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The Model Professor


I have a friend who’s a professor. For people who know my circle of friends, this is a dead giveaway; if not, it detracts nothing from the story.

So, this professor friend. I knew him in college, met him in my first year there when he lived next door in my dorm. Later, we shared a room for a semester. He would sit at a desk and drill through assignments for hours on end. He didn’t seem to need breaks, or get tired, or seek distraction. He worked, straight.

Always, in the background, he was working. No hour or day seemed to particularly stand out; they all blended together. Hard work, balanced with a heathy social life (to give credit where credit is due), but without disruptive internal conflict. There was no single moment of incredible breakthrough, no “life will always be different after this day.” It was almost anti-dramatic, in its way. When he worked, which was often, it was without fuss.

He sat working at his desk more than anyone I knew, and in longer sessions.

Time passed, years.

In the beginning, he wasn’t seen as particularly noteworthy. Then things started to accrue to him, slowly. An internship, then a better internship, then a gold-plated internship. A reputation for dependability, a student government office. He become known as the glue that brought things together, but without self-promotion to put him in the spotlight, only his record. And always, always, work, which even major relationships and tumultuous friendships couldn’t interrupt.

It paid off.

Today, he teaches at an Ivy League institution, in a top-tier city. He had his choice of job offers, and chose academia. I was going to comment on his happiness, but to be honest, on an inner level, I can’t speak for it. I can say that he’s in a solid relationship, is admired by many in his family, made few if any enemies, and doesn’t need for anything materially.

The point of this story?

Everybody likes to say they love hard work, appreciate hard work, and work hard themselves. In real life, I don’t see nearly as much evidence for this. If you work seriously hard, in the real world, over a period of years, you won’t face that much competition.

Hard work takes a few components, which are not that easy to incorporate. I could say ‘willpower’, but willpower is just circularly synonymous here with ‘that which enables hard work.’ It’s better to define it on the edges, by personality traits: inner equilibrium, patience, a lack of inner resistance (possibly the most important component), and a tolerance for what, by our entertainment standards, is dry material, unspiced up.

I think more now about the traits I want to define me. Mike Rowe wrote a post a short while ago about work (in his case, so-called ‘dirty jobs’), and what was paramount in his description was the bedrock sense of respect for all forms of work. In fact respecting work, for him, is a kind of moral act, and failing to do so is a moral failure.

I agree.

And personally, I aspire to be the guy who works the hardest. I want to be defined by it, as my friend was. As his example shows, it may not look like anything special at any particular moment. In the aggregate, compounded over time, however, it makes you special.


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