6 Career Lessons You Didn't Even Realize You Learned at Your First High School Job
As soon as I turned 16, I went out and landed my first ever job as a hostess at a local restaurant, an upscale seafood joint that sat along a lake. At the time, I only did it for the extra spending money—when you’re a teenager, a side gig is your ticket to unlimited smoothie runs and movie premieres after school, so you can bet I was going to take this position seriously. But the experience ended up giving me more skills than I ever could’ve imagined possible for a position that wasn’t part of my larger career plan.
So, for anyone out there trying to spin an early job into a position that looks great on resumes and sounds awesome in interviews, check out all the lessons I picked up:
1. I Learned to Be Prepared for Any Conversation at Any Time
One of the most stressful things when I was starting out was the idea that each new guest is a total wildcard. When you don’t know who could possibly walk through the door next, and your primary responsibility is to make sure that that person is happy, you learn to suspend any social anxiety you may have.
Interacting with strangers (day after day after day) means learning how to communicate with a wide range of people. When you get that much practice every day, you pick up a few people skills. I definitely have to thank my time as a hostess for my ability today to communicate openly, honestly, and genuinely with most people I meet. (Bonus lesson: It only takes listening to someone to make him feel like he matters.)
2. I Learned to Look at Small Details Within the Bigger Picture
Whether it’s a walk-in or a phone call, reservations all go to one system, and it was me who managed that schedule in order to churn in maximum profits. Adding, changing, and deleting reservations in advance meant knowing how busy the restaurant would be at any given time (and that means never overbooking Saturday evenings). Things get more complicated if someone requests a specific table or specific waiter.
Taking reservations requires checking for an array of different details, yet each one is a single moving piece in the larger flow of the night, week, or month ahead. At best, waiters are loaded with tables all night. At worst, a single time slot, 15 minutes off its scheduled time, could domino into a very rocky evening.
The delicate balance of it all taught me the importance of juggling detail-oriented thinking with big-picture goals. This underrated skill has stayed with me to this day: Keeping both in mind typically ensures everything goes as smoothly as possible.
3. I Learned to Think on My Feet
By the nature of a lakeside eatery, the window and patio tables are the hottest commodity. And there were certainly times that the guests’ table preference was at odds with which waiters were available to take on more, and I had to negotiate that each time I led a group to their table.
The first time I brought a couple to their assigned spot and they pulled that “Can we sit there instead?” move, I panicked. It’s not that I didn’t want them to sit there; I really didn’t know if they could. Which waiter, if any, was assigned to that table again? What’s the status of their other tables? Was that table reserved for another group coming in soon? When you’re subject to every whim of your customers, you learn to be adaptable to all things that come up at work—and even better, how to go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff.
4. I Learned What it Means to be a Leader
With hard work, I eventually became the head hostess, which meant that I was glued to the front desk on busy nights, overseeing everything as if it were a sophisticated game of chess. A million things were always happening at once: seating, incoming reservations, table turnover times, bussing and resetting, folding napkins, phone calls, and more. It was my responsibility to coordinate other hosts, bussers, and wait staff to make sure everyone was on the same page.
You can bet that telling a 16-year-old to order around a group of adults three nights a week will do something for her leadership skills. Seriously, not being taken seriously at first did wonders for my assertiveness. And motivating an entire team to do something as small as enable fast turnover or as big as pull off a wedding reception made me a much stronger communicator.
5. I Learned That Life Isn’t Fair
This was a place that people loved to visit during special occasions, so I was often scheduled to work during holidays, when we always needed as many staff members there as possible.
When you were a kid, chances are you were very concerned with things being fair. (In fact, chances are there’s a part of you still fixated on that idea.) For me, it was hard to wrap my mind around working Mother’s Day or New Years Eve when all I wanted was to spend time with my loved ones. How could that be fair? But my boss was relying on me to show up, and when she refused to change my shifts, I begrudgingly clocked in on what were supposed to be otherwise exciting days.
You’d be surprised to hear that I actually survived after missing out on family time or school dances. Knowing that life went on anyway helped put things in perspective, and taught me a lot about sticking to my word.
6. I Learned to Be Accountable
I was by no means a perfect host. Sometimes I’d bring people to the wrong table, or overbook a waiter, or handle angry guests the wrong way. But I still think that getting yelled at by my manager—not that yelling is ever the best approach—was still great motivation for me to quickly confront my mistakes and actively improve in my position.
One of the most respectable traits in any employee is accountability. Acknowledging when you’ve done something wrong can often de-escalate a tense situation quickly. And, possibly even more importantly, I learned how to navigate those situations from blunder to blunder—when to apologize and move on, and when to stand up for myself and not back down.
If a job like this sounds familiar to you, remember that it wasn’t a worthless experience. Even if you weren’t exactly in it for your career at the time (hello, spending money!), chances are it still helped you in the long run. Regardless of your intentions, it’s likely that an early position at a restaurant, or as a babysitter, or a store at the mall is the place where you learned the skills that’ll be useful throughout your entire career. Because no matter where you end up, you’ll be working with people (in some way), and at the end of the day, your ability to deal with others will be invaluable.
Caroline Liu is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and computer programmer studying at Wesleyan University. She is pursuing majors in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Computer Science in order to bridge her passions for tech, design, and social justice. Learn more about Caroline on her website or follow her on Twitter.More from this Author