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Summer Reading: Daniel Pink

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Kai Ryssdal: As we were reminded this morning with Wall Street’s short-lived debt deal relief rally, all is not well with the American economy. No need to count the ways, but jobs is number one on that list. We’ll get the latest unemployment report Friday morning. The July numbers will be out.

But right now, something a little bit different about jobs and how we think of them.

For our Summer Book Series this year, we’ve asked people from different professions to discuss writing and work. Books that have influenced careers or helped people answer this question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Today, author Daniel Pink.

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?

Ryssdal: Daniel Pink writes books. His latest is called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Check out the rest of our summer book series. Got a comment? Write to us.

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