The Working Life

“You’re always dealing with teenagers, people, drunks, drug addicts, or prostitutes.”

–Lupita Perez, Bus Driver

Aw, the variety of the human experience. There are some jobs I am sure I would be incapable of doing; bus driver certainly ranks close to the top. Also, underwater welder . For the most part though, I enjoy working, and not just because I have a pleasant and thoroughly satisfying job at my local public library. I grew up in a working-class family, and have worked innumerable odd service jobs over the years—farm worker, pizza delivery driver, ice cream scooper, live-in housekeeper, waitress, Americorp worker, overnight shelf stocker, intern, to name a few—before landing at a public library some years ago. As a teenager I preferred working to other extracurricular activities. I could never get excited about sports or theater or any of the clubs, but I found workplaces endlessly fascinating. I spent many a happy afternoon in the kitchen of a hotel/restaurant in my hometown, watching the goings-on of the “front-of-house” and “back-of-house” staff, my own private version of Upstairs, Dowstairs. I was a busser and room service clerk, and enjoyed having a small part in the commingling of kitchen staff (largely immigrant populations), waitstaff (college kids and tough working moms), bartenders, desk clerks, and an endlessly rotating cast of hotel guests—winter brought skiers, summer brought windsurfers, and retired folks seemed to visit all year long. 

I’m not quite sure where my fascination with thinking about work comes from—I suppose it’s just interesting to consider how people spend their time and energy. Although most people work because they have to, there are some people who work even though they don’t have too, and there are people who instead of working develop elaborate systems for avoiding work (an ingenous act of work in itself, you have to admit). When I was eight or so, I remember having a really weird, quasi-existential conversation with my dad (a construction worker) about work that went something like this:

Me: Why do you work?
Dad: What kind of a question is that? I go to work because I have to.
Me: But why do you have to?
Dad: It’s just what people do.
Me: But do you want to work?
Dad: What? I don’t know. I don’t think about that. People just have to work.
Me: But why? What’s the point?
Dad: I don’t know. You know, you probably shouldn’t ask questions like that. You’re just going to make yourself miserable.

My dad may have had a point there. Nevertheless, I still keep thinking and reading about work. A few favorites:

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
by Studs Terkel

A wonderful, surprising, and addictive read. Mr. Terkel interviews farmers, office workers, hookers, janitors, car salesmen, teachers, poets, nuns, and many more about what they do, and how they feel about what they do. You should probably check this book out right now.
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Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs
edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe & Sabin Streeter

Wow. This book completely blew me away. It is a great follow-up to Working, and is done in roughly the same format. Real workers are interviewed, and reveal candid, surprising, moving, and occasionally scandalous details about their jobs. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a UPS delivery driver or a Walmart greeter, this is the book for you.

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The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work
by Joanne Ciulla

This book provides a history of the working life, as well as a philosophical discussion on the meaning of work, the nature of freedom and working for “the man,” and how we experience time. Overall, this is a very thoughtful book about the idea of work, and the question of how we can best spend our short amount of time here on planet earth.
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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
by Alain De Botton

A philosophical journey into the nature of work. De Botton looks at industries as dissimilar as biscuit manufacturing and rocket science (to name only a few) while trying to determine what ultimately makes work either fulfilling or soul-crushing.
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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Have you ever found yourself getting lost in a project, maybe while rearranging your cupboards, or possibly engaging in basket weaving? This book is all about being “in the groove,” that zone of contentment you go to when you’re completely focused and engaged in whatever task is at hand. Yep. Work can actually make you happy.
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Happy reading, and happy working!

-Tara
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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Working Life

  1. I could never be a nurse or even work in the medical field; I get queasy just driving in a hospital parking lot when I have to visit someone! Someone has to do it, though!

  2. Natalie Emiliani

    Having just lost my job, I am so thankful for this post. I’m giving myself some time to try figure out what it is I want to do next, and have been debating the issue of “just” working vs. finding meaning in your work. These books will be of great help in working through the debate!

  3. CAC

    I find it interesting how work changes you. I’ve had many jobs over the years and presently work with cancer patients. I am a much more optimistic person now than I ever was working at jobs that took place in an environment that you would think would be “happier”. All I have to do is look at my life and realize my family is essentially healthy to think about how lucky I am. When I worked at other jobs the slight frictions of everyday would really get to me. I would also obsess about realtively minor things. Working 8 hours a day with people who really have problems and seeing how they deal, or don’t deal, with those problems has changed my attitude and changed me.

  4. Pingback: Curiosities and Wonders. | Eleventh Stack

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