Adrienne Green: At first, so much of my aspiration for this project was to hear from people affected by the realities that business writers so often cover: what it’s like to be a minority in a workplace, or the challenges of working parenthood, or the struggle to remain relevant as an industry changes. And we succeeded in finding those types of stories—for example, the three female lawyers who started their own firm, or the coal miner who is adapting to the focus on clean energy. The ones that most stuck with me most were the people in the jobs many consider mundane, such as the janitor who so acutely equated people’s respect for his job with their ability to throw away their own trash, or workers outside of the traditional economy, such as the stay-at-home mother who struggled to find her place in a feminist movement that emphasizes women’s professional achievements.
I was impressed with people’s candor about their struggles, how their occupations were (or were not) integral to their sense of self-worth, and the ease with which they could identify what would make their job better: a better wage, more people around that looked like them, or more time to invest in their lives outside of work altogether.
Lam: The interview with Mohamed Zaker, the janitor at Harvard, has come to my mind every single time I’ve thrown something away since then—and I definitely haven’t left something on the ground for a janitor to deal with. I think one part of what I really appreciate about this series is the way the interviewees really made me reflect about the way my behavior directly affects other people. That came from them explaining what they actually do, and also from the many comments people made about how easily common decency can be achieved. I worry that we don’t think enough about the people around us, perhaps because we ourselves sometimes feel ignored.
It doesn’t take a poll to tell you (although here’s one) that for most Americans, a job or career gives a sense of identity and work can be deeply personal. In Asia, where I started my career, a job was often just a job. My relatives would say to me, “Don’t take things so personally at work—it’s just a job.” But in these interviews, I found that people just accepted that their work and their identity were closely intertwined. One dimension of this that was fascinating to me was that for Americans for whom faith or family was very important, those things shaped how they saw themselves as workers, and whether they judged themselves as a good person or not.
Another thing we discovered through these conversations is how very much alive professional associations are in American working life across many professions. The people involved are really excited about having peers to talk to and grow with, candid about their workplace and their career goals, and genuinely interested in being part of a work community outside of the office. There’s an aspect of self-actualization as well: Time and again, we heard interviewees tell us that their job wasn’t for everyone, but it was for them. For me, that tied together why so many Americans are involved in professional organizations. It’s a feeling of “us” outside of family, faith, and one’s own workplace.