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Work, In Six Words

NEAL CONAN, host: It's Labor Day, a time to celebrate, remember, commiserate about work. It might be tough to sum up an entire career or years of pent-up anger in just six words, but the folks at Smith Magazine wants you to give it a shot. For a few years now, they've been collecting six-word memoirs from Valentines Day to brushes with fame to pregnancy.

We want to hear your six-word memoir about work on this Labor Day. Tell us your lessons learned, why you do what you do, even something about your boss, but boil it down to six words, please. The number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us from our bureau in New York is Larry Smith, cofounder of Smith Magazine. Nice to have you back on the program.

LARRY SMITH: Oh, so good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And one from the website, and it might hit close to home for you: Happiness is being your own boss.

SMITH: Well, that's true. You know, work - it's a tough time right now with people in jobs and the economy, but we saw a lot of really positive things in just six words. From the very specific: dwelled on past - became an anthropologist.


SMITH: ...to something like: the five patients I'll always remember, which was one of our winners of this contest. And we learned - when I talk to this woman, she was a nurse and it was about learning more from her patients than, you know, I think giving them and how these people really inspired her.

CONAN: What kind of - what volume of response do you get with these contests, in this one in particular?

SMITH: Well, we've done a bunch of six-word memoir projects as you've mentioned. And what works for six words is when you tap in to something that people are passionate about, obviously, life, love. We've done six words on coming home from war with veterans groups. But we got about 7,500 responses this summer around a few different topic areas. Why I do what I do, lessons, bosses, and what inspires me to do my very best work.

CONAN: There are couple of others here from your website: Partied with managers, now I'm unemployed.

SMITH: And perhaps this is a corollary: Never completely disrobe at the office.


CONAN: May have been fed in by the same person at different times.

SMITH: Tough night.

CONAN: Business suits suck. Hawaiian shirts rock.

SMITH: Right and, you know, just six words, but you sort of, you get the whole story right there. Watch your back, cover your butt - a very good six-word life lesson. You know, we - the six-word project is kind of - it's a compliment to a study this big consulting group, Mercer did. And they did all this data, massive research. They said, all right, what if we added a populist kind of piece of this research and just ask people to place where people are used to selling up their life, their work lives, their love life, their own life in just six words. And I feel like, you know, we're going to make a book, as we always, do of some of our favorites and you can read all the management books in the world and, you know, some of them are great. But I kind of feel there's just a lot to learn about the workplace in just six words.

CONAN: I remember books like, you know, "The 60 Second Manager" and that sort of stuff. You can - the best of these are very lyrical and tell great stories. Yeah, sure, the worst ones are like bumper stickers, but the best are really good.

SMITH: Yeah, they are really good. And, you know, we really believe at Smith Magazine that if you ask regular people and most of these people, you know, I call them and I say, hey, you won. You know, you won one of the prices and they say, oh, my God. I'm not a writer. And my point is, no, in fact, you are a writer. And when you write something like, you know, who doesn't love the payroll lady, and I call up Mindy in Portland to say you're a winner and she's a payroll lady. You know, it's so fun.


CONAN: Here is one that we've gotten just in this hour. This from Martha in Hoboken: Grandpa drove horses, I massage websites.

SMITH: And, yeah, you see in two generations the whole arc. And a lot of people, I mean, across all the six-word memoir projects, they talk about their parents, of course, the influence, but their grandparents. And I think it's because in some sense, like, lessons sometimes skip a generation, you know, one of my own six-word memoirs on the work life is in fact about my dad and its lesson which was: dad said do one thing well. As it turns out, when I finally started listening to him and really focused on the six words, they're really started working out.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get some callers in on the conversation. We're asking for your six-word memoirs on work. Larry Smith of Smith Magazine is with us.

SMITH: As it turns out, when I finally started listening to him and really focus on the six words, it really started working out.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're asking for your six-word memoirs on work. Larry Smith of SMITH magazine is with us. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Ron, and Ron is with us from Denver.

RON: Hello, there.

CONAN: Hi, there. What's your six-word memoir on work?

RON: Air traffic control: excitement not good.


CONAN: Is there a punctuation mark there, a dash or a colon?

RON: Yeah, I want to see a comma in between there.

CONAN: A comma. OK.

SMITH: I was feeling a semicolon.

CONAN: Semicolon? OK. Do you...

RON: Yeah, that'll work.

CONAN: All right. Ron, I think that's a motto. Are you an air-traffic controller?

RON: Yes, I am. I just left work. I'm on my way home.

CONAN: Drive carefully, because another place where excitement is not good is on the drive home.

RON: I've got hands-free Bluetooth.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call.

SMITH: That's a T-shirt waiting to happen.

CONAN: That's a T-shirt waiting to happen. Here's an email from Bill in Branford, Connecticut: muscles flex - home, bridges, nations rise. I like that. That's...

SMITH: That's like the story of America here on Labor Day, isn't it?

CONAN: On Labor Day, you can - you can see that sweaty 1930s poster coming to life.

SMITH: Absolutely. What's that great painter who does all those great - those rebuilding - Thomas Harding - I can't remember. But, yeah, it's a bit - and, you know, the thing is, we see things about - we see something like have a passion for flawless formatting, right? And so that's someone who's probably doing Excel all day, right, or copy editing.

And then you have people working with their hands, building this nation. Whether it's metaphorical or, in fact, quite specific, it's a version of the work life. And it makes - we can really get the image we love in a great way.

CONAN: Do you get persnickety? For example, one on your website is: Beware the ears of the watercooler.

SMITH: I'll tell you, there were many themes, and one theme is about food and co-workers, such as: Butter-up the HR department with chocolate. But there were a lot of six-word memoirs about the water cooler and office gossip and, you know, sort of, like warnings, which is one - you know, one of my favorites was: Somebody at work reads your blog.


SMITH: Very modern six words about work. And, you know, if you're graduating college right now, like, heed those six words, because somebody at work does read your blog, and probably your Facebook page.

CONAN: Let's go next to Nabil(ph), Nabil with us from Utica, in New York.

NABIL: Hi. How's it going? Mine's actually short and very interpretative. It's: What matters is what we do.

CONAN: What matters - that's...

NABIL: What matters is what we do.

CONAN: I think that - that's another T-shirt waiting to happen.


SMITH: And some of the six-word memoirs, like that one, are very much, you know, like life-work mottos. Tell me I can't, I will. And it, you know, it is more general. But - and really, I mean, you feel a little bit of reminder of what work was supposed to be, some of the lessons you may have gotten along the way and forgotten.

CONAN: Or practical advice. And Nabil, thanks very much for the call. This is from Daniel in Cincinnati: Take care of the regular customers. That could be posted everywhere in a workspace.

SMITH: Absolutely, whether your customer is, in fact, the U.S. government, or someone you're making Excel spreadsheet for.

CONAN: Let's go next to Crystal(ph), and Crystal with us from Fresno.

CRYSTAL: Yes. Mine is, not - I'm not just a sky waitress.


CONAN: I take it you are an air hostess.


CONAN: And you are treated like a waitress a lot, I guess?

CRYSTAL: Oh, boy, yeah. They're amazed when I tell them I used to do caviar in first class. They just laugh, and they just demand. And they don't realize we're trying our best, but we don't have 7-11 upstairs.


CONAN: And have people become more obstreperous in these days of evermore crowded flights?

CRYSTAL: Well, I don't blame them. The seats do seem to be getting smaller. Maybe 'm just getting wider, but I - they are a little short with us. But - and the good majority, they understand, and they're kind. But you hear one person (technical difficulties) flying, and they comment on how we're just sky waitresses. So they don't realize we went school and we chose - some of us chose this path, even after graduating from college, because we wanted to see the world.

CONAN: Crystal, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it, and we appreciate the flight attendants who we encounter on our flights.

CRYSTAL: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: Appreciate that. Do you find that most people, Larry Smith, write in about their own profession?

SMITH: Well, they do both. I mean, so, Molly Ringwald, the actress, wrote a six-word memoir unintentionally about work a while ago, and she says: Acting is not all I am. In a sense, it's not unlike - she's saying something different than being a sky waitress, right? But also, I - when I first heard that, I thought what the caller was saying was, you know, I - there are a lot of parts of me. I'm not just working on an airplane in the sky, but I have many multi-facets. But - so people did both. They were very general and very specific. You know, dwelled on past, became an anthropologist. That's pretty interesting, saying something about their personality and what direction they decided to go into.

CONAN: This, I think, from somebody who's probably in the profession referred to in the six-word memoir: Law librarian? No one said interesting.

SMITH: Exactly. And then you get something like: Auditor, reality check of report cards. And they've just put it, you know, the - what - you don't - they've just kind of updated the idea of what is an auditor all the way back from grade school.

CONAN: We're talking with Larry Smith, cofounder of SMITH Magazine, which, this summer, ran a contest on six-word memoirs on work. 800-989-8255. If you'd like to participate, email us: talk@npr.org. And, well, like so many, this from a listener: Feel lucky to be working today. I can say that, too. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. And let's go next to - this is Jeff, and Jeff with us from DeKalb, Illinois.

JEFF: Yes. Hey. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm good.

JEFF: Oh, glad to hear it. Mine - you see, I'm actually - I do a lot of temporary, part-time jobs, and so my resume is full of them. And mine is: I get better with each one.


CONAN: Temporary jobs. That's a - is that a career path all of its own?

JEFF: Oh, no. It's not. I'm - well, I'm a communications major, and I've been graduated for about three years, looking for a full-time job in radio, and two of my jobs are at radio stations. I've been an announcer at a speedway at our local speed track for stockcar racing. I've been a substitute teacher. I work in a factory now, packing plastic blisters that everybody hurts themselves trying to open. So, yeah, I've just kind of spanned out to all kinds of things, but still looking for that really genuinely golden job that I've been looking for, you know?

CONAN: But a couple of jobs in radio. I have to ask: Where did you spend all the money?


JEFF: Oh, yes. Well, one of them is - one of them's public radio, and one of them's just a local AM station, you know? So there you go.


CONAN: Jeff, good luck, and I hope you get out of the plastic bubble business real soon.

JEFF: Oh, thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

SMITH: Well, you know, Jeff really points to a trend we saw, and I think (unintelligible) saw, as well, which is that, you know, the freelance culture, self-employed culture, it's much bigger, I think, both by necessity and by design. People don't think about in the same way as our parents or grandparents did about one job, one career. And so one of my favorites is freelancer: always employee of the month.


CONAN: This is from Nurse Barb: Too tired to care, care anyway.

SMITH: Right. And that's that little bit of inspiration. So it's like: My job helps find the cure. You know, we don't know what nurse does. We don't know what that person finding the cure is, but they're getting up and they're just going, doing their job.

CONAN: And then there's the people who have a little attitude. This from a caller, labor: not just for babies anymore.


SMITH: Very nice for Labor Day.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rolfe, Rolfe with us from Apple Valley in Minnesota.

ROLFE: Academe marking territory, make ivory towers.


CONAN: Are you a toiler in the groves of academe?

ROLFE: I'm an adjunct professor at two places where I really love to work and love the people, but I have seen some very awful territorial stuff that has nothing to do with idealism of teaching students and all that. And I think those are some of the worst things in academia. There are some wonderful things there, but I think the towers were originally shiny white, then something turned them a little ivory, off-colored.

CONAN: A little ecru stain there. Yes. OK. Rolfe, thanks very much for the call - phone call.


CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Joe, Joe with us from Phoenix.

JOE: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead. What's your six-word memoir on work?

JOE: Wonderful vacation from home every day.

SMITH: You must have children.

JOE: I love my job, and sometimes it's easier to come to work than it is to be at home with my kids.

CONAN: And what do you do for a living, Joe?

JOE: I put peanuts on an airplane.

CONAN: You put peanuts on an airplane?

JOE: I stock planes for a great airline.

CONAN: And I, you know, I used to get so confused between, you know, having to choose between the lobster and the fillet. I'm glad now I just have peanuts to...

JOE: All I can say is at least you still get peanuts from us.


SMITH: I just wrote you a six-word memoir: I get high working for peanuts.


JOE: That's a good T-shirt. I could use that.

CONAN: A good T-shirt.

SMITH: I could go onto the T-shirt business.

CONAN: And I think the airline you may work for, Joe, they like T-shirts there.

JOE: They do, very much.

CONAN: Talk to you later. Bye-bye.

JOE: Thanks.

CONAN: This from Eugene: Never work, do what you love. Well, there's one of those affirmational ones. And this one from Leslie in St. Louis: Used to work, now I sing.

SMITH: You see - you also see a trend of people going from profession to passion. And when it works out, it's, you know, it's the best of both worlds. So there's one I really liked, amateur chocolatier: making life little sweeter.

CONAN: That's nice, too. That's nice, too. Let's see if we can go next to John, John with us from Lansing.

JOHN: Good afternoon. Mine is: My father taught me to work.

CONAN: And what did your father do for a living?

JOHN: Well, my father was the consummate salesman.

CONAN: The consummate salesman. And how did he teach you?

JOHN: Well, I watched what he did, and I do what he did. And that was get up every day and go to work and be good to people. And as a salesman, his favorite line was - someone would say, I want to buy that car. My father would say, you can buy it. I'm not going to work real hard of selling it to you if he didn't like the particular car or if he knew its history. He had ethics. He was a great man.

CONAN: John, thanks for the - thanks for the story. Appreciate it. And, Larry Smith, just a few seconds left, can you give us the overall winner?


SMITH: Well, we had 12 winners, but one of our all-time favorites is - because I think we're going to have to give this one to Mindy: Who doesn't love the payroll lady?

CONAN: OK. We'll go out with this one from Laura in Cincinnati: Everyone happy? Don't drink the Kool-Aid. Larry Smith, thanks very much for your time, as always.

SMITH: It's been great talking six with you, Neal.

CONAN: Larry Smith, co-founder of SMITH Magazine. Tomorrow, Philip Schultz: One way or another, his life has always been defined by a constant struggle with words. We'll talk to him about "My Dyslexia." Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.