“[Work] is about a search…for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
That’s Studs Terkel, ladies and gentlemen…the cigar-chewing Chicago journalist whose Pulitzer Prize-winning collections of oral history chronicled an astonishing period of cultural evolution in the American workplace.1
During his half-century career (1952-2006) he penned such collections as Division Street America, Hard Times, and–most important to me–Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Fell About What They Do.
And the man straight-up threw shade, which is evident from the many prizes he won…including the Pulitzer, the Chicago History Museum “Making History Award” for Distinction in Journalism and Communications, and membership in the The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Well, as I said in the title, Working is the most inspiring and indeed motivational financial independence and early retirement book I’ve ever read. Shortly after I crafted my exit plan I found a dusty and deeply-discounted copy on an out-of-the-way shelf at my local used book store, opened it, and was mesmerized by its very first paragraph:
This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence–to the spirit as well to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.
Now…there are bloggers upon bloggers in the FIRE space; many “walking wounded” who lay themselves bare to educate and inspire. I like to think Terkel would find their stories–their oral histories–interesting; perhaps interesting enough to write about. Sadly, though, his words went with him when he died.
I’d like, therefore, to share with you several quotes from the interviews he conducted in Working. These are among the ones I underlined; some of them doubly and triply and marked with scribbled stars. I hope you find them as thought-provoking as I did, and I encourage you to read the entire book.2
Dolores Dante, waitress.
People imagine a waitress couldn’t possibly think or have any kind of aspiration other than to serve food. When somebody says to me, “You’re great, how come you’re just a waitress?” Just a waitress, I’d say. “Why don’t you think you deserve to be served by me?”
Ernest Bradshaw, bank auditing manager who supervises twenty people.
You have control over people’s lives and livelihood. It’s good for a person who enjoys that kind of work, who can dominate somebody else’s life. I’m not too wrapped up in seeing a woman, fifty years old, get thrown off her job because she can’t cut it like the younger ones.
Beryl Simpson, ex-airline reservationist
I remember when I went to work for the airlines, they said, “You will eat, sleep, and drink airlines. There’s no time in your life for ballet, theater, music, anything.” My first supervisor told me that.
Larry Ross, ex-president of a conglomerate and current consultant
Fear is always prevalent in the corporate structure. Even if you’re a top man, even if you’re hard, even if you do your job–by the slight flick of a finger, your boss can fire you. There’s always the insecurity. You bungle a job. You’re fearful of losing a big customer. You’re fearful so many things will appear on your record, stand against you. You’re always fearful of the big mistake. You’ve got to be careful when you go to corporation parties. Your wife, your children have to behave properly. You’ve got to fit in the mold. You’ve got to be on guard.
The most stupid phrase anybody can use in business is loyalty.
Roberta Victor, hooker
A hustler is any woman in American society. I was the kind of hustler who received money for favors granted rather than the type of hustler who signs a lifetime contract for her trick.
[Note from ERD]And women of the workplace, how does that make you feel? Can you identify with being thought of and/or treated that way? Christ, I hope not, but I found this to be the single most disturbing quote in the entire book, both as a corporate director and an aspirant to FIRE. And to those of you who aren’t victims of workplace inequality: if achieving FIRE is so difficult, imagine how much more difficult it must be to achieve it when you’re systematically discriminated against!
Carl Murray Bates, stonemason
It’s a pretty good day layin’ stone or brick. Not tiring. Anything you like to do isn’t tiresome. It’s hard work; stone is heavy. At the same time, you get interested in what you’re doing and you usually fight the clock the other way. You’re not lookin’ for quittin’. You’re wondering you haven’t got enough done and it’s almost quittin’ time.
Sharon Atkins, receptionist
The machine dictates. This crummy little machine with buttons on it–you’ve got to be there to answer it. You can walk away from it and pretend you don’t hear it, but it pulls you. You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. Your job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine.
Bob Sanders, strip-miner
I’ve never really appreciated seeing ground tore up. Especially if that ground could be made into something. I think about it all the time. You tear somethin’ up that you know has taken years and years and years…and you dig into rock. You get to talkin’ about the glacier went through there and what caused this particular rock to come out of the bank like it does. You see things come out of that bank that haven’t been moved for years. When you see ’em, you have to think about ’em.
Anne Bogan, executive secretary
I become very impatient with dreamers. I respect the doers more than the dreamers. So many people, it seems to me, talk about all the things they want to do. They only talk without accomplishing anything. The drifters are worse than the dreamers. Ones who really have no goals, no aspirations at all, just live from day to day…
Jack Hunter, communications specialist
When a person has so much control over behavior, we’re distrustful. We must learn how to become humane at the same time.
So those are just a few of the many quotes from Working that helped push me over the edge from the safe mundane stricture of a regular job to the glorious chaos of early retirement.
And with the purple prose done, I’d like to wrap up with another quote, a half-remembered one from a source I’ve long forgotten: “The ultimate degradation of a people is to make it the instrument of its own oppression.”
Which is pretty much–at least in my opinion–the moral of Studs’s interviews.
As a guy who’s passionate about helping people escape corporate toxicity, I’d be grateful if you’d support my work by visiting my sponsors via the sidebar. Thanks!
- Terkel’s oral history collections were also a main source of inspiration to Max Brooks, author of another oral history collection entitled World War Z…about zombies and the people who fought them. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
- Please note that Working was published in 1972, a time of immense inequality in the workplace. For instance, you’ll notice that in the book men tend to be managers and skilled workers and such, while women are relegated to basic support and service functions. Understand that I didn’t pick these quotes to be inflammatory, but rather to consider in the context of my own morality and suitability for corporate America. And I don’t mean to imply that workplace inequalities no longer exist.