Each of our sons have spent several summers working “turf care” at a local golf course. During their time they saw staff come and go. Many are University Students seeking a way to spend their summers, earn a few bucks, have a little fun, and play some golf. Several are kids of well heeled families that have their summer homes in the community. In short, these kids are more familiar with being a customer of the course than working there. They associate the place with fun and think the work must be as well. Once given a job, the first disconnect with their past experience as customer is the start time. Instead of choosing when to show up and play, they now are instructed to start their day before the sun comes up. Their day begins well before 6am. To these fragile folk, it’s a rude awakening. They are then introduced to a series of not so glamorous tasks that involve physical effort. The lesson shouts loudly that preparing a golf course is not as much fun as playing a golf course. The idea of work that’s actually work hurts. These star students that are the offspring of the well to do know this job isn’t something they want to do. Being part of this crew is not where they choose to view their future. They just want to earn some beer money, get free golf, and enjoy their summer partying. They are highly motivated to do as little as possible. They simply don’t care and don’t want to be there. Their work ethic and attention to detail mirrors their mentality. Making it through their four month summer becomes a marathon. Their punctuality is pitiful. Their performance marginal. They are the last in and the first out. They’re too posh to push rakes through the bunkers. They’re too cool to sweat in the hot sun. They see the perks of free rounds as an entitlement independent of how they perform their function. Having never had to pay for a round of golf, they don’t connect the value of free rounds. They have no understanding of how many hours of minimum wage effort they need to trade in order to earn enough after tax to pay for a $150 round.
A great TED talk from 2015 that has earned over five million views offers us a distinction between “Silver Spoons” and “Scrappers.” In ten minutes, presenter Regina Hartley paints a clear picture contrasting two types of people. Hartley is a human resources professional that has studied countless individuals cross referencing their resume and character values against future job performance. Her assessment, positive performance more often is the result of character over credentials. Things come easily to those with Silver Spoons. Silver Spoons have been afforded every opportunity along the way. They’ve had the best education. The best role models. Great apprenticeships have been offered. They feel destined, entitled to progress. When all you’ve seen and experienced is comfort and success, it becomes an expectation. As far from Silver Spoons as you can get are what Hartley calls the Scrappers. Hartley represents the Scrappers with a boxing glove. These folk had to fight their way for each inch of ground they’ve earned.
Hartley offers her background. Her family struggled. Her father couldn’t hold a job due to mental illness. She was the fourth of five children raised by a single mother. They didn’t own a home, car, or even a washing machine. She faced struggles every day. As she grew up, she studied the lives of some super successful folk. She uncovered a trend that gave her strength and encouragement. She saw a common theme of early struggle at the root of the experience of those that subsequently succeeded. She saw deaths of loved ones, alcohol abuse, financial struggles, learning difficulties, and more pain and struggle in the early lives of those that later succeeded. Was there a connection, she wondered, between early pain and future gain? She began to see that, counterintuitively, stress can influence success. Herbert Spencer was an early editor for The Economist. Two hundred years ago Spencer observed, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” We fail people when we don’t hold them to a standard. We fail people when we make things to easy for them. We fail them when we offer comfort and create a sense that things will be easy. Seneca in his essay On Providence wrote, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” Spencer and Seneca saw the strength of struggle not as an SOS signal to avoid but to forging character.
Hartley’s experience as a scrapper is like some that may be working at our golf course that have no concept of a summer home. They come from a family that struggled to pay rent on the little home where they shared a room with a sibling. The options in their future are few and narrow. Post secondary education is a pipe dream that may only materialize where they are willing to absorb heavy debt to pursue. Sure, they grew up in a resort town with fun activities all around, but they weren’t able to enjoy expensive things like golf. They would love to play, but can’t afford to pay. Some of these young adults have been working since before they became teens. They worked not to make money for pizza and beer, but to buy essentials like their own clothes. Our silver spoons and scrappers may as well be from two different planets. Their experiences and worldviews are widely and wildly apart. The scrappers see their efforts as their way forward. They know nothing is a gift. They accept opportunities are elusive. They can’t passively wait for the world to show up on their doorstep offering assistance. Hartley suggests that scrappers are “propelled by the belief that the only person that you have full control over is yourself.” Personal responsibility is their only receipt for productivity. If it is to be, it is up to me is the mantra of scrappers.
The silver spoons believe everything will work out for them. It always has. Everything has been provided. The world is conspiring to help them. Hartley notes that many who are silver spoons have an expectation of where they fit based on where they see themselves ending up. They don’t belong at the bottom. They disdain doing their part at the start. They view themselves as being above entry level work or assignments. They expect to move up quickly. Their approaches to work and menial tasks are deeply different as a result. The willingness to work, struggle, and suffer are worlds apart. The sense of entitlement versus the desperation to earn a chance characterize the differences between these two groups. The perspective of those enjoying silver spoons revolves around themselves. They expect the outside world to conform to their needs and wants. After all, it always has. Scrappers realize the world doesn’t care about them. It is up to them to make themselves valuable in order to be taken seriously. Scrappers look to see what needs to be done and find a way to do it. Scrappers look out to serve in order to be heard. They know their way forward depends on helping others.
Hartley invites her audience to consider the resume of a guy who started life out being given up for adoption. He struggles with a learning disability through childhood and into adulthood where he then quits college and drifts through a series of meaningless jobs. He spends a year “finding himself” in India. Should he show up at your office looking for a job with this background, how interested would you be? This guy is none other than Apple’s Steve Jobs. Hartley points out that backgrounds like that of Jobs are either ignored or outright cast aside in traditional Human Resource departments. However, those with colorful backgrounds see their struggles as essential to their future progress. Precisely because things were difficult they learned at a young age how to adapt. Their listening skills were better than those of their peers as, too, was their ability to pay better attention. Because things were hard, they had to do more. These efforts made them better. These folk see their learning difficulty as a desirable difficulty. It helps them in their adulthood. Hartley notes, “They know they are who they are because of adversity. They embrace their trauma and hardship as key elements of who they’ve become.”
With respect to work ethic, persistence, and resilience silver spoons tend to be soft while scrappers are tough. Yet, with respect to getting along with others scrappers are collaborators while silver spoons lean towards competition. The character traits of scrappers and silver spoons are deeply different. These are tough to present on a resume. Viktor Frankl reinforced the idea of the strength of struggle when he wrote, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” Scrappers come to be grateful for the struggles they’ve seen. They come to realize that pain precedes progress so it’s not something to avoid but embrace. Theodore Roosevelt offered, “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of a strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” Frankl and Roosevelt recognize that struggle serves. It makes us more capable, ambitious, empathetic, and fulfilled.
The soft skill of struggle isn’t obvious on resumes. Maybe, those with great grades have absorbed some information. However, as Tyler Cowen observed, “Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.” Value lies in what’s rare, not in what’s often there. It’s not degrees but self-discipline that is in short supply and valuable. Sacrifice and struggle spur initiative driven by discipline which scrappers have in spades, not necessarily good grades. In fact, it may be hidden underneath what look like less valuable candidates. A very successful US investment firm considers its secret sauce the ability to hire those that have a high AQ. They recognize that most businesses are competing to recruit and hire those with high IQ and EQ. Smart and sociable people seem to be in high demand. However, AQ is the secret sauce they’ve found reflected in those that have surmounted struggle. AQ is Adversity Quotient. Recruiters for this investment firm are scanning for those that have faced, endured, and learned from struggle.
Perhaps, reconsider what you may have thought as disqualifiers in the past? Ask yourself and candidates whether gaps on resumes don’t reflect something else. Were they caring for loved ones? Does a gap or a series of short-lived jobs represent a hidden strength that may be worth more than an expectation of advancement from a highly “qualified” candidate? It’s something employers should seek to uncover when reviewing resumes and conducting interviews. Set aside the silver spoons and seek scrappers. Additionally, for those looking for work, seeking to show the struggles suffered while highlighting the lessons learned and character traits forged as a result may be helpful. Be prepared to share your resilience resume and offer your hit list of hurts and highlight how they reflect your humility and hunger. Where you can show that you’re willing to work and happy to hurt (W2W H2H), you will be increasing your chances to be a welcome addition to any team. Consider Seneca’s encouragement to “Apply yourself to thinking through difficulties—hard times can be softened, tight squeezes widened, and heavy loads made lighter for those who can apply the right pressure.” It is this ability to face struggle, wrestle with the problem, and own responsibility for crafting and implementing a solution that is one of the core traits of the successful. Being able to find this and illustrate this helps both those looking for team members and those looking to become part of the team.