5 Lessons You Can Learn From A Crappy First Job

Ice cream-scooper, personal assistant, and shoe-shiner are just a few of the first jobs you’ll read about in Merritt Watts’ new book First Jobs: True Tales of Bad Bosses, Quirky Coworkers, Big Breaks, and Small Paychecks . But then there are the pet-gravediggers, zoo chefs (salad for parrots and cow’s blood for bats — delicious!), and sea urchin-traders who share the lessons they learned and mistakes they made along the way. If you think your first job sucked, read these stories. They’ll make you feel a lot better about stocking shelves or babysitting tiny tyrants.

Watts interviewed people from all over the country for the book, and each chapter is a first-person anecdote. Some are hilarious/WTF (in “The Very Personal Assistant,” a woman is told to clean the conference table because her boss had sex on it the night before) and some are thoughtful. The book makes you think back on your own first job, and what you learned from the experience. Besides babysitting, my first job was a day camp counselor for toddlers when I was 16. I learned that I did not want to have kids anytime soon, and that while some kids are adorable and sweet, some are demonic and manipulative. So I guess the lesson from that job was... patience?

Graduation is coming up, so if you’re heading out into the world and looking for a dream job, or if you’re mid-career and looking for a change, here are 5 lessons learned from first jobs that might just inspire you. The jobs in the book range from the quirky (a Wienermobile driver) to the challenging (an atheist working as a Bible salesman) to “The Corrupt Carny,” who advises people to “not underestimate the influence of a first job,” no matter how crazy it may be.

Find a Passion

Obviously not every job you take will fulfill your soul and challenge your mind. Some jobs will just serve to add a trickle of money to your bank account and keep you from moving back in with Mom and Dad. Still, in “The Pet Gravedigger,” a guy learns that a job should be something that can help people, whether you’re working as a surgeon or counseling people after they lose their pet gerbil. Doing something that makes you feel like you’re contributing is more important than money was the lesson learned.

“My parents always stressed the idea of doing something that you care about, and that really stuck,” he says. So if you’re stuck doing something mindless and looking for something more, start by thinking about things that you could potentially get excited about and feel good about, and apply. That’s always a good place to start.

People Want You To Succeed

OK, not every field is a love-fest where everyone wants you take their job and win Employee of the Year, but if you go into a job assuming that everyone is out to sabotage your career, you’ll be in big trouble. Try to make friends, not enemies, at work. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. If you do have an enemy at work, just don’t sink to her level. If you rise above it, the boss will take notice. Hopefully.

You Better Hustle

Unless your dream job is to get paid to nap all day (where does one apply for that kind of gig, BTW?), you better be prepared to hustle, no matter what career you choose. In “The Striving Shoeshiner,” former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talks about how his early years shining shoes in downtown L.A. gave him a strong work ethic, and made him unafraid to knock on doors and get a “no.” No one will walk up and hand you a dream job or a promotion — if you don’t hustle, you don’t move forward. It’s pretty simple.

Collaboration Is Key

In the chapter “The Flower Wholesaler,” a first job teaches the narrator that business partnerships are sometimes hard: “It’s always easy in the beginning. But when money gets involved it can be tough,” he says.

That statement is 100 percent true. Even if you and your BFF team up to create a balloon animal business, you will face some bumps along the way. Communicate, try to separate friendship from business, and get everything in writing. And then you should be in good shape.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

This one is important, no matter what career you choose. It seems like all gazillionaires say they took chances and made mistakes on the way to becoming moguls. So, don’t sit back and let fear keep you from pitching that idea you have or creating a business plan for your startup. In the book, a tech entrepreneur says that “the best thing to do is to make proactive decisions about what you want in life — not what everyone else wants — and find the job that gets you there.” Sounds like a solid plan.

So no matter how much your first job blows, it is possible to at least learn a few lessons from the experience. That lesson might be, “Find a new job as soon as humanly possible,” but, hey, it’s a start.