What is Work? America Re-Imagined at Pop Tech (Day 1)

This series on work started with profiles of individuals who've identified their passions and turned them into amazing careers.

The next few posts will feature a look at Work, American-Style, from the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.

PopTech began -- as its name implies -- as a meeting place for folks with visionary ideas about technology and its uses.

It has morphed into a creative concept-begets-positive-action melting pot for impassioned people in the arts, social enterpreneurship, political science, sustainability. And it believes in snacks -- which is no small thing when you're trying to absorb brain-busting ideas on the theme of "America, Re-Imagined."

As you might expect, Work is a vital part of America's in-need-of-re-imagination landscape.

Part of this due to our culture's new embrace of time -- cultural and personal.

To quote PopTech speaker, Studio 360 host/author Kurt Anderson, "It used to be that decades lasted a decade." And tantrums used to be limited to kids. This model worked from the 1950 through the '70s, Anderson says.

But then the Me-Me decade begat the Buy-Buy decade of the 80s. The result was a decade that lasted until, well...last year.

"It was as if we decided Mardi Gras and Christmas were so fun, let's make them year-round activities," Anderson said. And that applied to the idea of work that was divorced from reality -- and our true desires.

Today, of course, the shock waves of Work Today in America is pretty hard to ignore. Unemployment stands at 9.8% -- jobs that used to be "for life" are for "maybe."

Anderson speaks from personal experience -- 13 years ago, he was fired from his job as editor of New York Magazine. At which point, he reinvented himself as an author and public radio host.

The key to "climbing out the hole," he posits, is to combine passion -- the common thread in this series -- to one's business sense... to become one might call an Amapreneur -- a person who loves what she does -- and does it for a living -- instead of being an entre-preneur.

The idea of "ama"-preneurship may sound a bit blue-sky -- especially if you're looking for Work.

But behavioral economist Dan Ariely confirmed Anderson's theory with research on human motivation -- and work, in particular.

Ariely's specialty is "irrational economics" -- and his viewpoint on Work proves his theory that, 'there's a lot of ways of being irrational."

Curious about Wall Street's habit of super-bonuses and outsized salaries, Arlely ran a series of experiments to see if more pay really resulted in better results. His discovery? While many of us believe that more money is a motivator, it's actually a stressor that inhibits performance.

Another experiment, in which individuals were asked to "help out" and then offered a pittance for their help proved another of Ariely's points -- that there's a "separation between the things we do for social good and the things we do for money."

PopTech's next speaker, John Fetterman, embodies the idea of social good as its own reward. Fetterman, the 6'8" tattooed mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania has been working for $121 a month in this role, in exchange for working miracles.

Braddock, a once-robust steel town near Pittsburgh, is now a town of 2,677 citizens, earning an average income of $18,000. Fetterman, a Harvard grad turned an Americorp stint in Braddock into a one-man crusade to reclaim a town that Work had largely forgotten.

Where others saw ravage, Fetterman saw a chance to Work. His is an awe-inspiring -- and passion-infused -- story of determination. It includes a green business wooed to Braddock, churches revitalized, organic community gardens started, $5,000 decaying homes being remodeled by young couples -- and most hopefully -- murders reduced to zero.

The rebirthing of Braddock is a great story about Work and the power of America Re-Imagined.

But at PopTech, the story took a jarring twist, as Fetterman announced, visibly shaken, that the local hospital has announced that it will close on 30 days.

The closing will pull hundreds of jobs from a community that was just starting to work its way out of dire times. Some of its jobs may be regenerated in a new healthcare facility. There's no way to know. But Fetterman isn't giving up.

How will he make Braddock work? Stay tuned.