(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK, March 7 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
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
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
"'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
Author of: The Silver Linings Playbook; The Good Luck of
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
"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.' "
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."
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)