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Lounge Lizards, Weak Wastrels, & Forgetters

Mises Daily: Friday, May 17, 2002 by

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Pity the businessman who hires someone just out of school! Most graduating seniors have lived a lush life in college, after living a lazy life in high school, and a goof-off life before that.

Graduating seniors know all about credit cards, popular culture, web surfing, internet chat, and PC politics, but next to nothing about what used to be called the work ethic. In short, they are worse than useless to the world of commerce.

What follows is a primer in 500 words, easy rules for how new workers can go from worthless to super valuable with nothing other than a change of attitude.

The current job market is tight, which makes it look very much like most job markets in human history: workers are paid in proportion to what they contribute to the overall productivity of the firm.

It doesn't seem possible, but this is the #1 fact about work that new hires do not seem to understand. So let me repeat it: People are not paid because they finished school. They are not paid because they got through the job application process. They are not paid simply because they now enjoy a new job title. They are not paid so that the firm can enjoy the privilege of their presence.

People are not paid for any of these reasons, or, at least they are not paid for any of these reasons for very long. They are paid for only one reason: to make the firm more productive than it would be in their absence.

Moreover, if workers hope to keep their position and improve it, their contribution to the productivity of the firm must exceed the resources that the firm is putting into them.

I recall once when I was working in retail at the age of 16, the manager came by and told me and another employee to straighten up the some messy products on a shelf. After the manager walked on, my coworker turned to me and said: "I don't straighten shelves for minimum wage."

A few weeks later, of course, he wasn't getting minimum wage to do anything because he was tossed out on his ear. New workers need to understand that they are mostly overpaid, even vastly overpaid. The employer is making an investment in hopes that you will become more valuable over time. The point is that you must always strive to be worth more to the firm than you are paid to be.

Beyond understanding this elementary point, there are only five simple rules for getting by in the world of work. If you adhere to them, you will be an immense success in life, now and until the day you die. If you do not, you had better hope for a job in the government, join a union, or aspire to fulfill a quota.

Here they are:

  1. Listen carefully to instructions and never expect to be told anything a second time.
  2. Do a complete job, and do it better than your supervisor expects you to do it.
  3. Work diligently to the point of discomfort, and without interruption or complaint.
  4. Complete all tasks in a timely manner, meaning as soon as possible.
  5. If you run out of assigned tasks, look for other jobs to do that help others and the firm.

That's it: five rules to a happy, productive job, to a happy, productive life. Do these sound absurdly commonplace? Perhaps. Why, then, are most all new workers, and many old workers, unable to understand them, or unable to follow through with them? It seems that people can pass their 22nd birthday these days without ever having encountered a setting where these things are expected of them.

There are a few more "don'ts" too. Don't get involved in office politics. Don't overstep the bounds of your authority. Don't envy the pay or working conditions of others. Don't be a smart-aleck. But these are just the finer points. The main point is to learn to be valuable to others by listening and following through. It's on this simple point where so many fail.

I know a wise man who says there are three types of losers in the world: The Lounge Lizard, the Weak Wastrel, and the Forgetter. Adhere to the five great rules of work, and you will be none of these. You will be immensely valuable to a business and therefore to the world. You will be constantly on the march toward better and better jobs. You will be happy. You will be financially successful. You will be loved, appreciated, and admired.

In any case, you won't be a loser. If you turn out to be, blame no one but yourself.