With the recent demise of Stephen Hawking, humanity lost one of its greatest minds, someone able to contemplate the deepest and most perplexing mysteries of life and the universe.
Thankfully, there are many other high-powered minds in public life to tackle the big questions that confront us all. But most did not start out ruminating on those enormous mysteries: In fact they started out small, like the rest of us.
For the latest in “First Jobs” series, we talked with a few deep American thinkers about their decidedly humble career origins.
DR. LARRY BRILLIANT
Former director, Google.org; author, “Sometimes Brilliant”
First job: Hospital orderly
Some things in life you never forget. I was an orderly at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, making $1.67 an hour. My first day at work, I got to the ward and the nurse said, ‘Go to Room 237, Bed A.’ So I went, and there was a dead body with a tag on the toe.
I ran out of the room and said, ‘There’s a dead body here!’ The nurse said ‘Yes, I know, this is a hospital. Take it to the morgue.’ So I had to load it onto a gurney, take the elevator to the sub-basement, and roll it past all these underground pipes. For a kid, this was pretty scary stuff.
Then I had to take a second elevator, with lots of graffiti in it – ‘Don’t go any further, death awaits!’ - and by the time I got to the floor, the body had fallen off the gurney and on top of me. Somehow I managed to drag us all out of the elevator, and then I just felt like running away and never coming back.
But I did return. And what a wonderful thing it is, that hospitals exist: Places to cure illnesses, and help people in their pain. In America we don’t do a good job of integrating birth and death into our daily lives. It is usually all out of sight. But the people who work there, like orderlies, ward clerks, nurses – those people are everyday heroes.
Law and ethics professor, University of Chicago; author, “Anger and Forgiveness” and “Aging Thoughtfully”
First job: Actress
I left college to take a job acting in a professional repertory company that was performing Greek dramas. I had acted in summer stock previously, but this was my first long-term job. I was starstruck, and thrilled that I’d be acting with Dame Judith Anderson and the “Cowardly Lion” (from “The Wizard of Oz”), Bert Lahr.
I quickly learned that the world of professional theater was deeply corrupt, and that most actors were narcissistic, no doubt because of the terrible instability they had to endure. Anderson and Lahr were horrible people. My romance about the life of theater was quickly tarnished, and I went back to academic work soon after.
But I did meet one person there whom I admire to this day: Ruby Dee (who played Cassandra in ‘The Oresteia’ and Iris in Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds’), a fiercely intelligent and deeply humane woman. Ossie Davis, her husband, showed up to visit her, and they were such an inspiring couple. She died in 2014 at the age of 91. A true star, mind, heart, and body. I’d like to live as well and as fully.
Psychologist, Harvard University; author, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and “Enlightenment Now”
First job: Sunday School Teacher
Though I’m an explicit atheist, this job is not as incongruous as it sounds. As a college student, I was hired by my family’s reform temple to teach not theology or prayer, but moral dilemmas and the history of Israel. I was 17, barely older than the obstreperous 11-year-olds facing me in the classroom, and thoroughly unprepared to maintain order.
To my shock, I heard words coming out of my mouth that I thought were exclusive to the dorky teachers that had taught me: “Would you mind telling the class what you find so funny, young man?”
I thereby rediscovered a basic finding from social psychology: Our behavior is determined far more by the immediate demands of the situation, and far less by our intrinsic personalities, than we think.