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Getting to Work

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Barack Obama, February 10, 2007: "And if you will join with me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling, and see as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us; if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear, and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I am ready to take up the cause, and march with you, and work with you. Today, together, we can finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth. Thank you very much everybody -- let's get to work."

"Let's get to work" became the closing chime of Obama speeches throughout his campaign. The Obamantra. After a victory rally in Iowa on Super Tuesday, with the faithful riding high, "Let's go get to work!" was a quick jolt of reality, a reminder to the crowd of the tough trail that still lay ahead. As late as one week before voting day, on October 27, "Let's get to work!" at the end of a speech signaled a sprint to the finish for supporters and organizers in Ohio. Throughout the campaign, this idea of getting down to work told us what kind of person we'd be getting as President. Obama connects the soaring emotions of Big Dreams with the nitty-gritty reality of the Hard Work it takes to achieve those Dreams.

We have a sense for how much work there is to be done in practically every sector of business and government for the economy to get back on track. The scope of the task will only come into focus after the Obama administration gets in office and can assess all the plundering and funneling of taxpayer money over the past eight years into the pockets of people who never really had to work very hard for it. From Enron to Exxon to Lehman Bros., people made fortunes and wreaked financial havoc with all the effort it took to dial a phone number.

Of course, this initial scoping of the work will have to be conducted while the world's financial markets continue to quake with bad debt, and other markets -- housing, jobs, exports, auto, you name it -- suffer as a result. The amount of energy and focus required to invigorate the American economy under those kinds of conditions is going to be insane. As Obama continually reminds us, there's only one reliable way to approach the problem: hard work.

Unfortunately, in the past 30 years, hard work has fallen out of fashion. It's not that people don't expend a lot of time and energy at their jobs -- they do. But the idea that work is the avenue to achievement has been a tough sell in an era when as late as last month, some empty-headed schmoe who has a two-minute conversation with a politician on TV has himself a publicist and a record deal two weeks later.

Too many people have lost sight of the fact that hard work is a natural condition of our existence. Folks are too inclined to see work as something they do to support themselves until they have what they believe to be their inevitable 'Joe the Plumber' moment. Win the lottery. YouTube video goes viral. Settle your sexual harassment suit. We can't blame people for this mind-set, really. Not when so much of working life consists of participating in some vast, vague (but legitimate, according to the lawyers) conspiracy to separate people from their money (or withhold money from people to whom it is owed). Work that defines human beings as the crème-filled call centers of a ginormous techno-Twinkie.

Two big lessons of Obama's election are that hard work does lead to achievement, and that the pursuit of income and the pursuit of happiness don't have to be mutually exclusive.

As an homage to the spirit of hard work embodied by the amazing Obama campaign, I've compiled quotes from the book Working, published in 1974 by the great chronicler of America's oral histories, Studs Terkel, who passed away only a week before the election. Studs' home base was the same Hyde Park area of Chicago where Obama lives. His own life's work was an homage to the unsung heroes and the unheard voices of America, the kind of people whose voices rose in a massive and stirring chorus for this election. Studs never lost sight of the fact that work could kill a person's spirit, but he celebrated the resilience and strength of that spirit and the working people who never lost it, no matter what kind of conditions they faced. I think Studs would be happy to know that a working man like Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States.

Excerpts from Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel:

Pierce Walker, a farmer: "When you get a good crop, that's pretty much your reward. If you weren't proud of your work, you wouldn't have no place on the farm. 'Cause you don't work by the hour. And you put in a lot of hours, I tell ya. You wouldn't stay out here till dark and after if you were punchin' a clock. If you didn't like your work and have pride in it, you wouldn't do that."

Renault Robinson, an African-American police officer: "I worked with older, seasoned cops on the vice squad. They hated blacks but we worked together ... One of them -- he and I would talk frankly about how we felt -- would say 'I don't like your people, but I can work around you. Maybe I'm wrong in feeling that way, but that's how I was brought up ... You can't talk me out of my fears.' I respected him for his opinion, and he respected mine. We got along. ...."

Dave Bender, a factory owner: "I just stay in the background. Myself, I like making things. I make the machinery here. I'm not an engineer, but I have an idea and I kind of develop things and -- (with an air of wonder) -- they work. All night long I think about this place. I love my work. It isn't the money. It's just a way of expressing my feeling ...

"I know what my competitors are doing. I never underestimate 'em, but I'm 10 steps ahead of 'em. I can meet them any way they want. But not to cut their heart out. We all have to make a living. ..."

Barbara Herrick, an advertising copywriter and producer: "I am expected to write whatever assignment I'm given. It's whorish. I haven't written enough to know what kind of writer I am. I suspect that, rather than a good writer, I'm a good reader. I think I'd make a good editor. I have read so many short stories that I bet I could turn out a better anthology than anybody else's done yet, in certain categories. I remember, I appreciate, I bet I could...

Terry Mason, an airline stewardess: "One guy got this steak and he said, 'This is too medium, I want mine rarer.' The girl said, 'I'm sorry, I don't cook the food. It's pre-cooked.' He picked up the meal and threw it on the floor. She says, 'If you don't pick the meal up right now, I'll make sure the crew members come back here and make you pick it up.' (With awe) She's talking right back at him, and loud, right in front of everybody. Man, he picked up the meal...The younger girls don't take that guff any more, like we used to. When the passenger is giving you a bad time, you talk back to them."

Heather Lamb, a telephone operator: "A big thing is not to talk with a customer. If he's upset, you can't say more than, "I'm sorry you've been having trouble." If you get caught talking to a customer, that's one mark against you. You can't help but want to talk to them if they're in trouble or if they're just feeling bad or something. For me, it's a great temptation to say, 'Gee, what's the matter?' You don't really feel like you're that much helping people.

"Say you've got a guy on the line calling from Vietnam. His line is busy and you can't interrupt. God knows when he'll be able to get on his line again. You know he's lonesome and he wants to talk to somebody, and there you are, and you can't talk to him. There's one person who feels badly and you can't do anything. When I first started, I asked the supervisor, and she says, 'No, he can always call another time.'"

Eric Hoellen, a janitor: "On my jacket, it says: Building engineer, but I'm a janitor. An engineer is just a word that people more or less respect. I don't care. You can call me a janitor. There's nothing wrong with a janitor ..."

A torch, raised in the City of the Big Shoulders and passed from Studs Terkel to Barack Obama on November 4. 2008, burns brighter than ever today. By its light we are reminded:

Work can be its own reward.

Work can unite us despite our differences.

Work can be our expression of how we feel about the world.

Respect the work, respect the worker.

Working in the communications business is no guarantee that you're communicating.

And finally, that no work, no job, no role or status in the world, is trivial when it is dignified by our highest ideals.

Let's get to work.

Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers -- Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. His website is www.gamechangers.com.

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