Today, the average person changes jobs 10 to 15 times during his or her career. By the time you get to lucky job #15, the hope is that you’re doing something that you’re passionate about. That you’ve learned and grown from your previous 14 jobs, and that you know how to pick a position that’s perfect for you.
In fact, the further along you get on your career path, the more you can laugh at your first jobs. Gigs that you likely took because you had approximately zero experience, and frankly, needed money to pay the rent. However, just because those positions weren’t prestigious doesn’t mean that they’re worthless.
I can honestly say that some of the experiences that felt like the “worst” at the time taught me my best lessons and laid the groundwork for my current career success. For example, I learned while waitressing my way through college never to leave a room empty-handed—and to maximize my moves. This helps me every day in my PR job, as I look to be strategic as I work my way through a campaign.
To further prove this worst-to-best hypothesis, I surveyed some smart and successful people to suss out the lessons they learned from their less-than-perfect past gigs:
Lesson 1: “Pay Attention to Details”
When optometrist Kim Parr was a teenager, she worked at a factory that made blue jeans. Her job was to print the labels with the size and care directions, (i.e., machine wash warm/tumble dry). She’d need to print out thousands at a time, having to wait until they were finished before she could go home. And if she made a typo? Well, then she’d have to reprint the whole lot. Nerve-wracking? Yes! But also a great, daily reminder that spending a little extra time and attention on details upfront can be the difference between success and extreme frustration.
Lesson 2: “Be Fearless”
It rained constantly during Joe Flanagan’s time as a paper boy. But—and this is going to sound cliche—the dogs were truly the worst. But even through the most dramatic encounters, he delivered each and every paper, each and every week. While the fear could’ve slowed him down, he pushed through it. Something he still does to this day as Director of Digital Marketing at Rank Easily—no matter what challenges he encounters, he pushes his way past them. (And the upside? People in marketing rarely bite.)
Lesson 3: “Learn Whatever Skills Are Necessary to Getting the Job Done”
Working at a flower shop wasn’t a bed of roses for Koa Nu`uhiwa. The level of physical labor was high, the pay was extremely low, and communication was challenging because the majority of the team spoke a different language. So, during the first few months, Koa made a concerted effort to learn the basics, since, you know, communication is kinda key.
The effort paid off and made a world of difference in building rapport and connections. And now, as Director of Marketing for Scan Digital, Nu`uhiwa works with a diverse group of people. He says, “If someone's first language is not English, I make an effort to learn some words from their language because I know that will build a connection or bond that will help us communicate and work well together.”
Lesson 4: “Take the High Road”
As you can imagine, Simply T blogger Tamara South encountered a lot of challenging people while working at Burger King in her younger years. Unpleasant for sure—but she soon came to realize that, despite how rude someone was, there’s no reason to get riled up. Staying professional and taking the high road keeps you in your job and in the right. It’s an experience she still revisits in her work today whenever someone’s rude to her in the office, over email, or at a meeting. While it may be tempting to snap back, or respond with a curt emailed “K,” it’s almost always better to take a deep breath and move on.
Lesson 5: “Stand Your Ground and Know Your Stuff”
When tax expert and author Crystal Stranger was in college, she drove a tow truck for a living. As you can imagine, many a customer were surprised to see a teenage girl pull up in response to the call. Unfortunately, customers would also second guess her skills or even request for a man to come help instead. Crystal learned very quickly to be assertive, stand up for herself, and demonstrate her expertise. Today, as a tax and financial consultant, she puts those lessons into play every day, educating and instilling confidence in her clients around super sensitive topics—like tax return errors and audits—with her finely-honed clear, authoritative style of communication.
Lesson 6: “Do the Right Thing, Even When No One’s Looking”
Branding communications professional Jill Hamilton-Brice remembers back to her time as a nursing home aide—and specifically the lesson she learned on her worst possible day there. On Christmas Day, she spilled every last piece of pie. Horrified at what she’d done, she confessed her major screw-up to her boss. The two of them jumped into the car and drove all over town to buy up every last pie they could find in the few local corner stores that were actually open—all so that the residents could have a special meal instead of canned pudding.
She was so impressed that her boss cared so deeply to get this fixed, despite the fact that the residents, who suffered from dementia, would likely have not have noticed the difference between that pudding and pie. It underscored the importance of stepping up, acknowledging mistakes, and doing the right thing even when no one is looking.
If, as they say, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”—you should remember that every horrible day you have at work might actually be teaching you something important. And years from now you will be able to look back and say, “Aha, that was worth it after all.”