on the page magazine

issue no. 11, summer 2004


The 10 Percent Solution
Ira Glass on work

In our issue on adult adolescence, we published an interview with Ira Glass, host of radio's "This American Life." For this issue, we have excerpted a few of his thoughts about work, the inherently adolescent nature of investing—and risking—your all in a project, and achieving that last 10 percent of satisfaction.

OTP:   In the show, "Jobs That Take Over Your Life," you said that you go through the five stages every week—about work—that people go through about death (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance). And I feel that way, too. Is this an indication, do you think, that we're unable to make the transition to an adult perspective on work, which is supposedly the final stage, of acceptance?

IRA:   I think it's more subtle than that. I think it's true, what you're saying. But I think that somehow your explanation doesn't contain the proper intensity! Of fear! That I actually experience and it sounds like you experience. Which is, that the thing that's so hard about sitting down and getting to work…if it's a job where you're sort of trying to prove yourself, and you want what you're doing to seem special to other people. It's so intense. And it's not because of a "not adult" relationship to work. It's because the entire project of work is a project in a way that a teenager would take on. It's completely done both as a labor of love and [as a way] of proving oneself. And then once you enter into that territory, the stakes are so high, that it's something you're totally invested in, that it's so easy to fail.

Because even things that are eventually, in the end, pretty good—they usually don't get good until the last 10 percent, until 90 percent of the work is done. So in the first 90 percent of the work, it really is just, "How is this ever going to be anything but sucky?"

It's completely amorphous, and you can kind of picture it in areas where it might come out okay, but really, things are not looking hopeful for a really long time. At least if it's work that's hard enough that you feel challenged by it. And so, given that, it's just a different relationship to work.

OTP:   Do you think it'll give you an early death?

IRA: Do I think it'll give me an early death? No, but I get compulsively obsessed with any job. When I was a temp secretary, which I was for a long time, when I was trying to learn how to write a decent radio story. I would work a couple days a week as a temp secretary so I wasn't so broke. Oh, for a really long time. And I loved being a temp secretary. I was a great secretary. Because I was so compulsive. I was just, "Well, I'm just going to make this perfect."

OTP:   And did they keep offering you jobs?

IRA:   Of course. Really, it wasn't until three years ago that I've made more money doing radio than I made as a temp secretary in my 20s.

OTP:   So, sometimes adults behave like adolescents, or express adolescent yearnings. In the show, "From a Distance," Erika Yeomans is "in search of the miraculous." She's about to turn 30, and…

IRA:   I feel when someone says that "sometimes adults act like adolescents," I almost feel there's a kind of negative spin in that sort of thing: "Why don't they act more adult?" But I feel that people who act like adolescents—they are the interesting people. Everything about being an adolescent, well, almost everything about it anyway, is the interesting thing about being a person. You feel you're on a process of discovery towards something. And you have things that you really love and you organize your life around things you really love. If you're lucky, and in a situation where you can.

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