What Would Teddy Roosevelt Say?

During NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, viewers were treated to a mind-blindingly monotonous collection of commercials. One of them, however, particularly appealed to me: the commercial starring the guy from Minority Report (otherwise known as actor Neal McDonough) in which Neal walks around a beautiful house, complete with beautiful wife and children (and pool!), confidently explaining that our prodigious and dedicated, uniquely American commitment to work means that we are entitled to own lots of cool things–cool things like the plug-in electric Cadillac he’s trying to sell us. At first I liked the commercial for simple reasons. Neal talks very quickly and enticingly throughout the commercial; he has a strange, interesting body which looks eminently better in a suit than casual clothes (rarely the case). And I deeply coveted his pool.

But as I began to actually decipher Neal’s words, I discovered that my interest in the commercial lingered. While it doesn’t boil down to much more than I described above–Americans work hard! We love to work! We create cool stuff because of our work, so we deserve those cool things!–Neal uses some interesting facts in his defense of hard work. First, he disparagingly contrasts America with Europe. In Europe, he says derisively, people leave work early, casually stroll home, stop at the cafe, hang out, enjoy life, and don’t work hard. Even more astoundingly, they take off for the entire month of August. The gall of those Europeans! In America, by comparison, we work all hours of the day, and we work hard, by gosh. We only take two weeks of vacation in August. And look at us! We have Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, and Thomas Edison, and electric Cadillacs! Isn’t hard work and making money great?

In addition to watching this commercial throughout the Olympics, I’ve also been reading Edmund Morris’ trilogy biography (actually, there are three separate biographies, each an absurd length of about 700 pages) on Teddy Roosevelt. While the books and era are eminently fascinating, what is most fascinating to me is Teddy’s approach to life. Essentially, he believed that if he wasn’t active–either mentally or physically–at all hours of the waking day, he was wasting his life. Perhaps that’s why he ran for a seat in the NY State Congress, just one year after graduating from Harvard. A year later, he became the Minority Speaker. After four years there, he ran for the mayorship of New York City. And then opened a cattle ranch in North Dakota and hung out there roping steer. Then he came back and, in short succession, was appointed to the US Civil Service Commission, served as the New York City Police Commissioner, became the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, became the Colonel leading the Rough Riders in San Juan Hill, the Governor of New York, the Vice-President, and then the President. He accomplished all of this in a mere twenty years.

In addition to all of that, Roosevelt married twice (his first wife died), fathered six children, authored dozens of full-length historical biographies, war history, politics, and natural science books, as well as shorter magazine pieces, and read thousands of novels. It’s not just that Teddy did a lot. It’s that he did a lot in a very short time span, and he did it all extremely well. One of his books, The Naval War of 1812, for example, which he wrote when he was 23, was for decades considered the pre-eminent authority on naval warfare. Teddy did all of his own primary research, writing, and editing. And he did it in under three months–three months in which he never stopped exercising, playing tennis, swimming, rowing, hunting, riding, and so on and so forth. Teddy Roosevelt seems to be the very person Neal in the Cadillac commercial thinks is the epitome of the hardworking American.

Unlike Teddy, I have not written an award-winning book on naval history in the past three months. In fact, I’ve accomplished virtually nothing noteworthy at all. I’ve gone to work; I’ve gone to the gym; I’ve cooked some good meals; I’ve read some good books, watched too much of the Office, watched all of the Olympics, and slept not quite enough. I’ve thought and read a lot about the habeas corpus paper I’m supposedly writing, but I’ve written absolutely nothing. I’m no Teddy. I used to (during school, that is) be a lot more hardworking–although nowhere nearly as successful as Teddy. It made me a little sad to think I’ve lost my edge, that I’m no longer very hardworking at all.

But I certainly don’t want to be the person in Neal’s commercial. There are lots of young lawyers and other corporate types who work non-stop through their 20s and 30s, because hard work is good and American, and because after you’ve gone to a good college and law school, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Yet these people are often depressed, alone, unhealthy, and trying to change. I vowed never to become the caricature of that work-obsessed corporate lawyer; I never wanted to let my job define me. Isn’t family, tranquility, and personal fulfillment more important than work, anyway?

Sure. Of course it absolutely is. But after six months of working and taking it pretty easy, I’m starting to realize that just because I don’t want to make my work or job my life,it doesn’t mean that I can’t work, and work hard, outside of my job. In fearing the corporate lawyer stereotype, I failed to make the distinction between work for work’s sake (or money’s sake) and work for the sake of intellect, enjoyment, passion, fulfillment. I don’t ever want to work more than the standard 40-hour work week. But just because I don’t want to miss life by spending my weekends in the office doesn’t mean that when I go home, I shouldn’t do the work that I personally want to do. What’s wrong with spending some weekends curled up on the couch working on my paper while Tanner works on his? What’s wrong with emulating Teddy Roosevelt’s work ethic?

What confident Neal in the Cadillac commercial fails to realize, I think–I’m projecting a little here, but bear with me–is that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Thomas Edison didn’t work hard so they could buy electric Cadillacs or because Americans are supposed to work hard because they’re, you know, Americans.  They worked hard because they loved it, and because their work led to something meaningful. I like to work, too. And that’s OK–the corporate lawyer stereotype should not devalue the intrinsic power of my own hard work. But without the purity of working hard for school, I wasn’t really sure how to work hard. Teddy, thankfully, has shown me another way. As detailed in the book, Teddy would come home from working as the Vice-President, or the Police Commissioner of New York City, or the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, or the President, go for a long horseback ride for some exercise, and then settle in for some academic writing, surrounded by his family in the comfort of his living room. He took breaks frequently to tussle with his children. That sounds OK to me.

By focusing my hard work on my own goals and ambitions, it’s OK if I choose to delay some goals a bit in order to fully enjoy family, friends, and life in the moment. But I still have to make and fulfill those goals. More than anything, I’d love some day to be a law professor and write (and publish!) articles or books or maybe both. To accomplish that, I have to start working. Three months from now, I will not come close to having produced an award-winning paper on procedural defaults in habeas corpus and their 8th Amendment implications. But I can at least have a solid first draft, right? Even if it’s a day or two late? (After all, I’m going to be very busy this weekend attending my youngest sister’s Friday and Saturday musical productions!)

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One Response to What Would Teddy Roosevelt Say?

  1. Ann says:

    That commercial has been the topic of discussion ever since its been on! I love this!

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