What My Dad Taught Me About Work

Jack Silbert and his dad
Courtesy Jack SilbertMen in plaid, but no ties.
It was my first job out of school, and I kind of hated it. I was on the phone, complaining about it to my dad. The stupid boss, the stupid tie I had to wear, the stupid things they made me do.

"Let me ask you a question," my dad said.

"Yeah?" I answered.

"Are they paying you?"

It's an anecdote I've repeated many, many times over the years, to many young friends starting many crappy jobs. Because there seemed to be a lot of wisdom packed into those few words. The message basically was: Shut up and do your work. Yes, work should be fulfilling, satisfying... fair. But a whole lot of the time, it ain't. It's a job. It's work. You do it, and they pay you. At the end of the day -- or the end of two weeks, really -- that's ultimately what matters.

Dad worked for the federal government, the Veterans Administration.

These days it's called the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and is mired in scandal. But my dad was a million miles from that nonsense. He worked in the Canteen Service. What the what? They were in charge of food and retail operations within VA hospitals. Pantyhose, foil-wrapped cheeseburgers, that sort of thing. If you were in the hospital, or somebody you loved was in there, this was stuff you might need, might make you a little bit happier than you were.

Mostly my dad worked in an office, though. I remember going in with him once when I was really little. This was decades before they invented "Take Your Child To Work Day." This was probably more like, "Somebody Has To Watch Jack Today" Day. There were men wearing button-down shirts and ties and they joked around and laughed a lot. The office seemed like an OK place.

And people seemed to like my dad.

Not any of that desperate Willy Loman "well-liked" b.s. My dad got along with people; he was upbeat and they responded to that. And there were co-workers who were friends, and there would be dinner parties and barbecues and we'd go to baseball games. And sure, all that made an impression on me. Because why would you not want to get along with people? And yet to this day I continue to meet insufferable pricks. Smile, you morose bastards.

Dad got to go on business trips and that seemed fun. I definitely looked forward to that opportunity when I started working. Thank goodness I never had to ride in some of the puddle-jumpers like he did from "regional" airports.

When I got a real job, Dad gave me his briefcase.

Like, "You're working now." I totally appreciated the gesture, but it wasn't really my style. Or, my lack of style. I was more of a Jansport backpack guy; still am -- I have kind of a Peter Pan thing going on.

And early on I remember telling my dad about somebody I'd connected with, and he really lit up: "You're networking!" Uggh, no, I hated that word. I just... met somebody, that's all. But it's funny, all these years later, with LinkedIn and whatever, I hate to admit it but it's important. Really important. Who you know, rather than what you know. It's a shame, really, but -- hey -- you were right, Dad.

And I really kept coming back to that "Are they paying you?" line.

Something at the core of it really sunk in with me. Because when you work, there is an awful lot of nonsense, and politics, and personal problems, and bad weather, and a million other things. And not one bit of it matters. Do. Your. Job. Ignore the clowns. Show up, shut up, and do the work.

Oh, and make sure they're paying you. Thanks, Dad.

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