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From a breadwinner: Why hard work as the primary factor in being successful is a myth

By Leo Jaminola Published Aug 01, 2023 4:13 pm

This year marks nearly a decade of being a working student, five years of being my family’s breadwinner, and the completion of my master’s degree at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Four years ago, during my graduation with my bachelor's degree, I shared that I took as many as six jobs to finance my studies—an encoder, a transcriptionist, a library student assistant, a tutor, a writer, and even a food vendor. As such, graduating with honors back then was nothing short of a miracle. In the years that followed, the list of jobs I took just grew longer as I became a research assistant, a government employee, a development worker, and a consultant for different projects with some engagements overlapping with each other.

I applied for jobs even when I wasn’t confident in my skills or didn’t have experience in that particular line of work. I still risked and fought tooth and nail to get those opportunities because the potential income I could get to ensure my family's survival far outweighs any uncharted territory I need to cross with these jobs. Through all of this, I imbibed the mantra of faking it until you make it, and I still live by this up to this day.

Apart from taking up jobs, I also often entered into essay writing competitions and fellowships that offered cash incentives in an attempt to augment my income. I succeeded in some of these competitions and earned some cash, but I also lost in so many others.

In short, the past years have been a long-winding maze of seeking financial security and I still have yet to find a way out of this crisis. From full-time work, part-time work, and competitions, I did my best to provide not only for myself but also for my family.

The author presents their business pitch for the Green Innovator Academy in Tokyo, Japan in December 2022. "I wanted to travel overseas but I know full well how expensive that can be. So, I tried applying to different competitions and fellowship programs that offered fully funded trips."

To be honest, there are moments when the pressure becomes overwhelming and I wish that I can disappear—even just for a tiny while. But then I remember that the needs of the people I love largely depended on me so I dust myself, drown the chorus of self-doubt in my head, and breathe deeply before continuing work once more.

I constantly tell my friends (and myself) that life is not a race. Because if it is, I am definitely on the losing side and trailing by miles and miles.

While some of my peers have hefty investments in high-yield financial instruments, here I am still overthinking whether I deserve an upgrade to a large Coke while ordering from a local fast food chain.

While some of my peers have multiple properties to their name, here I am still dividing the price of shampoo by their volume to see which brand and size have the best value for money.

While some of my peers are traveling the world and trying all sorts of adventures, here I am still spending most of my weekends in front of a laptop and finishing deliverables for my rakets.

My lack of privilege has greatly affected my pursuit of education as well. Having a full-time job and various part-time engagements meant that I have less time to study for my coursework and comply with class requirements. This lack of focus has also translated to lackluster thesis submissions leading to a constant barrage of comments from my adviser and multiple major revisions. As a result, my graduation from the program was delayed for one whole semester.

The author after the recognition ceremonies

You see, I grew up in a place where a college degree remains elusive for many community members, and people enrolling in graduate programs are rarely encountered. This is not surprising as families in my community struggle with the most basic things like providing food on the table. During my childhood, I saw how poverty manifested itself in the form of cramped makeshift houses, children playing near litter-filled canals, and senior citizens succumbing to illnesses without even getting a proper diagnosis. Growing up, I thought of these as normal occurrences that should be accepted as it is the way of life. Now, I do not think that this should be the norm.

Some people will say that poverty is a personal failure and that the members of my community should work harder but I know better. One of the things that I learned from my experience is that hard work as the primary factor in being successful is a myth. That’s not to say that it doesn’t play a role, but privilege and access to resources have greater impacts on whether a person ends up successful or not.

Frankly, breadwinners are the biggest evidence to counter this prevailing myth. We try our best every day but constantly feel that it is not translating into the future we want to achieve. When we think of breadwinners, we usually envision a diligent person buried under a mountain of responsibilities but still barely making ends meet. This is because for many of us, hard work, especially in the short term, really only translates to mere survival.

If hard work is all it took, then the many young breadwinners I know who continue to support their families while chasing their own dreams would not be constantly organizing their budget trackers to find ways how to stretch their salary until the next payday.

If hard work is all it took, then my neighbors who wake up at 4:00 a.m. to go out to sea and catch fish should not face financial issues.

If hard work is all it took, then the nanays in my community who juggle multiple domestic responsibilities while still trying to contribute to household finances would be enjoying a comfortable life.

A look at the author's barong during their graduation, handpainted with a design that depicts the fight for climate justice

Others will read this and use it as some kind of living proof that people, even those from the most marginalized groups, can make it in life simply by working hard rather than addressing structural barriers. But what of those who didn't make it despite working as hard or even harder than me? How are their experiences not evidence of the continued inaccessibility of education and opportunities in our country?

Rather than success, we should see my experience and the stories of so many others as systemic failures. If anything, my story should make us angry and move us to demand a much better society—one that allows our people to live with dignity, dream freely, and enjoy equal opportunities.