During the past ten years I’ve had tons of conversations with clients about work.
So it’s sort of surprising that I don’t write much about it.
Maybe that’s because I’ve listened to so many stories: the dreams and yearnings, the suffering and sadness. The elation of finally moving towards a calling; the sheer frustration of feeling stuck between security and risk. The challenges, and rewards, of juggling work with the rest of life.
And when I write about meaning or play or creativity or relationships or life balance or nature, work is always there in the background, even if its name goes unspoken.
Lately, though, I’ve been bringing thoughts of work to the foreground. My work, in particular, as I enter the next phase of my professional life. And as I metaphorically step off the curb and head towards my next destination, I find I’m also reminiscing.
I’m indulging in a sort of reverie that takes me back to my early experiences of work. All the way back to my first real job, at A & W Root Beer.
I was a carhop.
Now don’t go thinking I was one of those 1950’s-gum-smacking-wisecracking-roller-skating-carhops. No. I’m older, but not that old. I was, instead, a 1970’s-sorta-hippie-chick-poetry-writing-boot-wearing-carhop.
And man, did I want that job.
I actually lied to get it. I was 16. You could work inside the restaurant kitchen at that age, but somehow I knew, even then, that flipping mama and papa burgers and dodging grease fires was not for me. I suppose I needed the adventure of that big old parking lot, where I never knew who would show up on any given night.
So without much hesitation, I did what I had to do: manufactured a new birthday. Suddenly I was 18.
I was pretty good at the job too. Except for the time I upended a milkshake on an unsuspecting lap, I served my customers well and showed up on time. I gladly wore my orange and brown uniform. And when my boss, Mr. Hayes, told us during the new employee orientation that he would absolutely brook no insubordination, I nodded my head in agreement. It was only years later that I realized that fibbing about your age was probably just the kind of thing he was warning us against.
After that experience, the floodgates opened.
Suddenly I was a full-fledged member of the workforce. I spent a few more years in the food service biz, waitressing during summers at Yellowstone park and Cedar Stock resort. But I got tired of it, and entered what I now think of as my customer service phase: Drugstore clerk. Telephone representative at United Parcel and Archer Courier Service. Assistant in an insurance agency.
During that time there was also a brief stint in the costume shop at Arizona State. Stitching seams and sewing on sequins. Taking waist and hip measurements on sturdy young men. I mean, yes, the job did have its perks.
Somewhere in there was my most surreal work experience.
I showed up for my first day at Snelling & Snelling employment agency. As my boss greeted me she handed over a box of business cards. Oh joy! (I’d never had a business card before.) And then I looked at the name: Sandy Smith.
Yes, my new name was Sandy Smith!
Turns out employees went by phony names at this place. I can’t remember the reason they gave me for this, but I was alternately amused and horrified. Needless to say, I lasted only a few weeks in my role of employment counselor (aka huckster-we-just-want-your-money-counselor).
Time and work moved on, though.
I transitioned to what I lovingly refer to as my pink-collar ghetto phase: Library Assistant. Clerical Assistant. Department Secretary. But since I’d stumbled into an environment I adored – a college campus – I didn’t mind too much. I was mostly happy to search the stacks for lost books and enter data into a computer, or type up exams and maintain the supply closet.
And without a doubt, it helped me get my foot in the door for my next phase: the student services/teaching years.
Counseling Aide. Student Affairs Officer. Degree Programs Analyst. Outreach Coordinator. Academic Advisor. Adult Reentry Counselor. Career Counselor. Adjunct Professor.
Along the way I finished a few degrees and certifications. I started a business. And as the business grew the salaried work shrunk. First to part-time. Then to consulting. Eventually to no-time.
These days, it’s just me and the business.Well, my clients too, of course.
Now, at the end of my reverie, I recall what Freud said:
Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.
To be sure, there are times in my past when work challenged my humanity. And although you could say I floundered in my career for many years, I see that I did love something about every single one of those jobs (even the ones I’ve edited out).
And when I brought love to the work, that’s when I became more human.
Believe me, I know there are bad bosses and mundane tasks and crazy coworkers. And a toxic, soul-sucking work environment can be almost as damaging as growing up in a toxic family. In that instance, I’d be the first to say, “Let me help you get out.” I’d also be the first to encourage anyone to do work they love.
But here’s the thing I’ve discovered after ten-plus years of conversations about work:
Often the quest to do work that ignites our purpose and passion is, at its core, about learning to love and believe in ourselves.
And more often than you might suspect, once that love and self-belief is unleashed it can change a person’s view about everything, even the work they thought they couldn’t love. So when I hear the chatter about four hour work weeks and the dreaded nine-to-five, I allow myself to remember that all work has the potential to be meaningful.
All work has the potential to be honorable.
All work has the potential to hold our love and pride, in some way.
And even though it might seem like there’s a huge chasm between carhop and counselor/coach, there isn’t really.
How about you?
What was your first job?
Have you had any quirky, strange work experiences?
And how have love and work intersected in your life?