《工作》 / "Working"

《工作》

在我从普林斯顿大学毕业后不久,一本名叫《工作》的书(Working,中文版译作“美国人谈美国”)出版了。该书的作者是曾获过普利策奖的芝加哥作家兼电台主持人路易斯•特克尔(Louis Terkel),绰号是“Studs”。

对我来说,这本书非常及时,因为当时我正在思考自己的职业和生活方向。我已经感觉到远方亚洲的呼唤,但仍然不知道它会在我的未来扮演什么样的角色。这本书的副标题很吸引人:“人们畅谈每日工作及感受。”

特克尔已于2008年去世,享年96岁。他虽然出生在纽约,但很小的时候就随父母搬到了芝加哥,并在父母经营的寄宿公寓中度过了早年的时光。在那里,特克尔接触到一批不同行业的人。

后来,特克尔取得了芝加哥大学的法学博士学位,但他没有当律师,而是加入了一个剧团。他是位多产的作家,也是多档成功的广播和电视节目的主持人及制片人。特克尔的节目特点是让普通人讲述他们的经历。他本人具备一种罕见的采访天赋,能让一切陌生人放松心情,展现自我。

《美国人谈美国》这本书由一些小短章构成,每章的内容都以与某人讨论其工作为主,其中包括:公司经理、停车管理员、垃圾车司机、牙医、教师、美发师、销售员、运动员、手工艺人、音乐家、家庭主妇、赛马骑师、农夫、消防员、服务员,等等。

每个访谈包括平日工作的寻常细节,受访者对工作的感受,以及他们如何在大视角(比如生活的意义)下诠释自己的工作。

通过读这本书,我首先发现的就是——书中所记载的大多数人,似乎都难以忍受他们的工作,更谈不上享受了。在很多人看来,工作中令他们厌恶的部分超过了让他们感到享受或欣赏的部分。这个发现令人沮丧,但也不失为一堂好的职业规划课:一定要未雨绸缪,想办法避免走上不愉快的职业道路。

虽然特克尔的访谈是基于40多年前的美国,但这些职业教训放在时下来看,无论在美国、中国或其他地区,仍然很有意义。如今在中国,找一份满意的工作比二三十年前难得多,因为现在不仅机会多了,竞争也多了。

工作的满意度与文化紧密相连,满意的标准也远远不止是金钱。何为成功,是一个见仁见智的问题,受人们所处的家庭和社会形态影响。由于中国社会在过去25年间发生了巨大的变化,有关职业与衡量成功的方程式也经历了重大而持续的转变。

80年代初,我和一群在美国东部生活学习的中国研究生进行过一次对话。那时他们在中国被视作是精英群体,是早期有幸赴美深造的中国留学大潮中的一分子。

为了补贴在美国的生活开销,他们当中大部分人干过兼职。他们乐意做这些,但他们决不会告诉国内的父母说,自己在从事给餐馆刷盘子之类的不体面工作。这实在配不上他们在国内身为博士、留学美国的精英地位,而且还会让家里人蒙羞。

对此,我感到十分愕然,这显示出中美两国文化的巨大差异。

我太太是中国人,她常常打趣说我当过童工。她说的倒也没错,因为我12岁的时候就在餐馆里打零工,当时还不到法定的工作年龄。

整个学生时代,我还打过很多工,包括打理花园、铲雪、制作帆船、餐厅服务,做过快餐厨师、图书管理员、房屋粉刷匠、建筑机械操作员等等。我们家里绝对算不上贫穷,但我的父母却鼓励我和兄弟姐妹们出去打工挣钱,积累经验。这段经历和从中得到的收获,一直令我非常感激。

和我一起长大的孩子也都有着类似的经历,这在当时的美国中产阶级家庭十分普遍。

很小的时候,我就学会了一个简单而重要的道理:钱的主要来源是靠努力工作。虽然运气和人脉关系显然也会有所帮助,但工作还是基础,要有主观能动性才能实现。

做不同的工作、结识不同的人,让你有机会发展人际关系,提升自信,也教导你人人平等,应当彼此尊重,不管他们的皮肤和衬衫领子颜色如何、他们的钱包鼓不鼓或者他们上过什么学校。

特克尔的著作帮我构架了对工作的设想、规划和预期,为此我始终心怀感激。而尤为让我感激的是,我依然喜欢我的工作以及和我一起工作的人。

“Working”

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.


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