My first job was assembling The New York Times at a hippie bookstore on West 89th Street and Broadway called Books and Waterbeds. I worked on Sunday mornings from dawn until noon and I was paid one dollar an hour. I was seven years old. I’ve been working pretty much ever since.
In the United States, this is Labor Day weekend, so I thought this would be a good time to talk a little bit about work. Some people are creatures of pleasure and they have no trouble staying out all night and sleeping until noon. Others are into status, and they like to be seen by others as being important or rich or friends with famous people. I’m neither of these types. I’m a worker. I need to work. I need to have something to show for myself at the end of each day. Not for any boss, just for me.
I’ve spent a lot of years wondering if this is a healthy way to be. I watch shows like “Hoarders” in which people collect all kinds of things they don’t need but which give them a protective barrier from the world, a sort of thick outer skin made up of all their stuff. And I’ve thought that maybe my tendency to make things is also a form of hoarding, not hoarding of possessions, but of creative tasks that keep me busy and buffer me from the harder story arc called life. But what I’ve come up with is that my work serves a much different purpose: It’s just my way of trying to figure out the world, starting with myself.
Before I opened Little Airplane, I was a writer and I spent most of my days alone drinking coffee and writing. I didn’t have to worry too much about other people, just the ones in my scripts, and most of them were puppets. But running a company and having my own projects introduced a whole different set of responsibilities: I had to work with people to make and deliver shows. So, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the curriculum for “Wonder Pets” was Teamwork and Creative Problem Solving. Because, as much as I was exploring these themes for Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, I was trying hard to learn them, too.
My point is that the work we do isn’t just about the different challenges we face, it’s about how we invest those challenges with some personal meaning.
Not surprisingly, I’ve often wondered whether making preschool shows for so long was a good idea for my own creative development. But I always come around to the same answer: The type of show I make doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that I’m using that show to plumb whatever might be next for me, creatively and personally. And, also not surprisingly, I’ve found that the more personal a show is, the more appealing it tends to be.
We work for a lot of reasons, and I do appreciate that finding work that allows you to explore your own potential isn’t easy. But I do believe it’s possible. And, if your barometer of success isn’t money or status but, rather, becoming who you are, then it’s more than possible. It’s inevitable. Happy Labor Day.