The End of the World as We Knew It
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Look back at the people and trends that shaped our world, 1979-1999
The great achievement of the past few decades is that we now know everything necessary to grow a business. But will we ever design businesses that grow us?
'There's gotta be a better way'
It's the spring of 1968, and I'm "between colleges" and working in construction. On this particular day, on a construction site in lower Manhattan in the early-morning shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge, I am about to experience a formal introduction to the adult world of work.
Across the site from where I stand, the driver of a concrete truck has begun to back down a ramp from street level to where the building's foundation is being poured. Impatient with the crew working below, the driver has begun the descent without anyone to guide him. What the driver doesn't see from his position in the cab is a row of compressed-gas tanks lying on their sides, directly in the path of the truck's tires.
I motion to the driver, but he doesn't see me. And calling to him across the noisy site is useless. So I race the half block to the ramp, getting there just in time to throw the tanks out of the way before the truck's wheels can crush their valves, launching them across the site.
The driver finally spots me in his mirror, brakes hard, and jumps down from the cab. Moments later, a whistle blows, and the entire job site goes silent. Work has stopped everywhere, and all eyes are turned toward me. Out of the office trailer strides the superintendent. As he approaches I can barely suppress a smile. "He's coming to congratulate me," I think. The new kid on the site, still the object of hazing, the kid they all call "College." (As in, "Hey, College, I thought I said two sugars?") The super is coming personally to thank me for saving the site from certain carnage.
You have to understand, that anticipated expression of gratitude--that acknowledgment, I hoped, of my arrival as an honest-to-god crew member--would feel all the sweeter because of how much I had already begun to love working in construction, to delight in what I thought of as "the making of things." I liked being part of the complex process by which a modern building was made. I still like that I was part of it. Even today I still get an indescribable kick out of seeing something I helped build. Two months ago, as I was headed for a meeting in lower Manhattan, I had the driver pull over on Pearl Street just so I could get out and walk around the Tishman Towers, the project where I had stopped the truck from driving over the gas tanks. And where, on that morning in 1968, I awaited recognition for my quick-witted heroism.
As things would turn out, though, there was no impromptu award ceremony that day. In fact, the super had made the long walk from the trailer to the concrete truck to inform me I had caused a work stoppage--a very expensive work stoppage. I had entered a world of rules, the super explained to me, rules that governed even the most minute details of how work got done, and by whom (although, as I recall, the super didn't say whom). And that day I had broken one of those rules: lowly laborers, of which I was one, were not allowed to handle the gas tanks. Only the steelworkers, a superior life form, got to touch the tanks.
"But they could have exploded," I said, envisioning death, destruction, 96-point headlines in the New York Post. Talk about expensive.
To which the super responded: "Are you a steelworker?"
Well, no. I was not a steelworker.
End of lesson.
Starting right then, on the day of the work stoppage, I began to understand something about the adult world of work that had baffled me--and scared me--as a kid. Growing up, I would listen to my father, my uncle, and the men who were our neighbors gripe about work. I never got used to it; I could never keep from being chilled by how they complained about their organizations. And even when I was a boy, one thing about their grumbling always struck me. It was that many of the men seemed to like, if not love, the actual work they did. My father in particular loved his. No, it wasn't the work they were complaining about; it was their companies. To hear them talk, over cocktails at the end of the day or during backyard barbecues in the neighborhood, I got the sense that what these guys wanted--and wanted desperately--was for their organizations to leave them alone, to just get out of their way long enough so that the "real work" could get done.