By John O'Connor

If you’re just beginning your career, the best advisors will suggest internships to practice what you might want to do professionally before you actually commit to it.

It’s solid advice. Want to be an engineer? Try working at General Electric. Thinking of practicing law? Intern as a law firm clerk one summer before venturing into law school. Want to become a doctor or nurse? How about performing as an orderly or medical assistant within healthcare before you commit? Sound advice, of course.

But what happens when you don’t have that career building cog? What can you learn?

When I think of my early jobs, I think of what was available at the time. The purpose of our first jobs is to make a buck. Or at least mine was. But they were some of my most cherished experiences. Whether you stick with them for long or not, here’s a little secret: You might one day recall those bad jobs anytime you do something menial or unpleasant. Recalling the lessons of the past will motivate you in days to come.

Every Job Presents An Opportunity

In the summers of graduate school in Bowling Green, Ohio, I tried a lot of jobs, including restaurant work, selling magazines over the phone at a call center and many more. But one of the worst jobs? Cleaning college dorms and apartments. Think of hard-working students who would let loose at parties and leave behind vomit, mysterious stains on carpets, and old pizza slices that needed carbon dating. You can imagine the smell.

But after taking off our hazmat suits, there was a puzzling sense of satisfaction that came with finishing. We did something others would not do (well, what no one would do) and we did it well. Later that summer, the company that hired us to clean started referring us to homes in nicer neighborhoods, and by the end of the summer, we made far more money and began our residential light and interior window cleaning business.

Take another one of my early jobs, for example. Ask almost any Iowan or Midwesterner and detasseling corn could be considered a good job — a sort of right of passage. For my brother Chris and I, we just wanted to see if we could double our $4 per hour jobs at the fast food restaurant. So we met this guy, Todd, who ran his own crew detasseling corn and was recruiting hard-working Iowa boys. Really, the job paid well for the intense three weeks. But Todd was the problem. He was more interested in a “different” kind of crop if you know what I mean.

So we stepped up to the plate and became the responsible ones. We got good at detailing corn (a skill I believe I still possess today) and both Chris and I got to explain in job interviews that we assisted with the agriculture in Iowa. Chris got a job with a company in Iowa City and I got an ROTC scholarship.

What Our Worst Jobs Teach Us

The worst jobs will always continue to teach us two things in particular.

The first is that our expectation for any job will differ from reality. This is true even today. No matter what your title or pay grade is, there will be times when you’ll have to get your hands dirty, deal with people, and feel overwhelmed at some point in the process.

But that unpleasant job presents a hidden opportunity for promotion. Whether it’s a high-paying executive job, a contract role, or a “job within a job,” people will see what you can do and remember you. Opportunity may appear through dirt and smoke. An epiphany could come about when detailing corn or cleaning a nauseating apartment. Therefore, you must do your job well, no matter what it is. Committing to excellence through your work means committing to excellence through things you might not want (or like) to do.

So when things get tough or you face trying situations or people, step back and reflect on those dirty jobs of the past, and think of the lessons.


Category: Editorial