Deserve vs. Earn

“You just received a raise? Congratulations! What did you do to deserve that?” This question is so common now that some of us consider the words deserve and earn interchangeable. Another way of saying it might be, “He deserved that raise. He worked so hard for it.” Yet, some who hear such a summation might correct the particulars of the characterization, “I didn’t deserve the raise. I earned it.”  

“All right, what do you think you did to to earn it?” those on the outside ask. Implicit in this question is the question, why do you think you’re better than us? Other than stating the facts inherent in such a matter, it’s difficult to answer such a question to anyone’s satisfaction. Some don’t care about the differences between deserve and earn as long as they have more money in the bank. Yet, there are raises and bumps in pay commensurate with the rise in the minimum wage. Bosses tend to dress the later up with the former in one-on-ones. What happens when people find out they’ve received a bump in pay that they thought was a raise? What happens to those people when they return to work? Anyone who knows the pain, financial and otherwise, or being fired, laid off, or losing a job as a result of a company going out of business live by the credo, ‘I’m just lucky to have a job.’ We might work as hard as we did before the raise, because we like the job, but are we going to work any harder?

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 national championship. Tom Osborne began head coaching duties in 1974. What followed was a level of consistency 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, yet Coach Osborne rejected the characterization, “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 Oklahoma, every bowl game loss, and every near-miss taught Tom Osborne that he needed to change in-game strategies and the type of players he needed to recruit to finish his career with three national championships and a 60-3 record over this 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 those words so far apart as to be antonyms. When the office worker speaks of deserving a raise, even those who know the standard measurements of the company would not bring up the word earn, for fear that doing so might taint the relationship they have with the office worker. When a sports fan speaks of his team deserving a championship, only his antagonists will mention the fact that they haven’t earned it yet, and when the lovelorn and politicians speak of the word deserving, it is an emotional appeal that their audience that one 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 sense, 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 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 believe that we’re a lot less deserving than we once believed.

Love is difficult to calculate by the 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 cross over occurs. The initial spark that drove the relationship from point A to point B progresses into shared values, individualistic ideas, some modifications on long held beliefs 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 be afforded love simply by being?” I would ask those who lay claim to deserving 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 achieve 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 tell their audience that love is nothing more than a complex mixture of chemicals in the brain, and they do so under the theoretical umbrella that suggests that a human being is no more complex than, say, the penguin. They might add that other animals, like penguins maintain long-term, monogamous relationships based on decision-making. If our decision making abilities are 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 do deserve to be loved by the primal, prospective mate who senses when we’re in heat. Alternatively, if the human’s senses are so inferior to the penguin’s that prospects can’t tell 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 more complex than the penguins, and that it progresses based on the variables that we 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 the love we earn should be nonjudgmental, and lacking in morals and values, and 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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