What do you do: Exploring the topic of work

Telemarketers in their cubicles

Image of Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
Author: Studs Terkel
Publisher: Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House (1974)
Binding: Hardcover, 589 pages

Jeremy Hobson: The weak job market that's likely to be with us for a while is going to impact all kinds of things -- what people study in college, where people decide to live, and even the answer to the age-old question: what do you want to be when you grow up?

For author Daniel Pink, the answer -- decades ago -- started with a book.


Daniel Pink: One afternoon in 1974, I spotted a book my parents had brought home from our local library in central Ohio. It was by a guy with a weird name -- Studs Terkel. The title was in boxy black and red letters. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

I was 10 years old at the time -- and cared about sports and not much else. So I read Terkel's interview with the baseball player, a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.

To my surprise, I ended up staying for the cab driver, the bank teller, the gravedigger, and -- yes, I'll admit it -- the prostitute.

Hearing real grown-ups talk about what they did for a living was a revelation. It was far more exotic and exciting than reading about phantom tollbooths or some old lady's mixed-up files. I even asked my dad if I could see his office.

In many ways, that book began my obsession with work -- trying to understand what work is, how it's organized, and when it can become, as Terkel put it, a source "of daily meaning, as well as daily bread."

Work, I've realized, is an amazing topic to explore -- psychology, economics, anthropology, and a few scoops of biology blended into a ginormous, fascinating smoothie. Think about it. Most of us spend over half of our waking hours at work. That makes it a powerful lens for examining who we are and where we're going.

I left Ohio long ago and now live -- and work -- in Washington, D.C. This city can be an uptight place. It has a strange social convention. Apparently, you're not supposed to ask people you've just met about their jobs. We're dying to know, of course. But inquiring is considered intrusive, immodest, a bit uncouth.

I don't care. Whenever I meet someone new, I always ask the same question -- the question Studs Terkel planted in my young mind: So, what do you do?

Hobson: Daniel Pink's latest book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Check out some reading suggestions in our summer book series. Got a comment? Write to us.

Image of Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
Author: Studs Terkel
Publisher: Pantheon Books, A Division of Random House (1974)
Binding: Hardcover, 589 pages

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