What life lesson did you learn from your first job?

Originally posted on Quora, answering the question: What life lesson did you learn from your first job. Follow me on Quora.

My first job was a dishwasher at popular restaurant in a summer town in New Hampshire. It was the early 90’s. I got paid $2.75 an hour which was the minimum wage. Even though it was a while ago, it was as little as it sounds. In spite of that, it was the most coveted summer job in the town. The owner had every male in the restaurant start as a dishwasher to make sure he had the chops and work ethic to continue (the girls all starter bussing tables).

Busting my ass, working non-stop 8 hours shifts, sorting through an onslaught of food, hot dishes and a steam bath emanating from the dish washer for $2.75 an hour taught me a lot about hard work in the world. The only attitude you could have was to shut up and do your job. We were the absolute lowest people on the totem pole and had to do pretty much anything anyone ranked above us asked. Did I say it was for $2.75 an hour?

Don’t be late. When we started, the owner explained that if we showed up on time (e.g. 8:00 for an 8 AM shift), we were late. That set the precedent in my career to show for jobs up 5–10 minutes early. The right people take notice of that.

Be thorough. The second thing the owner showed us when we got started was a pan. He picked it up and said there wasn’t just one side (e.g. the cooking side) to clean. We cleaned the inside and outside. Sounds trivial, but he had to say it because otherwise it wouldn’t get done.

Help your coworkers. When the restaurant closed, everyone had a list of responsibilities of what they needed to do before they could leave. In theory, you could leave as soon as you wrapped up your work. In practice, everyone who finished their tasks early, chipped in to help everyone else until the work was done. It was unspoken, and I never saw it done otherwise.

Put the effort in. One Sunday morning, I woke to the phone ringing. Before my mom answered, I knew exactly what it was. I hadn’t set my alarm and was an hour late for the early AM shift. I leapt out of bed in a panic, got dressed in 10 seconds without a shower and asked my mom to drive me right away. I was at the restaurant within 10 minutes of them calling. The manager was so stunned I got there so quickly, she cooked me breakfast.

Counter politics with hard work. My first job was also my first exposure to workplace politics. The owner didn’t like me from the start. I smarted off to him a few times and that wasn’t acceptable. However, I was one of the hardest working employees. When work needed to be done, I shut up and put my head down until it was done. He may not of liked me, but his family (also owners) were always impressed by my work and kept an eye out for me.

Respect the boss. Being the boss isn’t easy. The owner worked 14 hour days, 7 days a week from May until September. He was often irritable and rarely in a good mood. I now run my own business. As a manager, boss and/or owner, you have to constantly make difficult decisions. I can’t remember a day where I didn’t have difficult decisions to make. When you’re working for someone else, just know you can’t know the difficulties of what they do until you do it.

Experience trumps all. One of the best lessons of starting working 40 hours a week as a dishwasher at 14 years old was it put me years ahead of work experience of almost everyone I knew. When I moved across the country to Santa Fe after my freshman year in college, I walked into the best restaurant in town and showed up with a full page resume, as a 19 year old. I’d already been working for 5 years. They’d never seen a resume from a 19 year old and hired me on the spot. I run a business now, and there’s simply no replacement for experience. Success in business and leadership requires gaining experience, and experience only comes from work. Summer jobs used to be a rite of passage; recent stats have shown it’s become out of favor. The money I made was trivial, and my parents let me spend it however I wanted; but it was gaining the work experience and learning the work ethic that were the greatest lessons. I don’t know that you need to start when you’re 14, but in an interview for Google when I was 35, they asked about jobs I had in college.

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