Shortly after I graduated from Princeton University, a book called “Working” was published. The author was a Pulitzer-prize winning Chicago writer and broadcaster named Louis “Studs” Terkel.
It was a very timely book for me, since I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career and life. I was feeling the call of Asia from a distance, but still wondering what role, if any, that would play in my future. The sub-title of the book was intriguing: “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.”
Terkel, who died in 2008 at the age of 96, was born in New York but moved with his parents at a very young age to Chicago. His early years were spent in the boarding house which his parents managed, where he came into contact with people from many walks of life.
He later obtained a J.D. degree from the University of Chicago, but, instead of practicing law, he joined a theatrical group. He was a prolific writer, host and producer of various successful radio and TV programs. His hallmark was oral histories of ordinary people, and he had a rare gift as an interviewer for making total strangers relax and open up about themselves.
“Working” contains short chapters, each based on a discussion with someone about their job: a business executive, parking valet, garbage truck driver, dentist, teacher, barber, salesman, professional athlete, craftsman, musician, housewife, jockey, farmer, fireman, waitress, etc., etc.
Each conversation includes a mix of mundane details about the routine of their working day, as well as their feelings about their job, and their views on how their work fits into “big picture” issues such as the meaning of life.
My first take-away from reading the book was that a majority of the people profiled seem to barely tolerate their jobs rather than enjoy them. In many instances, what they disliked about their jobs outweighed what they enjoyed or appreciated. I found that very discouraging, but also a good lesson in career planning insofar as thinking ahead about how to avoid ending up in an unhappy career path.
Although Terkel’s interviews were based in America more than 40 years ago, the lessons are still very relevant today whether in America, China, or elsewhere. The challenge of finding a job which satisfies you is bigger in China today than it was a generation ago because there is so much more opportunity as well as more competition.
Job satisfaction and culture are deeply intertwined and the criteria for satisfaction extend far beyond money. What constitutes success is rooted in the eye of the beholder, and influenced by their family and the society they live in. Given the huge changes in Chinese society these past 25 years, the whole equation around careers and measuring success has undergone a major, ongoing transformation.
I had a conversation in the early 1980s with a group of graduate students from China who were living and studying on the U.S. East coast. They were considered a very elite group in China at the time, part of the early wave of Chinese students lucky enough to be able to go to the U.S. to pursue advanced degrees.
Most of them had taken on part-time jobs to help defray the cost of living in the U.S.. They were happy enough to do these jobs, but there was no way they could tell their parents back in China that they were working in menial jobs like washing dishes in a restaurant. It was simply incompatible with their elite status in China as a PhD. student in America, and would have caused a big loss of face for the family.
I was struck by this because it illustrated a big cultural difference between China and America.
My wife, who is Chinese, likes to joke that I was a child laborer, which is partly true, since I had a part-time job in a restaurant when I was 12, which is below the minimum legal age.
During my student years I also had part-time jobs doing gardening work, shoveling snow, making sailboats, waiting tables, as a short-order cook, library assistant, house painter and construction equipment operator. My family was certainly not poor, but my parents encouraged me and my siblings to find part-time jobs to earn money and gain experience. I’m very grateful for that experience and the associated learning.
Most of the kids I grew up with had similar experiences — fairly typical of middle class America at the time.
One of the simple but important lessons I learned at an early age is that the main source of money is hard work. Luck and connections obviously can play a contributing role, but work is the foundation, and personal initiative makes it happen.
Working in a variety of jobs with exposure to many different kinds of people gives you an opportunity to develop people skills and self-confidence. It also teaches you that regardless of the color of their skin or their shirt collar, the thickness of their wallet or the school they attended, people are people and deserve to be treated with respect.
Studs Terkel’s book helped frame. my ideas, plans and expectations about work. I’m grateful for that, and especially grateful that I still really enjoy my job and the people I work with.