Impulse 67: Board Notes

Mark Laskow


These famous words of Andrew Carnegie — “My heart is in the work” — sweetly capture the vibrant energy that flowed through his business and philanthropic work.

So, I was jarred to read an unsettling variation on these words — “When My Heart Isn’t in the Work” — in an online publication of an American university closely associated with Carnegie.

With this headline, counselors at the university announced an online “space” for students to “share and process” difficult experiences at the school.

On one level, it is nice that the school is concerned about students who come to the university from diverse cultures around world. I know well that college can be stressful. But the decision to twist Carnegie’s own famous words this way invites the same question discussed here in the last issue of Impulse: “What would Carnegie do?” Or “What would Carnegie heroes do?”

Like many of this university’s students, Carnegie faced cross-cultural stresses when his family moved from Scotland to Pittsburgh after his father was unable to adapt to the increasing automation of his handloom weaving trade.

Carnegie also experienced economic stress. His father’s inability to hold a job in America pushed 13-year-old Andrew into the breadwinner’s role, working 72 hours as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill for the pay of $1.20 … per week, or $36 in 2020 dollars.

My first reaction to the twisted headline won’t surprise you: I snorted and dismissed it as more evidence of the decline of Western Civilization in general and our universities in particular. But, as much as I enjoy outrage, snorting doesn’t equal thinking.

A little poking around online revealed the staff assigned to the project are trained therapists. You have to give the university the benefit of the doubt and allow that this could be a laudable effort to support students venturing into a wider world.

And yet. Why the headline, “When My Heart Isn’t in the Work”? Instead of delivering a verbal kick to Andrew Carnegie’s shins, why not look to Carnegie’s life for inspiration and uplift?

Do you suppose that Andrew’s heart was in his work as a bobbin boy? Hard to say. What we do know is that he did the work necessary to support his family. We know that he kept at his work year after year until he had built the modern steel industry which, on balance, added immensely to the wealth and well-being of the nation.

Yes, we all have bad stretches in life, and of course it helps to have someone to talk to in the hard times. In the end, though, we all have to go back to the work, to do whatever work of which we are capable. Do that, and you may find out that your heart has caught up with you, and with the work.

Perhaps industrial titan Andrew Carnegie is too big a figure to serve as an example to a modern college student.

If that is the case, consider the everyday heroes who have earned the Carnegie Medal.

Who among them do you suppose got up in the morning wanting to get involved in a life-threatening rescue? A rescue that could, and all too often did, kill them? In a real sense it was unfair that the heroes were suddenly confronted with a fellow human in terrifying danger. The whole thing was an inconvenience on the rescuers’ normal lives. And how did they respond to surprise, unfairness, and imposition? They left their safe spaces and acted, each and every one of them, to share the danger enveloping the victims they encountered. It was hard, all too many of them died, but in the blink of an eye they acted.

These were no titans of industry but ordinary people of every race, religion, occupation, and social status imaginable who acted to rescue people often very different from themselves. What mattered was, in the moment when it counted, their hearts were in the work.

Let’s stick with that as our headline.