April 4, 2018 / 1:03 PM / 10 months ago

Deep Thinkers: First jobs of top American minds

 (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
    By Chris Taylor
    NEW YORK, April 4 (Reuters) - 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 Reuters "First Jobs" series, we talked
with a few deep American thinkers about their decidedly humble
career origins.
    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
    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.

 (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bernadette Baum)
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