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This Sunday, meet a special street sweeper

Feb 17, 2013 Success, Sunday Nation

Let’s all take a break from Kenyan election mania this Sunday, and focus on something that actually makes a difference in our lives.

Regular readers of this column will know that it searches high and low to showcase common people who show uncommon wisdom, unknown people who need to be known, and little people who are actually very, very big.

Allow me to introduce a special lady to you today. She is called Yu Youzhen, and she lives in Wuhan city in China.

Yu has done hard physical labour for four decades. She has at various times, been a farmer, cook, lorry driver and street sweeper. Her current job involves working long hours, six days a week, sweeping the streets of her city. She earns the equivalent of KSh. 19,000 per month. Her son works as a driver and her daughter sits at a cinema kiosk. Both earn similar amounts.

Something else you need to know about Yu: she is a millionaire. Some time back, Yu received a sudden windfall. Five years ago, her family land in Donghu village was bought by the government for a property development. Yu wisely invested the money in property in the city, and she now owns 17 apartments worth an estimated KSh. 137 million.

If you’ve stopped spluttering in your tea, I can continue.

Why would this lady, seemingly of sound mind, want to carry on working as a sweeper? She was interviewed by a local Chinese newspaper, and she said the following: “Work is not just about the salary, it makes one focused. Laziness gives rise to all sorts of bad habits.”

She continued: “I want to be a role model for my children,…I do not want to sit around idly and eat up my fortune…My son once stayed at home for two months, and I kept scolding him during that time. Now he is doing pretty well. He said to me later I was right. I was worried he would hang out with bad people and ruin our family.”

I trust you can see that we are listening to a rare wisdom. A hundred million bob in assets, lucrative rental flows? How many people you know would resist the temptation to stop working altogether, and just sit back and ‘enjoy’ life for a ‘change’?

But Yu has a different motivation. She sees the intrinsic value of work. She is a good worker, rated highly by her supervisors. She finds focus and purpose in work. She finds satisfaction in a job well done, to a high personal standard. Whether that job is sweeping or surgery, the mere fact of doing it properly really, really matters.

Second, she’s doing the job she knows. Rather than reinvent her life in her fifties, she would rather stay in the groove she has created for herself, instead of making risky experiments. Rental income provides her with a secure safety net.

And lastly, she wants to set this example for her children. She understands the dangers of laziness and lack of purpose. She wants her children to find joy in labour, as she does.

Contrast this with what so many do with sudden windfalls: blow it on parties to impress friends; invest it in precarious business ventures with unreliable partners; go on a shopping splurge that provides a short-lived high and fritters away the asset.

What would you do in Yu’s place? It’s worth asking yourself that question, for the answer will surface your core values. What matters to you, truly? What are you aiming for? In what does meaning reside in your life?

You don’t have to follow Yu’s path, but do recognize that it is a good and meaningful one. It places good work done well at the centre of human existence. I suspect Yu sleeps a lot more peacefully than most of us.

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