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“What’s The Best Place You’ve Ever Worked?”

My earliest memories involve shops. My grandparent’s beauty salon. My paternal grandfather’s clothes factory. My father’s laboratory. Thomas Edison’s workshop, just a short walk from that beauty salon in Menlo Park, then and now part of Edison, New Jersey.

I remember the statuettes lined up – all the awards my Grandfather had won for his hairdressing – so that they could be noted or admired by patrons on the way down into the salon proper. My grandfather was the old master by then. The awards seemed dusty and old to me. Something about the salon seemed forlorn. Old ladies flying down from Canada to have their hair done by the one man in the world who they trusted to do it right

It was a proud show, but past it’s prime. Grampa hadn’t raised prices in twenty years. He ran a shop, not a business. But where he shone, where he was a true master was in the area of client service. He was famous for his soft touch, and while this technically referred to the gentle way his fingers controlled the hair and the scissors, never pulling or pinching, this appellation applied equally to his mastery of the entire relationship with his customers. It was beautiful to behold, and I had a front row seat. Sitting on a couple of phone books, my head under a hairdryer, I watched, and when I tired of the hot, dry, tornado, I listened too.

The beauty shop was perhaps the original social network. A wonderful place to learn about people. A place where things made sense, where you could care for people, touch people, and make them feel… better.

From the beginning, I loved the shop, the laboratory, the workplace. I envied people like my grandparents, couples or families who worked together for long hours and basically lived the better part of their lives together in the shop. To have a role to play, to feel useful, to feel part of something, to make one’s way in the world as part of something good or great or important… what could be better than this?

In truth, I always felt a bit awkward without work to do, without a useful role to play. At parties, I was in the band. I visited restaurants and bars much more often to work than as a patron. Work was an escape from the awkwardness of small talk. Work was tourism for me as well. I planted trees for billionaires. I worked the phones in a boiler room telemarketing set-up. I learned an immense amount as the sole Caucasian working in a Chinese restaurant.
A workplace provides all of this and more. A social purpose and a social life. Money and meaning. Colleagues and allies. Learning and tests. Challenges and overcoming. Accomplishments and recognition. Great games to play and perhaps master.

For as long as I can remember, I have been asking people a single question, “What was the best place you ever worked?” Typically, I follow this up with, “What made it the best?” “What did you learn from being there?” “Why do you think more places aren’t great?” “What could be done about that?”