The judge of the Second Annual Work Stew Essay Contest was Roman Krznaric. Named by The Observer as one of Britain’s leading lifestyle philosophers, Mr. Krznaric is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, which offers instruction and inspiration on the important questions of everyday life. He studied at the universities of Oxford, London, and Essex, where he gained his PhD. He has taught sociology and politics at Cambridge University and City University, London. He speaks regularly at public events and is the author of several books, including How to Find Fulfilling Work, part of a new practical philosophy series edited by Alain de Botton.
I’m very grateful to Mr. Krznaric, not only for tackling the difficult task of choosing the winners but also for sending along the thoughtful note below. Jump straight to it if you haven’t already.
—Kate Gace Walton, Work Stew Editor
Work Stew Essay Contest 2013 – Judge’s Report
By Roman Krznaric
There was a fascinating rattlebag of essays amongst this year’s shortlist of ten entries. Full of wonderful prose combined with surprising—and often disturbing—insights into the world of contemporary work, it seemed a little unfair to be forced to choose only three winners. Certain themes kept cropping up, such as the struggles to deal with financial insecurity, and there were thoughtful essays on more unusual jobs, such as being unemployed and motherhood. Overall, what really struck me was how important every worker is for making the world go around, how we are dependent on so many professions, from the doctor who will come out and deliver a baby in the middle of the night to pre-school teachers and wait staff. I’m reminded of a poem by Bertholt Brecht called ‘A Worker Reads History,’ which tells us that history is made not by the powerful, but by everyday people:
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
So, now for the winners. Coming in third place is #16: Impermanent as Everything Else: A Day in the Life of an Adjunct Professor. This essay, as the title implies, takes us through a typical day in the life of an adjunct college professor. It was playful and funny, and its experimental form giving snippets of moments throughout the day really gave a good sense of the disrupted or staccato nature of modern working life that so many people feel, flitting from this task to that, juggling work and family and social life, keeping all the balls up in the air at once.
Second place goes to #10: Untitled. This was a behind-the-scenes look at life as a member of the wait staff in a popular restaurant chain—and you may not like what you see. The author talks about how the staff ‘checked our ethics at the door’ and then embarked on a cut-throat struggle to earn enough from their tips to survive on, doing everything from altering the credit card slips of bad tippers to licking the silverware. But this writer managed to survive and maintain her dignity.
And in first place, the winner is…#3: Connecting the Dots. I absolutely loved this piece written by a legal secretary about her time working on criminal cases for a top defense attorney. I don’t want to give away too much, but it somehow manages to combine blood-splattered walls and dancing. It’s macabre, amusing, and extremely insightful about the way many workers find ways to survive the traumas and trials of their working lives. And more than that, it’s a superb piece of prose, full of literary panache.
Kate again, returning just to say:
Now that the winners have been picked, we can re-attach names to the entries cited above. Congratulations to:
(Interestingly, even with a different judge and no names attached to the entries, Ellie Stanford managed to make the winner’s list again. Remember the goats?)
Congratulations also to the other finalists: Dan Madden, Julie Hall, Tasha Huebner, Tisha Deutsch, Rene Saenger, Jenny Hough, and Delcie Pound. I enjoyed all of your entries, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge the enormous popularity of Tisha Deutsch‘s piece. I’d also like to tip my hat to Delcie Pound. As I try to pack Work Stew with a wide variety of voices and experiences, it was a thrill for me to receive her (totally delightful) submission, reminiscing about a day on the job back in 1937, more than seventy years ago.
Thank you, too, to everyone who entered…thank you to all who read the submissions and shared them around…and special thanks to Michael T. Heath and Paula Kiger for taking the time to comment so consistently and thoughtfully.
And finally: thank you a million times over to Steve Karan, who so generously donated the prize money for this contest. Steve is a musician, an investor, and a friend—and he excels at all three. In case you haven’t heard him at the piano before (or even if you have), let’s have him play us out.