Although hindsight helps us to see clearly, it’s using that vision to interpret and act in the present that makes all the difference. Our first jobs can feel like just a way that we made money until we could do something more with our lives. But what if there was something else there? Did you take the time to learn from your first experience and use it for the rest of your life? Every job can be an opportunity to learn and grow – even if it’s not considered a “resume-builder” job.
My First Jobs
During my earlier years, I was a babysitter, hotel cleaning crew member, store clerk, a retail worker, and telemarketer (don’t hate me – I probably didn’t call you). Each of those early jobs taught me many things. I learned how desperate parents were for a break. I learned how dirty people could be and how much hair is lost…and the unlikely places it’s discovered. I learned how careless people are when they shop, never thinking that someone has to straighten up the clothes they picked up for a hot second.
To this day, I still straighten hangers when I’m shopping.
But I learned the most from calling random strangers in various parts of the country and offering three day/two night getaways in exchange for one hour of their time. I started out cold-calling, and while going through college, I moved into customer service. Finally, at the ripe old age of twenty, I was promoted to be a manager.
In those years of doing something I disliked, I gave directions to strangers in parts of the country that I had never driven. I encouraged subordinates twice my age, and somehow, they listened to me. Most importantly, I grew because I got to watch how people acted and I got to listen to what people were constantly saying around me. My business degrees wouldn’t be worth as much without these experiences. We all have different first jobs, but they all contribute to our work ethic or understanding of people in various ways. Someone who has worked in food service might notice that the same person who disrespects waiters and waitresses also has a low view of interns or coworkers who are lower on the organization chart.
Don’t waste your 20/20 hindsight
Memory lane can be enjoyable, but we get a history so we can apply it to the future. So, take your own trip down memory lane and reminisce about those early years. It’s easy to be jaded and tired later in our careers, but it’s helpful to channel some of our younger self, as well as glean what we can remember. Here are a few things that I’ve pulled from my experiences:
1. Be a student of people.
Our coworkers and clients are just people with different backgrounds that have shaped and molded them. When decisions are made that we don’t like, it’s important to try to understand the people behind the decision and the motivations. Sometimes, the bottom line of the company is really important because then management doesn’t have to make layoffs. They might not be trying to be cutthroat or mean-spirited. Maybe our coworkers are not actually rude. They may be having a tough time at home. People watching can really help us understand others. I mean, don’t be creepy, but we should take the time to look around and understand the people around us.
2. Listen more than you speak.
Similar to watching, listening more is about understanding others. Asking others for their thoughts and opinions before spewing our own might help to shape a fuller and truer picture. While my younger self was perhaps more chatty than my older self, I knew my experience was limited, so I chose to keep my mouth shut more around coworkers who were two or three times my age. Generally, I failed when I thought I knew better and didn’t listen to their viewpoint. Failures were small at that time; however, it impressed upon me the importance of listening to what others are really saying.
3. Leap more and look later.
I’m an over analyzer by nature. I can talk myself out of almost anything. But one thing stood out to me about the early days of my work life. I held many jobs before I even graduated college. At twelve, I was feeding babies and making macaroni and cheese for kids not much younger than me. At fifteen, I was on a weekend cleaning crew. At twenty, I was giving daily meetings to a room of twenty people between the ages of fifteen and sixty. I didn’t stop to think if the work would fit on my resume. I cared about making ends meet and getting a foot in the door. I never stopped to wonder if I could keep up with the other cleaners, since I was just a kid. I never stopped to wonder whether I might fail at managing people and making a profit. At some point, we over scrutinize every possible career change. We want to be sure that the leap will be worth it. Truth is, we won’t know how something will shape us or our resume until we try it. Don’t be reckless, but don’t be afraid to just leap with a new opportunity.
4. Be efficient and reliable.
For those of you who worked in food services, you might remember getting yelled at if you couldn’t assemble a burger in the allotted time. Or maybe you were a cashier, and if you took a long time to process someone’s order, people started to complain. Ever show up late for a shift and gotten constructive feedback for that decision? We might think we’re past the point of being micromanaged, but when others depend on us, we need to be mindful with our time and use it as efficiently as possible. When we say we will be in at a certain time each day, we should do our best to honor that. Little seeds of frustration will build resentment towards us and our work.
5. Be adaptable.
Nothing has brought me in touch with more people in my life than learning early on to adapt continually. I’ve gotten more opportunities and my career has ebbed and flowed in many ways because I’ve learned that change is inevitable. According to Greek philosopher Heraclitus, it’s the only constant thing – and he lived from 535 – 475 B.C.! Being adaptable could mean splitting your time between three to four projects. Or it could mean not groaning when your company rolls out a new time management system.
I struggled the most over the years when I could not adapt to a particular personality. At the time, I thought I was trying, but looking back, I see other approaches I could have made to help new or difficult work relationships. Whatever the small or big changes are, sometimes, we don’t know the good that can happen if we adjust and learn to work with the different curves that come our way.
What can you pull from your experiences and share with others? What were your first jobs, and what did you learn?