I learned early the mantra “hard work pays off.” My father was a hard worker and was determined not to have any sons who were slackers. To my dad, work was a privilege, an adventure in getting things done – and done well. Even after retirement he could outwork most men, and me in particular, no matter the chore. But over time, I have learned, while hard work does pay off, it often doesn’t pay off in the way we want it to. The world of competitive athletics is a case in point. My son started playing soccer when he was barely old enough to lace up his own shoes. I remember watching him running down the field when his socks almost reached the bottom of his shorts. Those were great days! As he grew it became apparent that he had some ability and athleticism. We were persuaded to put him into club soccer, and our lives changed over night. Our free time now revolved around practices, games, tournaments and more practices, games and tournaments. I watched my son grow and become a very proficient soccer player. Along the way, his team competed in and won some of the most prestigious youth soccer tournaments in the nation. The highlight was a win at the National Championships of Club Soccer in Florida as 16-year-olds. One day, as we were pulling out of the mega soccer complex in San Diego where he had just won the Surf Cup, I asked him if the joy of winning would last as long as the agony of defeat. He easily replied “no way. If winning is the only goal, you’ll find life very dissatisfying. It’s all about giving it all to do the best you can, and that doesn’t depend on the scoreboard.” So here’s the point: Hard work does pay off, but if we think that means the harder we work the more games we’ll win, we’re just plain wrong. Thirty-two teams worked very hard to get to World Cup in Brazil, but only one team won. Every day people in American business work hard, but not everyone stays in business. Your sons and daughters have worked hard and still lost the game, failed to make the team or watched someone else get the job or promotion. Maybe the problem isn’t that hard work doesn’t pay off, but rather we have a wrong understanding of what it means to get the payoff. Games come and go, and sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. But hard work always pays off in building character, perspective, maturity, and the courage necessary to make every day a win, regardless of the scoreboard. My son went on to get a college education through soccer, won another National Championship and built some friendships that will carry him for the rest of his life. But in the end, when the soccer shoes were put on the shelf, it was the character and courage he had developed that carried him into marriage honorably, and into a career in the fire service that will demand all the hard work he can manage. Hard work does pay off, but in ways that are far more important than winning a game, landing that account or acquiring that position. We may not win every time but we can all be winners if we set our focus on deepening our character, expunging our selfishness, broadening our willingness to serve others, and genuinely becoming the best example of ourselves. All this will require the hardest work ever asked of us, but the payoff will be a worthy life of incredible influence. And that’s the best payoff of all. David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal.