Deserve vs. Earn

“You just received a raise? Well, congratulations! I think you deserved it.” A co-worker said after I stepped out of a one-on-one with my boss. I was so proud that I almost missed her faux pas. If it wasn’t a faux pas to her mind, I thought, but it was a violation of my philosophical principles.

“Well, thank you for the kind words,” I said with all sincerity, “but I didn’t deserve that raise. I earned it.”  

I don’t know if I offended a third party in our group or not, but she stepped into the conversation when I stressed the word earn. “If you earned this raise, then we all did,” she said with a dismissive tone. “We all got a raise, but it wasn’t a raise in a traditional sense. It was a bump in pay. Yeah, the federal minimum wage went up, and we all received a commensurate bump in pay.”

I knew about the raise in the minimum wage, but I made more than the minimum wage, so I ignored the stories on the topic. I knew the cost of everything would rise accordingly, and I knew every dollar I had in my pocket would mean less as a result of the federal government raising the minimum wage, but I didn’t think the feds raising the minimum would affect me in any other way. I didn’t know anything about the general practice companies have of raising wages to help their employees’ wages keep pace with the level inflation that results from raising the minimum wage.

In our one-on-one, my boss led me to believe that the increase in hourly wage I would see was an amount of money I would receive, going forward, was based on merit. He never said the word raise, I realized in the aftermath of my co-worker’s clarification, but he said enough to allow me to fill in the blank. I was so proud. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad, but it turned out this bump in pay wasn’t an amount of money I earned, but money I deserved for working in a country that decided to mandate that employers pay their employees more money.

“Why do you care whether you earned or deserved more money?” another co-worker later asked, “as long as you have more of it in the bank.”

Other co-workers told me to shut up in various other ways, and that I should be grateful that I had a job. I tried to be that guy, as I knew the pain of being laid off and fired. I don’t know if my state of mind had something to do with my boss delivering the news of my bump in pay under what I considered false pretenses, but I thought it had something to do with the overwhelming sense of pride I felt when I thought the company was finally recognizing all of my hard work, and how that all came crashing down when I realized I deserved it.


In a post-game interview, following his first 1994-1995 national championship, former Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Tom Osborne was asked if he felt he deserved the title. Tom Osborne began head coaching duties in 1974. What followed was a level of consistency almost unheard of in college football, with numerous near-misses in national championship games. No college coach, at the time, could be said to be more deserving of a national championship. No college coach worked harder, or was more effective in building a consistent winner, at the time, than Coach Tom Osborne. Yet when he finally won his first championship, and someone asked him if he felt he deserved it, he said, “No one deserves a national championship,” I write paraphrasing Coach Osborne. “You win one in that particular season.” Without going into too much detail, every loss to the Oklahoma Sooners, every bowl game loss, and every near-miss informed Tom Osborne that he needed to change his in-game strategies. He also realized he needed to change the type of players he needed to recruit to finish his career with three national championships and a 60-3 record over his last five seasons as Nebraska’s head coach.  

What’s the difference between the words earn and deserve? If a reader sorts through various periodicals they will find the two words used in an almost interchangeable manner. We conflate these two words so often that some of us consider them synonyms, some thesauruses and dictionaries even list them as such.

This casual, but curious, observer of language would not go so far to write that those periodicals are incorrect, but in a purely philosophical sense, I consider these words so far apart as to be antonyms. When the office worker speaks of deserving a raise she has not yet received, even those who know the standard measurements of the company would not bring up the word earn, fearing that doing so might taint the relationship they have with her. When a sports fan speaks of his favorite team deserving a championship, only his antagonists will mention the fact that that team hasn’t earned it yet, and when the lovelorn and politicians speak of the word deserving, it is an emotional appeal that their audience dare not counter.

Most define deserve as something for which they are entitled, as if by birthright, and earn has a more meritorious quality. We think we deserve to have something, as a result of a natural course of events. If another has, we should have. In this context, deserve takes on the definition of an adjective to describe those who should attain, and earn is more a verb to describe the justifiable reward for the hard work put into attaining a goal. Deserve is also a term used by those who feel they are owed something by being a good person, a human, or a human being that is alive.

All philosophical differences aside, this causal, but curious, observer can’t help but think that those who invest emotions in the idea that they are deserving, at the expense of working to earn, set themselves up for failure, heartache, and even diminished mental health when the reality of their circumstances continue to dispel such notions. One would think that, at some point, the confused would take a step back and reexamine their algorithm, but for most of us that’s easier said than done, as it could lead us to the conclusion that we’re a lot less deserving than we once believed.


Love is difficult to calculate by standard measurements of course, as past behaviors do not dictate future success. As such, no rational person should ever say that they deserve to be loved in a conditional manner by a prospective lover, but love is not something one can earn entirely by merit in this manner either. Conditional love, between adults, is a complicated algorithm fraught with failure that begins with simple, intangible superficialities. These superficialities can be as simple as the way a person combs their hair, their scent, the clothes they wear, the way they smile when they see you coming down the aisle at Cracker Barrel, and all of the other, otherwise meaningless intangibles that form superficial attraction. Some could argue that the superficial nature of the early stages of love are nothing more than a crush, but a crush forms the fundamental layer of all that will arise from it. At some point, and every relationship is different, a crossover occurs. The initial spark that drove the relationship from point A to point B progresses into shared values, individualistic ideas, and some modifications on long held beliefs and philosophies, until it eventuates from that initial, superficial attraction into the ultimate, comprehensive and conditional decisions we make about another person we call love. In this sense, we earn love every day thereafter by maintaining and managing the conditions that the other party lays out for us in overt and implicit ways to form adult, conditional love.

“Do you think you should receive love simply by being?” I would ask those who claim to deserve love. “Do you think that you should be able to walk up to a total stranger on the street and inform them that you are a good person, and therefore deserving of love, and that they should do their civic duty, as a good citizen of the world, and love you? If that’s what you believe, you’ll probably end up with the type of love you deserve.” 

The point is that those who claim they’ve achieved the quality of deserving open up a whole can of why, for those who are asked to believe it. ‘Why do I deserve,’ should be the first question we ask ourselves, and ‘why am I more deserving than anyone else’ should be the next, and all of the answers should culminate in self-evident facts and figures that result in the definitions of the words ‘merit’ and ‘earn’.

Some high-minded types who tend to overthink matters are often quick to warn the rest of us that we tend to overthink matters. One such person told his audience that love is nothing more than a complex mixture of chemicals in the brain, and he did so under a theoretical umbrella that suggests that a human being is no more complex than the penguin. This person added that other animals, like some penguins, maintain long-term, monogamous relationships based on some decision-making. The rest of us would not say that this is outright false, but we would add that the definition of love can vary with the complex and simple variables we add to it. If we want the love we deserve to be no more complex than the penguin’s, and our drive to be loved, and love, is nothing more than a natural and primal need to procreate, then all humans deserve to be loved by the primal, prospective mate who senses when we’re in heat. If the human’s senses are equal or inferior to the penguin’s, in the sense that a penguin can tell when their mate is in heat, and humans don’t know when we deserve love, we may want to develop a mating call that informs prospective mates when we feel ‘deserving’ to see what comes running down the alley to us.

Most of us prefer to believe that we earn the love we receive on a perpetual basis, a love that is much more complex than the penguins, and that the love we receive is reciprocated by the love we give. This, in financial circles, is called ROI (return on investment). If we decide to invest our emotions into another, we try to make an informed decision of whether that person shares our values. After we make that initial assessment, we advance it to greater levels with variables that both parties introduce to it on a day-to-day basis. If we settle on this primal, penguin definition of love, and we choose to believe that we deserve a form of love that should be nonjudgmental, and lacking in morals and values, and that which is nothing more than a stick that stirs the chemicals in our brain, the love we receive will be as meaningless as the penguins’, and what we deserve.


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