THE BLOG
10/27/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

"We work in school. We work hard in the real world."

This was the response I got from a friend of mine at the beginning of the year when I asked him how his summer internship in New York had gone. Although I doubt he intended for these words to stick with me so resonantly, I found myself examining the term "hard work" weeks later, turning the phrase over in my mind like one might a smooth stone.

I have often felt like unpaid, low-paid, or generally just low-reward, internships are a bit like dry-swallowing a pill: probably still beneficial in the end but could be made much less painful through some pretty minor fixes -- a spoonful of perks to make the medicine go down, if you will. Those like my friend who had opted for the corporate route this summer got experience and perhaps even job security, sure, but also seventy-hour weeks, little sleep, and hardly enough pay to compensate for the stress level.

Yet our fortune at being able to submit ourselves to these grueling cubicle worlds is one we oft take for granted in our 'above service' existence, a mentality ushered in with our college acceptance letters. Especially at Harvard, from the moment we step on campus we are given the arbitrary privilege of applying to prestigious jobs that are mentally challenging, all with the expectation that we needn't want to work hard in other capacities.

American society rewards hard work, yes, but particularly a specific kind of hard work -- one that involves institutionally validated intellect. Other kinds of hard work, involving time cards, skillful labor, or unstructured mental exercise, are applauded in self-help books and triumphant, "Look how far they've come!" Hollywood films, but usually as a means to an end, rather than valuable experiences and lifestyles in their own right. Even human-interest stories on 60 Minutes primarily focus on individuals who have 'overcome the odds' to become successful intellectuals despite cards stacked against them (e.g. growing up in a gang-ridden neighborhood/any African country/an orphan). The Rwandan rocket scientist is a much more palatable story to the American public than the Rwandan taxi driver.

This is not to say that intellectual pursuits or overcoming odds shouldn't be applauded; my peers' accomplishments are more than worthy of praise and it would be hypocritical to say otherwise. Yet what if we don't want to be intellectuals in the classic sense? Or what if we don't have that capacity? What if we want to take vacations and spend time with our families and send our kids to nice schools but don't have the means or desire to work a job that affords us that luxury? What then?

There is a multitude of ways in which we can work hard. All-nighters spent cramming for midterms and cocaine-marinated careers of the white-collar variety are socially endorsed forms of working hard. However, I feel it is important to acknowledge the forms of knowledge we glean from environments in which we are not surrounded by other graduates of elite colleges. Working as an auto mechanic or in a nursing home is equally emotionally and physically taxing as a position in marketing might be, but these working-class positions are somehow deemed lesser options for those of us who could aspire to do something "greater."

My dad has worked for over twenty years at the same job in retail. After the recession, he began working six days a week to help make ends meet, but this also meant that my brother and I saw him much less in high school than we used to. Coming from Sweden where everyone, regardless of income level, is granted five weeks of paid vacation per year, my dad still doesn't understand how people in this country who work their fingers to the bone can subsist off of two weeks of vacation. No one would deny the value of his hard work, except perhaps the system making him work that hard in the first place.

I am by no means qualified to suggest an institutional fix for our country's socioeconomic inequalities. I am, however, suggesting that we be grateful for those whose hard work is not intellectual and acknowledge the social constructions behind our presumptions of labor. Surrounded by their service on a daily basis, it was only when I began practicing my Portuguese with the dining hall workers that I began to form a relationship with the people who have fed me for the last three years. I am equally guilty of intellectual biases.

In college, we are rewarded for being intelligent and, yes, working hard. Lucky us. Even without realizing it, it is easy to absorb neoliberal values through osmosis and think that this is justified. Yet part of the reason why we can afford to work so hard is because there are swarms of people behind the scenes growing our food, sorting our garbage, and making our clothing. Being a college student is not easy -- even accounting for grade inflation -- but the privilege awarded by our brains' ability to adhere to societal values is undeniable. For those of us who can feel suffocated by too much time in academia's Ziploc bag, a little fresh air from the outside world can't hurt.