9.25.2009

What I Learned From My Earlier Jobs


Since graduating from college, I’ve only held two jobs, which is far fewer than most of my peers, many of whom flit in and out every year or two. Changing your place of employment on an annual basis is far too much transition for me, and I have high workplace satisfaction, so I harbor no envy. But one benefit of having lots of different employment stints is that each adds something to your perspective and skill set.

As I have reflected on this, it occurs to me that while I’ve only held two jobs in my adult life, my high school and college jobs have helped build my own professional foundation, in terms of lessons learned that can then be applied to future employment situations. What follows, then, is a cataloguing of those earlier jobs, and of what I took from them.

• Summer 1989 – Sears. My first real job; oh, how grown-up I felt to go to the bank on Friday to deposit my paycheck! I worked in the catalog department, as back then people had the option of picking something out and then picking it up and paying for it in our department. Everyone should have a job like this, where you learn customer service, how to work a cash register, and how to not be affected by an irrational and unsatisfiable customer who is hell-bent on making your life miserable. One other weird memory was our automated phone service, which would call customers to let them know their order had arrived. I always got a chuckle when the phone service would call a customer and get one of those new-fangled answering machines: so one machine would pick up the phone, and one would leave a message. (This seemed funnier to me when I was 16 in 1989 than it does today.)

• Summer 1990 - Samirian Enterprises. I had just learned how to use a primitive version of Microsoft Excel, so a family friend hired me to create a spreadsheet for his import-export business. Creating spreadsheets is matter-of-fact to me today, and I’m realizing now that it is that way in part because of this early experience. I made five dollars an hour, and I remember looking at the clock on my desk and saying to myself, “Another twelve minutes, another dollar.”

• Summer 1991 – Measurex. The summer between high school and college, my dad helped me get a job in the finance department of where he worked. Some more spreadsheet work, plus my big project that year was doing this headquarters-wide square footage allocation exercise. Unbelievably, I had to do almost the exact same task a decade later at The Enterprise Center; who would’ve thunk it at the time? I also remember falling asleep in a meeting with my boss; hey, meetings after lunch were brutal for me back then.

• Summer 1992 – City Team Ministries. I spent most of the summer in Taiwan, and also did another short stint at Samirian. But I also squeezed in some volunteer work at City Team Ministries, which ran a coffee house for homeless people in downtown San Jose. Having just participated in a Spring Break evangelism project in Daytona Beach, this was a natural way for me to continue in that kind of work. On another note, I have thought often of how formative this experience was for me in terms of view of cities and regions: consider that my morning commute to the coffee house took me from an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood through a booming downtown area and into an adjacent run-down inner city part of town.

• Summer 1993 - Dean Witter. I worked for two stockbrokers who managed money for individuals and pension funds. In addition to having fundamental investment credos seared into my head (“diversify,” “stocks for the long run,” etc.), and deciding the macho stock market workplace wasn’t for me (I’m blushing even now as I think about the stories I heard), I took awawy two valuable experiences from this summer. First, I learned how to organize a mass mailer: they sent a 3,000-piece mailer to pension managers in the region every couple of months. Second, I learned not to be afraid of cold-calling: they had me and two other interns cold-call as many of those 3,000 managers as we could over the course of that summer.

• Summer 1994 - Bain Link. The summer before one’s senior year, back then, was a defining one for Whartonites, as whatever internship you landed was often where you landed post-graduation. I took a less conventional route, spending the summer in Eastern Europe doing Christian missions work. But one of the main vehicles for getting out there was an internship in Moscow with a joint venture between Bain & Company, the vaunted management consulting firm, and a Russian consulting firm. The summer away from the US blew me away. I think every American that can should do something like this: as globally minded as I thought I was before this trip, I realized I fundamentally saw America as the center of the world, and being somewhere else for an extended period gave me a better perspective on the world. Now that I am a consultant, I can also tie back principles I employ now that I clunkily developed back then: cataloguing raw data, having a project timeline, tying it all together in the end.

Looking back on all of these jobs all together, I’m glad I did what I did. My jobs speak of a level of privilege, in terms of what contacts I was able to trade on to get them in the first place, and that I could work mostly for experience and not because I needed the money. But, at the same time, I did my share of dues-paying, as it wasn’t like my jobs were so glamorous and in fact in many cases they were quite strenuous and monotonous. But, looking back, I can see how they all contributed to who I am today professionally. So, for those young’uns out there, wondering what good can come from licking 3000 envelopes or going overseas, keep your mind open and perhaps you’ll find there was a purpose and plan after all.
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