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Teaching your Kids: If You're Going to Work, Look Like You're Working

As is true with a lot of people, Shawn Callahan learned much of what he thinks about work from his earliest job. Only unlike most people, Shawn's first boss was a former United States Marine and his father.

Shawn's dad served in the Vietnam War, after which he was assigned a post at the U.S. Embassy in Australia. By the time Shawn entered his teenage years, his father had a thriving business in the capital city of Canberra, installing commercial kitchens in local restaurants. And when on holiday from school, Shawn worked for his dad to earn extra money.

Well, on one such day, Shawn's dad dropped him off at a worksite with instructions to clean all the debris from the demolition they'd just completed, so they could put the new kitchen in. He said, "I'll pop back in and check on you at lunch and see how you're doing."

By the time Dad came back, Shawn had finished most of his work. It was a hot day, and Shawn was tired. So he was just sitting on the floor in the foyer, comfortably shoveling the last remaining bits of plaster into a waste bin. When his father walked up, he snapped at him, "What in the world are you doing?"

So Shawn asked, "What do you mean?"

"Why are you sitting on the ground?"

"Look, Dad, I'm just tidying up a few last pieces here. You should see what I've done in the other room...."

But his dad interrupted, "I don't care what you've done. It's what you look like you're doing now that bothers me. You might have worked your tail off all morning. But at the moment, it looks like you're slacking off."

What Dad knew was that the owner of the restaurant could have walked in at any minute and seen Mr. Callahan's employee sitting on his backside lazily moving some bits of plaster around instead of working diligently. Not exactly the impression he wanted his customer to have.

At first, Shawn thought he was being criticized for the work he had done. But his dad made it clear that was not the case. "I can see you've done a good job, son. But it's just as important to look like you're doing a good job. You'll leave a better impression on the people you work with and work for."

Shawn concluded that it's better to work hard until the job is completely done, and then leave or take a break, or even do nothing once you're done. Any of those would be better than working halfheartedly. It would be a shame to work hard and do good work just to have the people around you conclude that you're a slacker.

Today, as a successful business owner himself, it's a lesson that's served Shawn well for 30 years, and that can serve your child well, too.

Okay, now it's time to share this story with your child and have a conversation about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Do you agree with Shawn's conclusion that it's better to work hard until the job is done than to work halfheartedly, even if you get the job done in either case? Why or why not?

  2. What are some other things Shawn could have done instead of sitting down to finish the job?

  3. When you see someone working along the side of a road, leaning against their shovel doing nothing, what do you think about them? And is that a fair thing to conclude?

  4. How do you know when it's time to relax and not work so hard?

Okay, in the final lesson, we'll talk about how much or little people value someone's contribution when they get it too easily.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith