Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Meet Cabell Harris. And some hard-working thoughts on work.

When I was just 20 years old, my parents had moved to Chicago and I had to live in their apartment for the summer. Summer jobs in those days did not involve interning in a profession where you hoped to make your career someday. Things were very much simpler, and I think a lot fairer, too.

If you were looking for a job in Chicago in 1977 you bought a copy of the Chicago Tribune. Then you went through the 16 or 20 pages of want ads, and wrote down the sorts of jobs you could ostensibly get. I ruled out things that involved driving to the suburbs and I ruled out working in food service. I wanted something I could walk to and make something over the minimum wage, which at the time was something like $2.30/hr.

I applied one Monday morning for two different jobs. The first was to be a cashier at the gift shop of a North Side hotel. They said they would get back to me. The second was to be a cashier and a stock-boy at a Rush Street Liquor Store called Bragno’s.

At just 20 years old, I wasn’t legally allowed to work in a liquor store, but I had my older brother’s draft card. I applied for the job and said to one of the two Bragno brothers who interviewed me, “My name is Fred (my brother’s name) but everyone calls me George.”

That didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows.

I started that evening, on the 4PM to midnight shift at $3.50/hr with 46 hours a week guaranteed, meaning I got six hours a week at time and a half.

About a month into the job a representative from Old Style beer—Chicago’s biggest-selling beer came in the store and started shaking hands. It was the “Cuban Comet,” Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, one of the greatest players to ever wear a White Sox uniform and a member of the Cuban and Mexican baseball Halls of Fame. He’d likely be in the American Hall of Fame too, but his skin color kept him out of the big leagues before major league baseball integrated.

Minoso is one of only two ball players in the entire history of major league baseball to play over the course of five decades.

I thought of Minnie because I’ve been talking lately to the great art director/creative director/strategist Cabell Harris.

I’ve been seeing Cabell’s name in the awards books for as long as I’ve been in the advertising business. Like the great Minnie Minoso, Cabell has also had a career that’s spanned five decades. And he’s still going strong. He has an enviable agency of his own now,called WORK Labs. 

I’ve been intending to have a proper interview with Cabell, but I’ve been busier lately than a plumber clearing drains at a bearded man convention. Fortunately, Cabell’s made my life easy. We’ll get to the interview, I promise, but in the meantime he’s sent be some very important thoughts on the nature of work.

What is work? Why is it important? Is it important? Why is Cabell’s company called WORK?

Most of these questions are things we all think about. Especially when so much of work, to steal a phrase from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” is “nasty, brutish and short.” Here are some thoughts from Cabell on the topic.

[By the way, it’s not often I read something I really like. The acid-test of whether I like it or not is this: do I send it to my daughters, to my wife, to the people I love? Cabell’s writing below passed that test with hardly a second thought on my part.]

It's 5:01pm.
Your boss is out of town. You are still at your desk. Why?
OK. This is important. Your real boss isn’t the person with the company car. It's the person staring back at you in the mirror each morning. You understand a job isn't what you do, but how you do it. Your DNA has a strand dedicated to the work ethic. It's an ingrained code of accountability that can never be instilled through any employee video, seminar or retreat. You are wired with a commitment to what you know to be true. And your boss is looking over his shoulder.

Your job isn't as important as you think it is. 
Your work, however, is an entirely different matter.
You are not defined by a job description. You are not defined by the title on your business card. And you are most certainly not defined by your location on the management chart. No. You are defined by the effort and pride that you put into your work. A job is why the floor gets scrubbed. Work is why it is clean enough to eat off of. Do not confuse your job with your work. It is much too important.

Where do you keep your work ethic?
It can be on the end of a mop handle or the end of a scalpel. Work doesn't care. Work only cares about what's important; doing the job the right way. Work doesn't go for fancy slogans. An honest day's work for an honest day's wages is all it needs to hear. Work is hard-nosed. It will not be seated in the latest get-rich-quick seminar. Work doesn't want to be your friend. Work doesn't want to be glad-handed or slapped on the back. Work wants something much more important: your respect.

A job will behave like a job until told differently.
What is your job? To sell insurance or paint houses or market pharmaceuticals? You know better. Do not allow your job description to dictate what you do. Your real job is to challenge the expected. To give the conventional way of thinking a swift kick in the shin. Make your job more than anyone has ever imagined it could be. Too many jobs are content to sit in the easy chair and fall asleep in front of the television. Make today the day you give your job a wake-up call.

Is white-collar money more valuable than blue-collar money?
Money isn't a true measurement of anything that's important. A $100 bill is a $100 bill. It represents nothing more than its face value. Whether it was earned by someone sitting in a corner office on the 62nd floor in Manhattan or someone repairing railroad track in Wyoming. The true value of money comes from how it was earned. Was it acquired by cutting corners? Or by coming in early and staying late? Money doesn't care. But you do. And that makes all the difference.

Do you still work as hard when no one is watching?
How hard you work isn't a function of anyone looking over your shoulder. It is a matter of pride. Knowing that when your job is done, it will be done right. That is the beauty of this responsibility called work. It isn't so much a job as it is a philosophy. A code shared by everyone who has ever dug a ditch, worked on an assembly line, or written a sales report. There is no secret handshake that bonds us. Just a feeling of the right way vs. the half-assed way. You know what camp you're in.

One more thing.

If you sit with Cabell over a drink or chat with him on the phone, he’ll do what a lot of art-directors do. He’ll say he can’t write. Diane Cook-Tench said that to me earlier in January. As did Mark Denton.

The thing is writing isn’t about being fancy or flowery or even mellifluous. Though sometimes people think writing is more about style than substance. I disagree with that. The writing that’s had the biggest influences on our lives and world has been simple, powerful and direct.

If you think about the great words off human history, whether in advertising, in the Bible, in political manifestos or great speeches, they have something in common: They’re clear, interesting and memorable.

As is Cabell.

More about him and his work sooner, rather than later.

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