Family & Education

The $5 Lawn

A good work ethic entails more than just showing up
BY Jeff Minick TIMEFebruary 2, 2023 PRINT

Search online for “Americans are lazy workers” and a cluster of articles pops up. Some of them deny that claim, while others declare it valid. A few writers also point out that this accusation is decades old, while those who disagree argue that today’s employees are in fact much lazier than in days gone by.

The latter group provides a variety of reasons for this perceived indolence. Today’s workers, they say, want to work less and play more. They lack incentives to put out extra effort. Some of them resent serving employers or customers, some regard their job as meaningless, and some simply dislike work in general.

Along these same lines, the media has recently reported growing numbers of “quiet quitters,” men and women who do no more than necessary while on the job, such as refusing to work late to finish a task. In some cases, quiet quitters go a step further and aim to do the least amount of work possible.

Is quiet quitting an actual movement? That question remains up for debate. In his November 2022 article “What Is Quiet Quitting—and Is it a Real Trend?” Greg Daugherty reports mixed conclusions, first citing a Gallup poll in which 50 percent of Americans describe themselves as giving only the minimum effort to their jobs. He then introduces other data, however, that indicate little change in worker attitudes from decades past.

Often neglected in all this back-and-forth is the idea of a work ethic. What sort of spirit and effort should workers and their supervisors bring to a task? What constitutes a high bar for performance in the office or on a job site?

In his 1958 “Reader’s Digest” article, “The Countess and the Impossible,” Richard Thurman narrates a story from his youth in which an elderly European woman with old-world manners settles in Idaho and hires the 13-year-old Thurman to mow, clip, and weed her lawn. A mediocre job, she says, is worth $3, an outstanding performance earns a dollar more, and “a five-dollar lawn is—well, it’s impossible, so we’ll forget about that.”

She then tells Thurman, “Each week, I’m going to pay you according to your own evaluation of your work.”  

For the next few weeks, Thurman does a $3 job. Each time, he resolves to aim at the $4 mark, and each time he fails. And then, a revelation strikes. He decides to go after the $5 lawn. That day, he exhausts himself toiling away from early morning until evening, mowing, weeding, eradicating worm mounds, and precisely clipping the walkway. By dusk, the lawn is immaculate.  

When Thurman asks for $5, the astonished countess inspects the yard and then compliments him, remarking that his efforts to overcome the impossible had driven him to give every ounce of energy and talent to the job. He has conquered the $5 barrier, and that day’s work bestowed on Thurman a work ethic that he then carried into adulthood.

Today’s American work ethic may need some oxygen, but it’s nowhere near dead. Plenty of people familiar to me—the woman who puts in long hours coping with an understaffed office, the contractor who knocks himself out supporting his wife and four small children, the servers at the coffee shop—bring their best efforts to the workplace. If they’re in charge, like the countess, they offer incentives and challenges to their employees. If they’re employees, like Richard Thurman, they throw themselves completely into the task at hand.

 We all have our metaphorical lawns to tend. Let’s aim for the $5 job and show the world what we’ve got.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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