Make 'Em Earn It

Make ‘Em Earn It

“You don’t get something for nothing” is a wise saying, a variation on “there’s no free lunch.” However, there’s a flip side to that coin when it comes to human relations: Make ‘em earn it.

This is a lesson some of you have no doubt learned the hard way. You’re naturally generous, outgoing, selfless, thoughtful…. But you’ve discovered the people on the receiving end of that generosity treat it poorly. Or worse, they develop an expectation that you actually owe it to them. You instinctively put yourself out there for someone or a group and later realize they view it as a birthright. You volunteer or join an organization, association or club without them having to prove themselves, then find they don’t value your presence.

Why? Because they didn’t earn it, and people typically don’t appreciate what didn’t cost them anything.

In some ways, life is really economics. Your kindness, loyalty, and openness are commodities. What you demand of others in exchange for it often enough determines its value in their eyes – whether or not it is of high value is a separate matter. If you are polite, but withdrawn, they will regard your rare outgoing moments as valuable. If they must invest time and effort to gain a bit of your attention, they’ll be less likely to waste it.

This is in part I think where the whole “chicks dig jerks” thing comes from. Jerks give the impression that their kindness or tenderheartedness are prizes to be won or earned because they’re rare, and thus valuable. They withhold compliments and offer negs, instead. So when they offer small tokens of affection it’s treasured – even if it’s just a bag of skittles . Nice guys on the other hand give that all out freely at no cost, which is why they’re considered boring and unworthy of respect. The same with parents who treat their kids like garbage, and yet decades onward their children will still desperately crave the approval they never got.

It’s also healthier for men to make ‘em earn it by conserving that side of themselves rather than hand it out like free samples at a Costco store. It’s why a lot of seemingly rough-edged tough guys deep down  have a soft side, while nice guys have repressed rage. Nice guys want to be liked and appreciated, yet their willingness to give out for free what they want people to value merely cheapens it. The tough guy on the other hand acknowledges that part of him must be parceled out selectively.

But men to some extent have this same dynamic when it comes to other men. If a man is stoic, we have a natural desire take an emotional reaction from him more seriously than the guy who runs at a high emotional temperature. If he is a man of few words, we listen more carefully when he speaks. A teacher of mine once said he hated common use of profanity, not because he was above it, but because it cheapened the effect when he needed to use it to make a point.

Marx’s labor theory of value is obviously garbage, but there’s something to be said about the amount of work a man has do to gain something. Perhaps because it then represents something more than just the goal itself, but how the struggle made them better.

This phenomenon is articulated well in the novel Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. It is a thinly-disguised political philosophy book, but it still has some great quotes.

There is an old song which asserts that “the best things in life are free”. Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears. … I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.

“Make ’em earn it” is a major theme in Heinlein’s treatise. In the Federation everyone is born a civilian, but to exercise rights such as voting and holding public office, one must become a citizen and go through some form of service first to demonstrate that they deserve them and have skin in the game.

“Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part.”

“Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.”

This phenomenon also explains the malaise many young Western men experience today. We’re often told that we have no reason to be unhappy because of how affluent and wealthy we are compared to our ancestors, how easy and effortless it is to do things.

But it precisely for that reason many of us are in fact discontent with modern life. We have things we didn’t earn that are there because of other people who are long gone. Men are males who have proven themselves, who know that they earned their manhood by displaying courage, sacrifice, loyalty, and other masculine traits. By suffering, they find justification in exercising their rights.

I was thinking of this recently while watching the 2019 film Midway. I try hard not to glorify either war or the past. Not only was I not there, but I’ve never served in the military. However, it is impossible to look at the real-life men depicted in the movie and not envy them. Not only did they take part in one of the most important naval battles in history, but they could walk around with confidence.

I was at a book signing a few years back for a World War 2 bomber and author. During his talk, he said he’s often asked by schools kids he speaks to why he wears a (World War 2 vet) hat when he’s not bald.

“The only answer I got is ‘I’ve earned the right to wear it,'” he said.

When I had him sign a copy of his book I had bought, he also wrote “enjoy your life, enjoy your freedom.”

I take that to heart as much as I can, but some of us want the satisfaction of knowing we could do something ourselves. I have a feeling some World War 2 vets and others would understand. I get that some probably wouldn’t see their experiences the way I or others might. But then again, if they knew the unsatisfying nature of a thoroughly comfortable life attained without effort or sacrifice, not to mention the loss of everything they fought for since 1942, would they really trade the seat of a dive bomber in the Pacific Ocean for a cubicle desk in Current Year corporate America?

A separate but related example of this is Eugene Sledge described in his memoir With the Old Breed fighting at Okinawa. It’s one battle where don’t envy anyone involved. If hell existed on earth, that would have been it. The horrors taught Sledge to appreciate basic stuff like a warm cup of coffee and dry socks, and like many war veterans he was disturbed by the lack of appreciation ordinary Americans had for them.

That’s because they hadn’t earned it like he had.

Make people earn what you want them to appreciate in yourself.

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