Bringing Meaning to Meaningless Work

I have always enjoyed cutting grass. I apparently inherited it from my father who was always very intense about keeping our grass in excellent condition. I can remember watching him ride the lawnmower up and down our lawn and him teaching me how to drive it. He was always very adamant about how to properly cut the grass. Never cut in circles, always turn with each row you cut. Throughout high school, I spent many evenings and summers cutting grass. I went door to door in our sub-division and handed out flyers and also loaded up my weed eater in the trunk of my Dodge Charger and cut grass across the county. Thanks to my work I was able to save up for a nice engagement ring (I went to Jared’s) and got married at the ripe, young age of nineteen. After a four-year period of life in a land of blacktop and concrete, I moved back home and eventually got a job at the Hindman Settlement School cutting grass. During that time I spent eight hours of my day at the Settlement cutting grass and often went somewhere else in the evenings to cut some more. I now have a different job at the Settlement School, but I still continue to pack up my weed eater in my Dodge Charger for a couple of jobs that I enjoy doing. Needless to say, I have cut a lot of grass in my lifetime.

My role at the Settlement School is to develop the Appalachian Scholars’ Program, a program for at-risk youth that engages them with professional and workforce development curriculum. We aim to instill in them the core values of the Settlement School, what we call the “HSS Way”: Place, Service, Relationships, Excellence, Grit, and Virtue. We want to teach students to love this place, to love serving others, to build meaningful, lasting relationships, and to strive for excellence and perseverance in all spheres of life. We believe that these values have the power to help Appalachian students achieve the goals they have for themselves, whether that is to graduate college or to have a successful career. We also believe these values have the power to enable them to live the fulfilling and thriving life that they seek to live.

A fact of life is that it is hard. Nothing seems to come easy. A lot of things in life are also monotonous and seemingly meaningless. When things seem hard or pointless, it takes some grit to get through it and succeed.

Cutting grass is certainly not the ideal job for anyone. I enjoy it, but I certainly don’t want to spend my life doing it, if I did I would suffer even more back problems than I already do. In reality cutting grass is not very meaningful. It isn’t going to change the world. It will make the world look a little better, but that is about it. However, when a set of values is guiding your life, meaning and purpose can be brought to the least meaningful thing. Whenever I cut grass I strive for excellence out of a heart for service to people. Like my father before me, I am meticulous about how it is cut to ensure that it will look its best. I want to show the same care that I would if it were my own. I want to make the process quick and easy for those I cut grass for, so I keep my word, show up when I say I will, and work hard and fast so that the roaring sound of lawn-equipment is not disturbing them and their property is kept in excellent condition. I don’t cut corners. I hope that every lawn I mow and every steep Appalachian hill I cut reflects the value of excellence and service that I strive for.

That is how you take something seemingly meaningless and make it meaningful. You do your best to serve your fellow man with excellence. The reward is not a paycheck or a pat on the back (those are nice), the reward is knowing that you worked with excellence to bring a service of joy to someone else. You made life easier and better for someone else because you served them with excellence.

As we are about to begin our second year of the Appalachian Scholars’ Program, I hope we can instill that sort of vision in the hearts and minds of the students we serve. A vision that looks at the world not as something that is here to serve us, but as a place that is here for us to serve and make better as we strive for excellence in all spheres of life.