What does work mean to people? This question drove oral historian Studs Terkel to record candid interviews with workers from all walks of life, the product of which was his most famous book, Working. Written before the dawn of the Information Age, the book is a portrait of a time when agricultural and manufacturing work still dominated the economy. Many of Terkel’s interviewees painted a harsh and soulless picture of work, noting that workers lacked agency in their jobs and were often treated less than respectfully by employers and customers; Terkel described the book as “by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.”
Today, with the uninspiring numbers in the most recent jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor and a presidential election looming, work is still very much on the country’s mind. Which is why Dave Isay’s new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, is well worth reading. Like Terkel, Isay offers an oral history of work; unlike Terkel, Isay finds hope in his subjects’ experiences and offers an antidote to the harsh realities of employment described in Working.
Callings is a collection of stories about work drawn from transcripts of interviews with workers. In contrast to Terkel’s one-man-and-a-microphone approach, however, the stories in Callings emerge from the thousands of interviews collected by StoryCorps, the organization founded by Isay in 2003 whose mission is to “instruct and inspire people to record each other’s stories in sound.” Usually the interviews are recorded in one of the StoryBooths stationed in four U.S. cities, or in the MobileBooth, a trailer outfitted with a recording studio that travels across the country. All interviews are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress; some are edited to air on a weekly NPR segment or on the StoryCorps website. The effort has generated several prestigious awards and five books, the latest of which is Callings.
Callings presents the lived experience of a diverse collection of workers representing fields as obscure as Street-Corner Astronomer and Bridgetender; as blue-collar as Oil Rig Driller and Bricklayer; and as exotic as Video Game Inventor and NBA Referee. Isay organizes the stories across five themes—dreamers, generations, healers, philosophers, and groundbreakers. In nearly all cases, the stories inspire. Whereas Terkel’s autoworker would tease a coworker “just to break the monotony” because “you want quittin’ time so bad,” Isay’s salmon slicer described his work as “a sensual experience that occurs between me and my salmon and my knife, and I never get tired of it. It’s mesmerizing.” And whereas Terkel’s truck driver “fantasizes something tremendous” just to make it through the day, Isay’s sanitation worker stops and savors his work: “Get off the truck. Look back. Nice and clean, right? . . . Be proud of yourself. You did that.”
Over the last decade, thanks to the Internet, it has become difficult to avoid the flood of would-be experts offering advice about finding your “personal brand” and purpose. Many of these efforts are well-intentioned, but they often fall prey to the fallacy that finding purpose and meaning in life always means securing your “dream job.” In fact, as scholars who research callings have found, people who experience meaningful work aren’t only or even often the people with so-called “dream jobs.” Rather, it’s often the people with mundane jobs who nevertheless approach their work in a particular spirit who can claim to be performing the most meaningful work.
Which brings us back to Callings. Curiously, the lone negative review of the book on Amazon.com said this: “I expected stories of people that felt called to do their job not that made the best of the job they had. Some were inspiring but most were disappointing.” I felt exactly the opposite. The most inspiring stories in Callings—and to me, in life—are the ones where people find meaning and purpose where they’d least expect it, in ways that reflect their honest efforts to make the best with what they have. That’s what makes for meaningful work—and for a meaningful life.