I have spent most of my life working with young people and helping them grow into the leaders of tomorrow. Ever since I founded the National Leadership Academy and the Global Youth Leadership Academy over two decades ago, I’ve talked to hundreds of thousands of high school students in dozens of countries. While my message has changed over the years, I’ve kept one piece the same.
“When you go home today,” I tell my audience, “I want you to find a dictionary. Everyone’s got one somewhere in the house. Flip through it and look up the word entitlement. Now rip out that page. Yes, the entire page. I want you to forget that word exists. I don’t care where you were born, who your parents are, where you go to school, or how much money you have or don’t have. You must work for everything in this world, even the air you breathe. The day you forget that is the day you become entitled.”
I say this at every speech for a good reason: If teens can figure out now that entitlement is a cancer, if they can embrace the four most important words in the world—it’s not about you—they will become incredibly successful leaders who can make a real difference. It doesn’t matter if you are American or Mexican, Republican or Democrat, Black or White, Christian or Atheist, gay or straight—the great equalizer is hard work and the belief that you must earn everything in life.
Now, let me tell you about one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. I’ve been coming with my family to the Ritz-Carlton Residence Club in Vail, Colorado, for nearly a decade. We go there for a few weeks every year, and we’ve made friends with everyone from the general manager to the housekeeping crew. But the person I’ve gotten to know best is a beautiful young man named Ricardo Gonzalez. In his early twenties, Ricky arrived at the Ritz as a part-time car attendant, and eight years later he’s in charge of the hotel’s entire valet operation with a full staff reporting to him. It’s a demanding role that requires keeping track of bags, vehicles, skis, mountain bikes, and countless other belongings for a hundred guests at a time. Every time my family and I arrive at the Ritz, Ricky wraps us in a giant bear hug like we were his own kin.
Ricky works sixty-hour weeks at the Ritz and often more, but here’s the crazy part: That’s only his day job. When he gets off his shift at the hotel, Ricky changes into his waiter’s uniform and walks down the block to Montauk Seafood Grill, which happens to be my favorite restaurant in Vail. (Despite being over a thousand miles from the ocean, they have the freshest, most delicious seafood.) Just like he had at the Ritz, Ricky worked his way up from the bottom of the totem pole to become the top server at the top restaurant in Vail. During peak season, Ricky is working eighteen hours a day, six days a week.
Ricky was born in Jalisco, Mexico. Just before Ricky was born, his father was shot and killed. Ricky’s mother was determined to make a better life for them, so they immigrated to the United States when he was five. His mom worked several jobs to keep the family afloat before she fell in love with and married an American in California. Ricky knows how much his mother sacrificed to make him safe, which is why he is now doing the same for his eight-year-old daughter, Delilah. It’s because of her that he’s never stopped working since he arrived in Vail, including painting houses, construction, and pouring asphalt, before settling into his two current full-time jobs.
Two weekends ago I got a double dose of Ricky. After valeting my car, he said, “Mr. Spaulding, I saw you have a dinner reservation at Montauk. I’ll get you the best table, and I also have some exciting news I want to share with you.” That night, after he took our orders, Ricky pulled out his wallet and showed me an American Express business credit card. It said: RICARDO GONZALEZ—OSPREY TRANSPORATION SERVICES.
“Tommy,” he continued, “after eight years working two jobs for 80 hours a week, I’ve finally saved up enough money to start my own company. It’s called Osprey Transportation, like the bird.” Ricky explained that folks who have seasonal homes in Vail need someone to take care of their car when they’re out of town—to wash it, change the oil, and perform general maintenance. Ricky’s new company will manage all of that while also providing in-town transportation as well as a shuttle to and from Denver International Airport.
“If I’ve been working 80 hours a week for someone else, just think how successful I’ll be working 80 hours a week for myself!” Ricky said proudly as Jill, Tate, Caroline, and I were all in tears.
In an era when it seems America is losing its standing in the world—one study found we’ve slipped all the way to No. 27 in work ethic and innovation—people like Ricky remind me what our country is all about. He’s never even heard of the word entitlement. He ripped that word out of the dictionary after his father was killed, while his mother was still pregnant with him. Ricky reminds me that old-school values like hard work and tenacity still matter. That with enough blood, sweat, and tears, you can do anything. That is the American Dream. And I hope and pray we, as a nation, never stop pursuing that dream.
If you’ve got an old dictionary, do yourself a favor and rip out the definition of entitlement. Don’t think you deserve anything in this world you haven’t worked your butt off for. My goal in life is to inspire millions of teens around the world to eradicate the word entitlement. These young men and women will become the next generation of heart-led leaders. And my hope is that they all become just like Ricky Gonzalez: hard-working, full of tenacity, and ready to earn everything the hard way. Now that will be an America worth celebrating!
In the meantime, if you ever find yourself in Vail, Colorado, give my friend Ricky at Osprey Transportation a call. His phone number is (970) 390-6300. I guarantee no one will work harder for you.