The Life of a Writer: The Prequel

door-to-doorSince this is the last day of my summer vacation, I thought it no better time to indulge myself by reflecting back on the jobs I had before the one I have now. I mean, look all the way back. It will also give us a chance to look at some of the first jobs held by some of the CEOs I have chronicled over the years as well.

It is, of course, the biggest cliche in the business, but the first job I can recall was delivering newspapers. Not in small town America, but in the furthest thing from it—the Bronx. And not just any newspaper, but the 13th oldest U.S. newspaper and the one founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801—the New York Post.

Delivering newspapers in a big city is different than anywhere else. That’s because almost of the deliveries are made in apartment buildings. You don’t throw newspapers, you drop them. The other thing I remember is that people love you when you bring them their newspapers but treat you like a thief in the night when you come around to collect the weekly subscription fees. 

Forgive me, but I can’t leave this topic without telling the Ross Perot story. 

Two years before he ran for president, I published a biography of Ross Perot (Perot, An Unauthorized Biography, Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990). Althouth it was largely a positive portrait, there was one part of the book that ignited a year-long, but one-sided battle with the Texas billionaire.

Perot reportedly held many childhood jobs, including: selling Christmas cards, breaking horses, and selling garden seeds. But the source of our battle, if one could believe it, was his job as paper boy. Perot had long since held that as a child he had delivered newpapers on a horse. That story made it into a book Perot cooperated with, Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles. Perot held that as a small boy he delivered those newspapers on horseback. The author of the book I edited, Todd Mason, had interviewed the man Perot bought his bicycle from and claimed that the young Perot delivered newspapers—not on a horse—but on a bicycle. Horse or bike? Who cares? Perot did, and a great deal. After the book was published he called me many times to discuss the matter, one call more agitated than the last. He sent me letters elaborating on the matter, and even had his sister send me a letter, corroborating the horse story (also telling me that the horse’s name was “Bee”). “I did deliver papers on a horse,” Perot insisted urgently. The last thing Perot sent me was a poster-size map with his delivery routes marked off in magic marker. The entire imbroglio made it into a June 30th Time Magazine cover story and a front-page, above-the-fold Chicago Tribune piece in 1992. 

Who figured the job of newspaper delivery boy could possibly be so controversial?

Back to my jobs. The next most memorable job of mine, aside from summer odd jobs mowing lawns and three summers as chief lifeguard, was the college summer job that helped pay much of my college tuition.  A company named Southwestern (not the textbook company) hired young college students to travel to a different part of the country to sell encyclopedic-type books door-to-door. Yes, I was a door-to-door salesman and worse yet, I was very good at it. In the summer of 1979, I finished among the top 25 kids (out of some 6,000) and made enough money to pay for close to three years of college tuition. That allowed me to pay back my dad, who had sent all three of his children to college on the money he earned at his kosher butcher shop on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. 

In case you are thinking  that door-to-door sales is the worst job imaginable, think again. That honor might go go to a job held by former GE chairman Jack Welch. When he was in college he had a job with game-maker Parker. That sounds like fun, but it was anything but. Welch’s job was to work on a game called “Dig.” His only job was to drill a hole in a cork, take the newly drilled cork and drop it into a seemngless botomless bin. Hole after hole, cork after cork. hour-after-hour. That was all he did. He called it a “mind-numbing job,” which explains why he quit in short order.

Other jobs help by exceptional CEOs include:

* Michael Dell earned a whopping $2,000 by advertising “Dell’s stamps” in Linn’s Stamps Journal (The stamp magazine at the time).  Michael got all the kids in the neighborhood to give Dell their stamps on consignment.  Young Michael turned what is a hobby to all other kids into childhood riches. That helps to explain how he became the youngest CEO among the Fortune 500 after Dell went public.  

* Lee Iacocca worked 16-hour days in a fruit market. He would awake before sunrise so that he could get to the wholesale market early enough to buy all the produce for the day. He was paid the princely sum of $2.00 a day and all the fruit he could drag home after putting in such grueling days.  :

* Park Avenue-born Michael Eisner worked as a page at NBC one summer when he was in college. He got the job because his father knew David Sarnoff, the son of the founder of RCA, which owned NBC. He answered phones for The Tonight Show, ran errands, and even worked on the sets of such game shows as The Price is Right. That’s when he fell in love with show business.  

* Intel co-founder Andy Grove took a job at the Stauffer Chemical Company in Richmond, California before starting graduate school at Berkeley. Grove recalls the job as “depressing” and “rundown,” according to biographer Richard Tedlow’s book, Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American Icon (Portfolio, 2008), Grove came to hate summer jobs, thinking of them as boring and tedious.             


In retrospect, I consider myself quite fortunate. My summer jobs at least had something to do with the written word. And the door-to-door sales job taught me a lot about humility, in my mind, the most underrated leadership quality of all. The most important thing is that I ended up doing what I loved. I love to edit books, and work with authors to help shape their works. The fact that I can also write books in such a supportive atmosphere as Penguin is icing on the cake. And how many other folks can say they stared down Ross Perot, sold books door-to-door, and still ended up with a better summer job that Jack Welch?





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