It’s not always about hard work.

For a long time after college in my early work years I often thought that hard work was what propelled me forward, what earned me opportunities and put me in a position to move ahead in my career. That is partly true; however, many many people in America today work extremely hard and will never have the same opportunities I do.

I grew up with hard work just being a way of life. My dad was a small business owner. With 20-30 employees and a lot of weight on his shoulders he worked 12-hour days. It was common to miss him in the mornings before he left for work and not see him until 6 or 7pm at night. I don’t remember a particular mantra around hard work but I do remember this pervasive feeling that if you want anything in life or if you want to “get somewhere” in life then you have to work hard. (I’m not even sure my ideas back then of what it meant to “get somewhere” are relevant now).

What I have come to see as I’ve gotten older are important values that were instilled in me from an early age that relate to work ethic – these include a certain stubbornness and resiliency. I think our community has also inherited these traits. Being on the edge of Appalachia and the mountains there is a sense in our community that ‘you can fix anything with duct tape’. This resiliency and self-reliance has certainly been infused into and has influenced our work at The Industrial Commons.

We are a nonprofit that incubates worker owned businesses and cooperative industry networks while also offering a range of workplace development programing. We focus on place (western to middle North Carolina) and industry (manufacturing). Our theory of change is that we organize workers into small to mid-size workplaces, then organize those workplaces into industry based cooperative networks. We believe this will lead to the highest concentration of cooperatively based businesses in the United States. We have a staff of 12, most of who we hire directly form the manufacturing frontlines. We are building a cooperatively based ecosystem.

When we think about the future, we often frame that around how we want our community to look in the future. I’d like our community to be a place where hard work once again leads to a life that sustains a family. A place where people don’t have to work 2 or 3 jobs to get by and where people don’t feel beholden to companies and jobs that don’t provide them with wages and benefits that sustain their family. My question is this – how we can accelerate that change and leverage all the good work happening here to bring about this change quicker and more broadly?

4 thoughts on “It’s not always about hard work.

  1. Thanks for the piece and the work you do every day. I have a similar approach that hard work will produce results and this piece pushed that thinking.

    Your piece made me consider “work” in the literal sense of the word and concepts like “tools” and “leverage”. How can we apply a “crowbar” to the idea of “work” and get more out of the time we spend in our vocations?

    The approach of Industrial Commons seems like it can be applied to other industries. If you had to recreate your approach in another geography or industry, what lessons would you apply? How could you achieve the point you’re at now in half of the time?

    Does being place based mean that many of the people in your cooperative come from similar backgrounds? How does community culture play a role in these types of structures?


  2. Sara you bring life to such a pervasive narrative around hard work. I enjoyed reading and look forward to the comments from others as well. I feel like the idea of rugged individualism and personal grit is so ingrained in our identities and, as you say in your post, blur the reality that hard work isn’t always enough. I ponder on ways to frame a better, alternative narrative. Just this week, a friend shared a blog Loitering is Delightful ( that resonated with me as I try to work through my perceptions of hard work and its challenges. Your post pushed me to also reflect on the potential joy and fulfillment of hard work. I feel the need for a new narrative that embraces both. You mentioned in your post “I’d like our community to be a place where hard work once again leads to a life that sustains a family.” That resonated with me, and I wonder…why does the work have to hard? Are there different words to use to describe your vision that would feel right and not lean on hard work as the means to the end? What else could we create that is fulfilling and joyful?


  3. What a fun and interesting discussion about “hard work” this post engendered? It really gets the brain moving.

    Sara, when you say “many many people in America today work extremely hard and will never have the same opportunities I do,” I wonder what you mean specifically by that? The gist of it is pretty clear, but I think it would be really helpful to spell it out, particularly from someone who works on the front lines of economic justice.

    I think it also would provide more color and make this great post a bit more memorable if you mentioned what your dad did for a living specifically. It might help to tie in what you say later about fixing things with duct tape (or it might not, of course, depending on what it is. But in either case I think it would make the post a bit more tangible/relatable.)




  4. This gets to the heart of what we mean by work in the US and starts to point to the value we place on over-working because we are somehow afraid that if we don’t “work hard” we don’t deserve so many things (financial security, social status etc.).I love that you are bringing this into the discussion of cooperatives.

    Something else that your post brings up for me, and the first commenter pointed to it too: there is something to discuss here around how culture and the concept of “hard work” come together, especially in a shared leadership context. I came across a very compelling article last month that described the characteristics that white supremacy normalizes – perfectionism, urgency, worship of the written word, individualism are a few – and it made me really think about my own expectations around what constitutes “good work” or “hard work”. I wonder how you might describe the culture you feel you are working within, in Appalachia. You only hint at it and I would love to know more.

    Lastly, on a personal note, I read a novel recently that was so evocative, it’s a story of working, being resilient, during a time of a lot of change and deprivation in Appalachia during the Depression. It tells the story of a team of female, horse-riding librarians. I highly recommend it! “The GIver of Stars” by Jojo Moyes.


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