of. What they had was gold, which the ‘brave’ Spanish Conquistadors lusted after. The result was genocide on a scale that practically obliterated centuries of culture, tradition, methods of agriculture, water conservation, irrigation, and language. The spirit of a nation was broken, and the nation subjugated to feed European greed. An all too familiar story in the Americas and elsewhere in the world. This reflects often in the work ethic of some people who treat work as something to do when all other alternatives fail. I lived and worked in Guyana for five years and recall too many instances of the laid-back attitude to work, of West Indians and Central and South American people. Delightful people to have as friends or to go on hunting and fishing trips with. But when it came to serious daily work, well, I would not hold my breath waiting someone to turn up on time.
I thought to myself, ‘Let me see what his understanding of time is. Is it the usual highly tolerant, loose view of time as being made of rubber? Stretchable at will. More advisory than specific, that a lot of West Indian and Central American people tend to have. So, I was prepared to have him turn up the next morning and not afternoon. Next morning, I was out in my garden, watering the new plants, when on the dot at 0700 hours, his truck pulled into my driveway. Well, good beginning, I thought. But then it was the first day and so maybe the man was tying to make a good impression. He did, but I was not going to go by one day’s performance.
But as he worked, every evening he would tell me when he would come the next day and quite literally, I could set my watch by him. Work ethic in practice. Punctuality is your signature. It is an indicator of whether you have self-respect or not. It shows what you think of your own word. Do you hold yourself to it as a matter of honor? Or do you say to the world, “Please don’t take me seriously. I don’t really mean what I say.” Which one? I am saying this because that is what punctuality really is.
The work started. The first job was a set of three large flower beds in the front of the house which needed to have old deadwood uprooted, weeds pulled out, weed prevention fabric laid and new shrubs planted. I wanted Hydrangeas in the top bed. Azaleas in the middle and Rhododendrons in the bottom one. Then the whole thing needed to be ‘mulched’ with gravel. Given both my interest in gardening as well as my background as a planter, I spent a good bit of time with Ancelmo and his brother Nicholas, as they worked. I chatted with them, got them some coffee and cookies, and watched them working. What impressed me was that Ancelmo worked just as hard as his brother, though the brother tried to help him as much as he could. He didn’t favor his game leg nor claim any excuse. Their work was a delight to watch, for its thoroughness and attention to detail. As they say, ‘God is in the details.’ And indeed, that is true.
The work progressed. Not a weed, not a stump, escaped the brothers. Then they ploughed the beds, raked the soil, mixed topsoil in it and covered the whole thing with fabric. Then they punched holes in the fabric to plant the shrubs. By this time, the gravel truck rolled up. Nicholas went to their truck and brought out a tarp which he spread on the ground and got the gravel truck to dump its load on the tarp so that the driveway was protected. Then Nicholas transported the gravel in a wheelbarrow to the work site while Ancelmo spread it evenly in the beds.
I left to go inside to make some coffee. When I emerged with their coffee cups on a tray, what do I see? I see Ancelmo flat on his stomach on the pathway bordering the Hydrangea bed. I thought he had fallen. But no. He was lying flat to reach into the bed with his rake to ensure an even spread of the gravel. The bed has an iron pipe railing on the path-side and so is difficult to get into. Ancelmo does not ask his brother to climb over the railing; he lies flat on this stomach and reaching under the last railing, he does his work. No matter what the circumstances, the work must not suffer. That is the finest work ethic that I can imagine. That is when I decided that Ancelmo did not need any supervision because the man who takes pride in his work is the best supervisor over himself.
Ancelmo is Guatemalan. He comes from an extremely poor family. I have no idea how much education he had. He certainly did not go to university. About his life in Guatemala he told me, ‘My father had chickens which laid eggs. We had sheep. But we never ate the eggs, and I can’t remember that my father ever killed a chicken or sheep for us to eat. Everything was sold to buy corn which is our staple diet. There is no work, even if you want to work. The daily wage, when there is work, is USD 7.00 for 12 hours of work. That is why our people come to America. To work and try to give our families a better life than we had.” That is the story of so many immigrants from all over the world. That is America’s best and most profitable import. Human talent and enterprise. This is how America was built. This is how America runs.
To return to my story, despite the background he came from, somewhere along the line, Ancelmo and Nicholas picked up their beautiful work ethic which brings honor to them and their home country. Not only am I happy to have met and hired them, but I have also been telling others to hire Guatemalan people. That is the benefit of a great work ethic. Not only do you add value to your work and yourself, but you also become an ambassador for your people. A good work ethic is the best foundation.