About a year and a half ago, the hashtag #1st7jobs (or #firstsevenjobs) began making its way around Twitter as celebrities and others shared lists of their early work experiences. The idea, I think, was to show that where you begin does not dictate where you end up, and it takes hard work and trial and error to build the career and life you want. While there are certainly critics of that narrative, I found the hashtag to be an interesting exercise, and one worthy of further exploration than Twitter’s character limit would allow.
I come from a working class background. My needs were met as a child, and I don’t believe my parents ever told me I had to get a job. But while my family was not poor, I realized as a teenager that if I wanted extra spending money, or to have a car, I was going to have to work for it. Like many of the kids in my town, I started working at age 14, the youngest age at which a person can obtain a work permit in Pennsylvania. (There are strict rules for 14- and 15-year old workers. I think I was limited to something like 10 or 12 hours per week.)
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I have some rags-to-riches story. I knew before I ever took that first job that I would go to college (funded, albeit, by scholarships, grants, and a lot of debt). I didn’t foresee myself becoming a lawyer, but I was fairly certain that I would not be working low-wage jobs for the rest of my life. I had a supportive family, a stable home life, and a good public school system that made it possible for me to envision and pursue a variety of opportunities. I know that luck played as much of a role in my success as hard work and ability. My parents were not college-educated, but plenty of my classmates’ parents were, and many of them also worked unskilled jobs as teens, for reasons other than serious financial need. This is not an essay about pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, nor is it about privilege or an attempt to minimize it.
I have, however, experienced a greater degree of social mobility than is the norm in this country. Many of my college and law school classmates and other highly educated professionals I now know did not work for pay until after they had obtained at least one degree. Numerous law school graduates begin their legal careers with nothing in their work history besides unpaid internships (often landed through family connections) and lucrative summer associate positions. I wonder whether this lack of early, unskilled work experiences and a corresponding lack of interaction across social classes is contributing to the current problem of polarization and social silos in the United States.
My current financial situation would allow me to provide my son with plenty of opportunities without ever requiring him to work for money before reaching adulthood. But what would he miss? Here are a few of the things I gained from my early work experiences.
- A glimpse into how various segments of the population live, from single parents struggling to raise children on minimum-wage incomes to well-off people working simply because they enjoy it. Working with a variety of people on a regular basis allowed me to get to know them as people rather than stereotypes and to learn details about their lives and their points of view. I think I’m more open-minded because of it.
- Teamwork and reliability. Yes, it sounds cliche, but working as part of a catering group or in a retail setting teaches you how important each person’s role is. I realized that if I called in sick, someone else was going to have to cover for me, and the whole operation would become more difficult for everyone else.
- The value of money. When you make beds and scrub bathrooms for 8 hours a day for only slightly more than minimum wage, you really appreciate the money you make. The same goes for waking up at 4 AM to be sure the hotel continental breakfast is ready for guests at the designated time. (You also really appreciate the rare “thank you” or tip.)
- Time management. Working while going to school and juggling extra curricular activities, homework, and time with friends and family forced me to be focused and learn how to manage my time. Looking back, I’m not sure how I kept up with everything, and I wish I still had that much energy today!
- Self confidence. Before I ever applied to law school, I had worked so many jobs that I did not doubt my ability to survive economically. Had I bombed the LSAT or the bar exam, I would have been disappointed, but it would not have been the end of the world. To this day, I know that if I lose my job or my law license, I will be able to make a living. I have plenty of skills that extend well beyond practicing law. Outside of work, in volunteer roles and in day-to-day life, when something really needs to get done, I know I can figure out a way to get it done.
- Empathy for service workers. I have my moments of frustration in retail and dining establishments, as I’m sure everyone does. But having worked in similar settings and dealt with angry, sometimes unreasonable customers makes me think twice about voicing those frustrations at the first inconvenience. When I do make a fuss, I try to do so calmly and kindly, focusing on the situation rather than the person. We all have bad days, and these people are working hard to make a living; there’s no need for ad hominem attacks.
- An appreciation for my current job and career. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do work that I find meaningful, to have a steady salary that provides me with more than I need, to have paid vacation and sick days as well as the flexibility to use them, and to work in a setting that, while sometimes less active than may be healthy, does not require exhausting physical labor.
What lessons did you learn from your early work experiences?
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