Chapter 1Lie #1: You Have a Career
The (Short) Rise and (Rapid) Fall of the Career
Isiah Warner grew up in Bunkie, Louisiana, population 4,656. "Whites lived on one side of the railroad tracks; Blacks lived on the other." The local post office featured a mural called Cotton Pickers
and Isiah, indeed, picked cotton every summer.
"I was terrible at it, because you were supposed to just grab the bolls and keep on going. But I'm such a meticulous person that I would pick all the seeds out."
He made five dollars a day.
"My first mentors were those cotton fields," he said. "My hands would be bloody, and I don't like bugs. But the caterpillars would crawl all over me and cry out, Go to college
But how? Neither of Isiah's parents went to high school, and his segregated school had no science labs, no calculus classes, and only six-year-old textbooks. "The fancy would use the textbooks, and when they became outdated, they'd pass them on to us."
Fortunately, the local, historically Black university offered a full scholarship to the valedictorian of Isiah's school, and he won it. Isiah thrived in college. He met his wife and majored in chemistry. When he graduated, he accepted a job in Seattle at a contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission. He had never been on an airplane.
Once on the job, though, Isiah was stymied by discrimination and plagued by self-doubt. "I'm sure you've heard of impostor syndrome," he said. "No matter what I accomplished, I always felt like they were going to find out about my background."
Isiah told his boss he wanted to quit. But the supervisor, himself an Asian American sensitized to being an outsider, had another idea. "You need to get a PhD. When I explain things to other employees, they ask me questions. When I explain something to you, you get it the first time."
Isiah earned his doctorate at the University of Washington in three years instead of the usual five. He was offered a job at Bell Labs in New Jersey but turned it down because on the day he visited there were eight inches of snow on the ground. He opted for academia instead. "I knew if I wasn't around students, I wouldn't be happy."
Isiah moved his family to Texas A&M, where again he was denied resources, promotions, even a lab because of discrimination. He soon left for Emory. "A small private university in a community like Atlanta that had an elite Black population was appealing."
A decade later, Isiah was lured back to Louisiana with an endowed chair at LSU. Of the school's forty highest-ranked professors, Isiah was the only Black person. LSU had given three Black people PhDs in chemistry before he arrived; he's since awarded PhDs to one hundred. He has more than three hundred eighty peer-reviewed publications and is a worldwide expert in fluorescence. He received a presidential award of excellence from Bill Clinton.
Yet when he named a group of new compounds GUMBOS
, an acronym for group of uniform materials based on organic salts
, he was denounced by a reviewer. "Despite the well-known sense of humor of the author, to call these compounds GUMBOS is ridiculous."
"Now what he doesn't know," Isiah said, "is that gumbo
is an African American word. Part of my rationale was to set an example. I'm not the kind of person who complains, but that was racism. I'm working with two colleagues-we're probably the three most prominent analytical chemists in the country of any race-to write an article about the lack of Blacks in our field."
But while chemistry is Isiah's profession, his life's work is becoming the role model he lacked as a child. The man who was mentored by cotton fields spends two thirds of his time mentoring scientists of color. "Let me explain in the words of a former student, who's now a professor. She said, 'You love working with students more than you love science.' When she said that, I was offended. But when I thought about it, I realized she was right. I love helping young people find their Yellow Brick Road. I think of myself as Dorothy."
And does Dorothy still think, There's no place like home
"When I first moved back to Baton Rouge," Isiah said, "I bought a house. I wanted to impress my mother, so I invited her for a visit. She looked in all the closets, opened all cabinets, then sat down at the kitchen table. I thought she would be blown away, but she hadn't said a word. Then she leaned over. 'Son, I've spent my whole life cleaning houses. I've never even been in a house as nice as yours.' I started to cry. That's when I knew I was no longer an impostor."Work = numbers + words
Perhaps our greatest failing about work is that we've left such a vital part of our lives largely to the realm of number crunchers. Economists define work as the time and effort
we spend meeting our needs and wants. Fair enough. But talk to actual people, and they tell a far more emotional story.
The first question I asked in every interview was, What's the first word you think of when I say work?
The answers were rich, varied, and evocative. Passion. Purpose. Exhausted. Growth. Commitment. Pain. Serendipity. Persistence. Dreadful. Justice. Heart.
The most revealing part of these answers: Only a few people mentioned what they do; the vast majority mentioned how they feel about what they do. Specifically, a third of people chose a word that described their work (union, manager, music, education
), while two thirds chose a word that expressed their feelings about their work (joy, inspiration, tiresome, life
). The largest single group-44 percent-used a positive word; 9 percent used a negative word.
Even considering that these are people who like what they do, the overall message is clear: the story we tell about our work is more important than the work itself.
This takeaway leads to the first lesson of the Work Story Project.Work = numbers + words
Most of the conversations we have about work revolve around numbers-hours, years, salaries, benefits, productivity, profits, output, efficiency. Yet most of the meaning we take from work comes from words-purpose, happiness, pride, connection, freedom, dignity, service.
The sad truth is that in the public discourse about work in America today, we over-rely on numbers and under-rely on words.
Too much math, not enough literature.
Let's go back to the beginning to understand how we ended up in this quagmire. And let's start with some numbers. For 95 percent of human history, work did not occupy anywhere near the sacred place it occupies today. Most people worked on the land and had no other choices. The historian Joyce Appleby notes that it took 100 percent of the working hours of 80 percent of the people to produce enough food to feed perhaps 90 percent of the population. Even then, famines were common, slavery was widespread, and starvation was routine.
Sure enough, the story that people told about work reflected this misery. The most influential story about work ever written-the Garden of Eden-was openly hostile to labor. Work was a punishment for defying the divine. Other ancient cultures were hardly more positive. The ancient Greek word for slavery, doulevo,
is the root for both the ancient and Modern Greek words for work. The Roman word for business, negotium, means not an enjoyable activity
. The French word travail (as well as the Spanish word trabajo
) comes from the Latin word for torture. The English word office
derives from the Latin for duty
. For as long as we've been telling stories about work, work has had a bad name.
This dreary outlook existed for thousands of years, until it began to change in the premodern era. Beginning around the fifteenth century, people in the West started to believe that they could shape their own lives. Instead of being controlled by their environment, they could start to control it. They could have a say in what they did. Historian Peter Bernstein calls this moment the invention of curiosity.
"The ability to define what happens in the future and to choose among alternatives lies at the heart of contemporary societies."
Once again, the change was led by numbers. Though we hardly remember it, the math at the heart of contemporary work was largely invented during this early modern era. Numbers were not a major part of life before 1500. There was little use of zero, no long division, and no multiplication. The fifteenth century saw the invention of double-entry bookkeeping; the sixteenth century the plus, minus, and equal signs, as well as algebra; the seventeenth century forecasting, probability, and chance. All this flowering of math was made possible by an increase in agricultural productivity that allowed people to feel less threatened by change and more willing to take risk.
These breakthroughs in math were accompanied by equal breakthroughs in literature. Traditional accounts of the emergence of capitalism often leave out this critical development: The rise of numeracy was helped along by the rise of literacy. The same span that saw all those numerical inventions also saw literary ones: the printing press, the memoir, the novel, the newspaper.
All these milestones had the same effect: they gave more people opportunities to control their own lives and more tools to do so. The rise of capitalism opened the door to work lives other than farming; the growth of cities introduced lifestyles that were more literary and cultured; the age of discovery allowed people to set off for the New World to reinvent themselves.
Not everyone welcomed these changes, of course; millions were wrested from their homelands and shipped off to the New World against their will. By the nineteenth century, though, the impact of these trends had become clear. The West shifted from being an agricultural economy to an industrial one, from Work 1.0 to Work 2.0. As work opportunities evolved, people began looking for new ways to earn money and new ways to talk about it. With those changes came a new idea-and a new word-one that had never existed before but would soon shape every conversation about work going forward.Career.
Copyright © 2023 by Bruce Feiler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.