In his much-referenced March 2013 Op-Ed entitled "Need a Job? Invent It," New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman asserts that today's young people will need to use their curiosity, persistence and motivation to create their own jobs. He writes, "[O]ur kids will have to "invent" a job." The ones who will succeed will not just be "college-ready" but "innovation-ready'', Friedman argues, and "ready to add value to whatever they do." Although he's right, his idea is not a new one; ambitious women who came of age in the last century had to use their daring, scrappiness, and talent to forge a new path. Two remarkable women, revered pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers and jazz great Marian McPartland--both of whom died recently-- did just that. At a time when women's work options were severely limited, they created highly successful and influential careers out of whole cloth.
When asked why she'd entered the popular quiz show, the "$64,000 Question" in 1955, Dr. Joyce Brothers explained, "We were hungry." After her husband started his medical residency, she left her teaching positions at Hunter College and Columbia University to stay home with their newborn daughter. Brothers--a PhD in psychology--soon determined they could not survive on her husband's paltry income. Mastering the topic of boxing--including arcane details about 18th century British pugilists--Brothers won the show's grand prize. Possessing astonishing factual recall, she reportedly memorized a 20 volume boxing encyclopedia. Brothers parlayed her victory into media stardom. But, as Stephen Miller of the Wall Street Journal notes in his obituary of Brothers, her success came at a time when nearly every media outlet mentioned her hair color when discussing her triumphs. Women were supposed to be capable teachers, nurses (or bombshell pinups)--not clever boxing experts.
The seeming incongruity and novelty of a slight, blonde woman being possessed of vast boxing knowledge first catapulted Brothers to fame, but her smarts and sincerity gave her staying power. Martin Well of the Washington Post notes that "[a]mong those who confronted the troubles and torments of the multitudes, Dr. Brothers seemed to stand out for her ability to give concise, comprehensible advice." For nearly 6 decades she made psychology more accessible so the public could, in her own words, utilize the vast "useful research locked up in libraries research that people could put to use in their own lives."
Her books, television shows, newspaper and magazine columns, radio call-in programs, and guest appearances on sitcoms and game shows established Brothers as everyone's psychologist. She not only became the face of American psychology, she invented "media psychology." She told the Washington Post in 1989, "I was the first. The founding mother." Her confidence, combined with supreme competence and compassion, made her America's most trusted psychologist and brought a new level of public trust to the field itself. (I guess we can blame her for simpering Dr. Phil and judgmental Dr. Laura Schlessinger.)
Like Dr. Brothers, Marian McPartland was an improbable star in a field not entirely welcoming of women. Although a gifted musician and a superbly trained classical pianist, this genteel Englishwoman was informed by well-connected jazz critic Leonard Feather that she'd never make it as an American jazz musician. He said she had three powerful strikes against her: "She's English, white and a woman." Just ten years later, in 1958, McPartland had established herself enough in New York's jazz scene to be one of only three female jazz musicians included in Art Kane's famous Esquire magazine group photograph of jazz musicians, "A Great Day in Harlem." It is a marvelous collection of jazz luminaries. You'll see McPartland turning to chat to her friend and fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams, a teacher who greatly influenced Thelonious Monk. Their amiable conversation is set against a sea of male faces and postures.
New York Times writer Peter Keepnews stresses that McPartland overcame formidable odds to mine success in the jazz world of the 1940s and 50s, and that she did it with the utmost grace: "Listeners were charmed by her Old World stage presence and captivated by her elegant, harmonically lush improvisations." Her performances captured both her keen classical training and her absolute fascination with modern jazz, Keepnews explains. Paul de Barros, McPartland's biographer, asserts that she was able to use her outsider status to her musical advantage: "It allowed her to perceive jazz from the start as a high art."
An impressive performer, composer and writer, McPartland's biggest impact came through her three decades as host of the most popular jazz radio shows of all time, NPR's "Piano Jazz." Her interviews and impromptu performances showcased jazz musicians and educated several generations of listeners about jazz. Famous jazz promoter and producer George Wein said of McPartland, "[She] has done more for jazz pianists than anyone in the entire world." McPartland never dreamed that she would be so successful and influential in promoting jazz that her distinctive voice, interview style, and piano accompaniment would all be recognizable to millions of listeners.
When we think of innovators, we often imagine those in Generation Y--the Millennials--like baby-faced Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. But there have been multitudes of women in the greatest generation for whom innovation within--and creation of--their own jobs was imperative. The Millennials certainly inspire awe and admiration; but those like Dr. Joyce Brothers and Marian McPartland, remind me of the additional pluck and daring they needed in order to triumph. They succeeded in embodying the astute observation of Artistotle, one of the most prolific innovators of Ancient Greece: "Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work."