As I stood in the kitchen, awaiting my instructions, the elderly cook ambled over. A gentleman named Frank, he had worked in restaurants for a long time. His chore now was to help me, an out of shape 12 year old, showing up for his “first shift.”
“That dish rack is kind of heavy, let me help you with that.”
The dishwasher, obviously of the industrial variety, had racks that were just as heavy duty. Frank lifted it gently, probably thinking that this kid with the soft body wasn’t going to handle it.
And so began my work life. At the age of 12. Very part time to be sure, but physical work nonetheless. Helping out in my family’s restaurant just wasn’t a job for me to do – it was time for me to be indoctrinated into the work ethic of my family, my community.
School work, and hanging out with my friends, was going to be the focus for me at that age. But in an Italian American family, that didn’t mean you couldn’t supplement it with little jobs here and there – or helping out with the family business.
My family never pushed me to adopt a work ethic… but I had plenty of examples of watching them work jobs or run businesses, then go back to the well for more toil, including:
My great uncle Tony, tilling the soil of a large garden after finishing his day at his city job (he was a beast – with forearms of titanium and even stronger grip).
My grandfather, going to tend bar at the family restaurant after a shift at the factory.
His brother, Mariano, trimming and pruning grape vines and branches until his white tee shirt was soaked with sweat (photo at left).
My grandmother, cooking for her family after hours spent prepping meals for hundreds of restaurant customers.
For years, I attempted to follow in the footsteps of my role models with unbridled enthusiasm – working double shifts at the family restaurant, years later spending 60-70 hours a week in sales as a road warrior, and during one period having two or three gigs just to cover ridiculous health insurance costs right before my son was born in a local hospital.
I was always tired, but I was satisfied. No one could question my capability for work. I proved to have the same stamina as the immigrants that paved our way.
“Success is my only…option, failure is not!” – Eminem
If it’s a theory that some kids may lack work ethic today, doing nothing but constantly immersing themselves via Netflix, social media, or other forms of entertainment.
Don’t blame the children for this, as adult role models are hard to find. If their parent(s) aren’t themselves relying on constant entertainment or wasting time scrolling and swiping through their (“smart”) phones, they could still be tagged with letting their children get away with not developing a work ethic.
Which, in the long run, helps no one.
Our kids knew (if not on their first day, shortly thereafter) that kind of thing would not fly. That taking the easy way out was not an acceptable option. Whether it was doing the work to excel in their classes, picking up after themselves, or doing chores/ holding jobs to earn their own money, they got the message that their work was going to matter.
We were, and are, teaching them the same work habits as we were taught by parents, grandparents, and extended family – who I assume would be happy with the acceptance of their way of the working life.
Italian American Podcast founder Anthony Fasano wrote in an article: “I am confident our ancestors would never tell us to let up on our aggressive and passionate approach to life,” as well as:
“Our ancestors had to hustle to survive. They worked themselves to the bone every day; their families depended on it. We are here because of their hustle, and now that same forceful work ethic is ingrained within us.”
Don’t like the word “hustle?” No problem – a lot of people don’t. For those that think the word’s been overused, feel free to use success, grit, determination, diligent, persevering, relentless.
I’m comfortable with them all – for my Sicilians and Southern Italians embodied the words.
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