Orion as a baby playing with a computer keyboard

I wish I’d have learned more about work from my paper route

Published 2011-02-04

Tom Vanderbilt writes, in “The Rise and Fall of the American Paperboy”

Ask a former paperboy about the job and you’re likely to summon a misty-eyed recollection of predawn bundling and knee-high snow. “Today it’s basically something that doesn’t exist,” said Today host Matt Lauer. “It’s a bit of innocence lost — and it meant a lot to me as a kid.” Clarence Eckerson, a filmmaker (and former paperboy), describes it as “an amazing responsibility to have as a teenager, to essentially be a private business, collecting money and paying a weekly bill.”

Well, here’s my “misty-eyed recollection:”

The two hours/day I spent delivering papers was all my time, and my success or lack thereof was all my responsibility. No uniforms, no glum managers, no time clock. I could start late if I wanted -- but I never wanted, because it killed me to let my customers down, and because I liked the minutiae of the job. The inky hands, the newspapers, being outdoors, riding my bike, talking to people. I was lousy at sales and collection, but good at service. I quit delivering papers around the time I became eligible for the usual stupid joe jobs high school kids in the 1980s usually had: fast food, mostly.

I wish I’d have stuck with the paper route, because those joe jobs taught me all the wrong things about work. Sure, I made more money but it was just punching a clock. Those jobs taught me that work is something unpleasant, to be shirked and shortcut and minimized, because you get the same $4/hr. whether you work hard or not. They taught me that “work” is a travail to be endured for the sake of making a few bucks, which you turn around and spend as quickly as you can on something you actually enjoy. This is the attitude I had about work — and this includes schoolwork — until my early 20s.

The lesson I could have learned delivering papers, but didn’t, was that work could be pleasant (not just “rewarding”) for its own sake. It seldom felt like work — or even much of a chore — to fold newspapers with my friends (at our drop-off corner), then ride slowly around the neighborhood on my bike for an hour. I eventually came around to this way of thinking, when I discovered archaeology my senior year of college. My archaeology classes (and jobs) were so interesting, that I packed a major into one year of school. My first couple of archaeology jobs — especially my two summers in North Dakota — were so much fun that I maybe felt a little guilty about taking money for it. I carried this attitude into my second career in web design.

The attitude that one can derive actual pleasure (again, as distinct from reward or character) from work seems almost counter to the Midwest work ethic I grew up around. It seems very West Coast, very Bay Area. Computer people, hackers, DIYers, open source freaks, Makers — all have this attitude, and the economy of the 21st century rewards it handsomely. The notion that you could turn a passion into a bill-paying lifestyle still feels alien to me. For example, I have a friend with a successful bread-baking community website. He likes baking bread, he likes the Internet, he put the two together. I’ve spent long hours trying to imagine what hobby or passion I have that could be similarly lucrative — and I’m completely blocked. Over here I have the crap I do for money (web design — and just to be clear, I love my job), and over here I have the stuff I do for fun (bikes, maybe?) ... and making #2 into #1 seems totally impossible to me.

The midwest work ethic is maybe: “work hard and you’ll make money,” with the corollary that spending time on anything that isn’t “working hard” or “making money” is time wasted. Other than about two years in grad school when I built websites out of curiosity, I have lived my entire life since age 12 this way. Funny enough, I feel now that all that hard work — and the harder the job, the more I feel this — was actually the time wasted.

The Information Economy work ethic is almost exactly opposite: “do what you love, and the money will come.” For a midwesterner of Protestant European immigrant stock, this feels almost sinful and subversive. That was the lesson my paper route was trying to teach me, I wish I’d listened.