YOUR MONEY-The first job play-book; authors talk about work

Fri Mar 7, 2014 7:00am EST

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK, March 7 (Reuters) - It doesn't matter how famous, or how important or how rich the person is - virtually everyone likes to stroll down memory lane and reminisce about their first job, which was usually very menial and extremely low-paid.

Since last August, to coincide with the nation's monthly employment report, Reuters has been interviewing a host of prominent achievers on the subject. We have chatted with business titans, tech visionaries and some of the world's leading humanitarians.

This month we tap into the memories of notable authors, to discover the employment that preceded their outstanding creative careers. They are not, to put it mildly, the jobs you might expect.

Margaret Atwood

Author of: The Handmaid's Tale; Oryx and Crake; MaddAddam

First Job: Market researcher

"I had many jobs as a teenager, as one did in the '50s, but they were intermittent. The first job for which I had a regular salary and the offer of a pension plan was when I was 23, in 1963, as a questionnaire re-writer and tester for a market research company in Toronto, querying user response to everything from canned pear labels to beer brands to the first Pop Tarts, which popped all over the experimental toasters and had to be fixed.

"The job was to re-write the questionnaires so they actually worked (Understandable questions? Logical flow?) and then go door-to-door to make sure they did. That got nosy me into a lot of houses.

"'Never waste anything,' said my Depression-era parents, so I didn't. The market research company (more or less) can be found preserved in aspic in my first published novel, The Edible Woman (1969)."

Matthew Quick

Author of: The Silver Linings Playbook; The Good Luck of Right Now

First job: Roofer

"I tarred and silver-coated industrial flat roofs. The tar needed to be heated in a kettle, so I'd have to load huge solid chunks into bubbling black lava. Little beads would jump out like tics, burn my flesh and take up residence in my arm hair. We had to monitor the temperature so that the kettle wouldn't explode, and breathing in the fumes all day was the equivalent of smoking a half-dozen packs of unfiltered cigarettes in eight hours. I'd cough all night long.

"Painting the roof silver was like working on a mirror under the powerful summer sun. My skin would burn so badly that the other roofers took to calling me 'Red Man.' There was one particularly cruel day when a radio reporter said the city of Philadelphia had pulled all horses off the streets because of the heat-wave. Six stories closer to the sun, and with no shade in sight, we all looked over at our foreman. 'Back to work,' he said.

"Every summer during college I roofed. Despite being filthy and sunburned on a daily basis, I enjoyed working outside amongst men whose handshakes were firm and calloused and honest. I returned to roofing briefly after I graduated and noticed a shift. Finally, one of my fellow roofers said, 'What the hell are you doing up here, College Graduate? There's better out there for you. Go.' "

P.J. O'Rourke

Author of: Parliament of Whores; Eat the Rich; The Baby Boom

First job: Messenger

"In 1970 I was under two mistaken impressions. I thought I was a writer, and I thought I was a communist.

"My first job as a writer didn't involve any writing. I was trying to break into the field so I went to work as a messenger for a weekly newspaper in New York. I was promised that I might have a chance to occasionally write something if, for instance, the entire rest of the staff came down with bubonic plague.

"The job, therefore, taught me nothing about writing. The job did, however, teach me an important lesson in political economy, a lesson that has been shaping the things I write for more than 40 years.

"The pay was $75 a week. We were paid every two weeks. I was looking forward to that $150. And so was my landlord. But when I got my first paycheck I discovered that, after federal tax, state tax, city tax, Social Security, health insurance, pension contribution and union dues, I netted $86.50.

"I was furious."

Susan Cain

Author of: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

First Job: Law associate

"My first big job out of law school, I worked for a Wall Street law firm as an associate, and I really didn't know anything. I didn't even know the difference between a stock and a bond. Like, nothing.

"So it kind of felt like a big adventure. I would talk to clients, and I had a dictionary called Wall Street Words, and I would go home every weekend and try to figure out what all the words they were saying meant.

"I drew two contrasting lessons from that job. The first is that you can be reasonably good at anything, as long as you work hard enough. The flip side is that you shouldn't spend your life doing something you're only reasonably good at. So after a few years I left that law firm, because your job shouldn't feel like an existential struggle. You should spend your life doing something you really love."

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here; Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler)