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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Daniel H. Pink

Daniel H. Pink
Bestselling Author

Frederick Douglass, The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Amid the egalitarian glow of the 21st century, we sometimes forget that during a grim slice of American history, much of the work fueling the economy was coerced and unpaid. Douglass's first-person account of his cruel treatment as a slave is often horrifying. But when he finally escapes and finds a decent, fairly paid job at a shipyard, his words resonate with meaning: "It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master."

Frederick W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911). In this short work with a wonky title, Taylor essentially invents the notion of "management," casting it as a form of systems engineering in which individual employees are interchangeable parts. Taylor's ideas boosted productivity in both the factory and the office, but their legacy later proved limiting when the economy began demanding greater self-direction and creative thinking.

William Whyte, The Organization Man (1956). Just as the post-war economy was booming, Fortune editor Whyte exposed the hidden collateral damage. To succeed in Corporate America, white-collar workers were often forced to bury their individuality and creativity. By inserting "the organization man" into our vocabulary, this book reshaped the national conversation.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963). Alvin Toffler, whose own books deserve a place on these lists, once wrote that Friedan "pulled the trigger on history." By identifying what she called "the problem that has no name," she helped unleash one of the most consequential and economically valuable developments of the final third of the 20th century: the influx of women into the U.S. workforce.

Studs Terkel, Working (1974). One boring Ohio afternoon in the 1970s, I picked up this book, which my parents had borrowed from the local library. At the time I was 10 years old and a baseball fanatic—so I read Terkel's interview with a relief pitcher. But to my surprise, I stayed for the cab driver, the janitor, the spot-welder and many more. Hearing people talk about their work was exhilarating and enlightening. It still is.

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Flow (1990). The most glorious experiences in our lives occur when the challenges we face are so exquisitely matched to our abilities that time melts away. The eminent social psychologist Csikzentmihalyi calls these moments "flow"—and shows that we're more likely to experience them at work than at leisure. This contemporary classic reminds us of Terkel's insight that work can be a source of "astonishment rather than torpor" and of "daily meaning as well as daily bread."

Daniel H. Pink, a U.S. Labor Department aide in the 1990s, is the author of five bestselling books about the changing world of work.



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