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?
I’m a die-hard fan of this thought you mention, “All work is honorable.”
Because, it’s those moments of a job where you have dirt under your fingernails, your hands in a toilet scrubbing, bruises on your knees, getting shot at, a hoarse throat from teaching, acid burns on your forearms from experiments gone wrong, or spilling Pizza Hut Breadstick Sauce on your customer’s lap, that you learn life is really about humanity, love, acceptance, and service to others. (Yes, this is me.) 😉
Yes, I’ve had some pretty wild jobs, but I now see life though a gorgeous stained-glass window with lots of color, edges, and shapes.
Great post, Patty. I love your writing.
Hi Lori – Yes, yes, and more yes! You get it. Those things you mention – humanity, love, acceptance, service – they’re everything, aren’t they? I loved your trip down memory lane. And you’ve also pointed out something very important: the universal experience that everyone who’s ever worked in food service has had at one time or another…spilling something on a customer’s lap. (And once on a customer’s head, I’m sorry to say. A bald man, in fact.) Thanks for being here and reminding us that work enlarges our lives in so many profound ways.
Wow this is so cool, A & W root beer! I’m jealous. I was slaving away in the fields on the farm from ages 5 through my 20’s. I even kept working for my dad after I married. Your job sounded like more fun!
We went to A & W root beer to eat a few times. It was a real treat. My dad would pack as many of his 10 kids that would fit in the car and off we’d go. He always ordered the same thing for us all, poor man I can’t imagine. We all ate hamburgers with everything, fries and root beers. That way it was fast and simple or as simple as it could be with so many children.
Except for a few years or small jobs here and there hubs and I have always been entrepreneurs. It’s worked well and has given us both a lot of freedom and a lot of time to play.
In the end it’s not the freedom, money or degrees that matter. For me it’s the love and laughter I’ve shared a long the way.
This is delightful, Tess! The picture of your dad packing as many of you kids into the car and driving off to A & W is priceless. I read your little story to my husband and we both just giggled. It also reminded me of how much I loved going to A & W as a kid, having the carhop deliver that tray, feeling so cool munching on our burgers. Can you believe I’d forgotten that? No wonder I wanted the job so bad. And you’re so right – the love and laughter – the best stuff about work, and life. Thanks!
Work… Love… I see the point you are making. I find that when I love life, work isn’t so bad… when I am not loving life… work isn’t as great!
I have, of late, decided enough is enough and I am taking action. I enjoy work more now than I did a few weeks ago because I am actively involved in my life – doing things I want to do in addition to the things that have to be done. It makes a difference.
Let’s see – I worked at a pro shop at a country club, did lots of baby sitting, have been a camp counselor and an EFL teacher and interned in a foreign parliament… all uniquely me!
Have a great weekend Patty!
Yes, exactly M. I think it’s usually a good idea to explore the meaning we’re creating in our lives outside of work before we try to do anything about work. Because when our lives are out of whack, it can be so hard to believe any work can be meaningful or satisfying. And the thing is, it takes a big effort and often a lot of risk to change our careers (in spite of what some people say). Yes, it’s usually worth it, but not everyone wants to take that risk or make that choice. And so often, when I do a little digging with clients, there are things they can start doing today, right now, to make their lives more satisfying. To be more loving to themselves. (Just as you are doing.) And those shifts inevitably show up in the work arena, too. Thanks!
Hi Patty! There sure is a connection to work/love – but then love is everything and for some reason we tend to forget that. My first “job” other than working on the farm was a direct contrast. I was a model all thru high school. The land of the superficial which is quite an education in itself. Paid great, had a fantastic wardrobe but I missed a lot of normal teen fun and also a lot of school.
Oh my, suZen, that must have been like entering another world entirely. I think that could really do a number on a teen, but knowing you I imagine you found your way through it just fine, thank you! And I’m sure you have many stories to tell about it. Hugs!
My first job–and my job for many years–was working in my father’s printing plant. I think it is there, surrounded by all that paper and type, that I decide to become a writer. And since my Dad was an entrepreneur, I inherited his love of independent work from him. I love working for myself and have always had difficulty following the strictures of working for others. That said, I passionately agree with you that all work is honorable, and I’ve attempted to instill that attitude in my children.
Hi Charlotte – I love the serendipity of that, the paper and type, the natural progression to writing. And how true that our parents experience of work often sets the stage for the work we do. Sounds like you were brave and struck out on your own early in life. I sometimes felt confined by the strictures of working for others too, but it took me years to get the courage to finally go out on my own. Then again, I have a feeling that everything leading up to that was exactly what I needed to get me to that point! Thanks.
All these posts could be a book. Your conversational writing style keeps me on the page. I have no desire to wander away. Lovely descriptions of your jobs, especially the car hop. Upended – excellent word!
I’ve always had a strange relationship with work, which could be an essay now that you’ve eked it out of me. First job? Working at a milk/cheese shop at the farm I kept my horse at. It also involved my first date with one of the guys at the farm, which involved a train ride to boston to see a band, which involved me wearing a turtleneck on a hot summer night, which involved me snubbing the young man, then wanting him back, ad infinitum.
We’re very work oriented in the US. Other places don’t talk about it as much. As a nation, we often hide behind our generic titles. It seems to take more guts to talk about play or at least that’s what I’ve observed.
I have “loved” jobs but mainly because I was flirting with the guys – professional flirt? I also enjoyed laughing about the absurdity of work or sharing ideas of cubicle escape. So flirting and laughing and plotting made me happy in a conventional work setting. The actual work never engaged me in any real way. I always REFUSED to go along with the attire program. No suits for this gal. No hair bobs. No high heels. No meetings.
The last “No” proved to be my corporate undoing. The higher up the ladder I climbed, the more meetings seemed to be part of the landscape. Most of them seemed silly and kept me away from the flirting and laughing and escaping.
I must be a work deviant …
Why thank you, G. I appreciate your kind words. I totally agree that there is too much “work as identity” in this country. That’s always the first question, isn’t it – What do you do for a living? That said, we have another problem too: a deeply embedded notion that “work is drudgery.” Kind of both ends of the spectrum, it seems, and I think it seriously confuses many people. I’m glad to hear you found your way through it. You’re a nonconformist at heart so it doesn’t surprise me that the corporate life was not your cup of tea. And that’s too funny about you being a professional flirt!
Okay, my first job–and I absolutely loved it–was as a market researcher in the mall..It was cool because we had certain food products we’d market, so the person would not only fill out sruveys, but taste the products..I loved meeting people and the variety in my day..plus I was 16 earning good money…I’ve been in customer service related jobs since..
My next job was as a nanny to three children..awe-some on many levels for me..
It progressed from there..always people and care related…always positions that my heart was in..until now when my full-time day job at the hospital combines the best of my skills with nice pay and my “other” job of writing/coaching/raising my children which is my passion..is ease filled and fun..so I’m on my way to allowing that to be my life..amazing how the Universe works when I allow it to…
Hi Joy – That’s wonderful that you can see the progression of your work as a part of your own evolution as a person. I kind of feel that way about my work too. It took me quite awhile to get there, but when I look back I see how it all adds up and got me to where I am today. Thanks for stopping by!
Is that supposed to be a picture of you at 16? I mean 18? Awesome!
What a delicious post about something many of us hold dear. I agree with everything you say here and I think this is why I’ve had many jobs and have not followed a conventional “rise” so to speak professionally. Work is a potent area of expression and is something that we get wrapped up in emotionally. I hear some CA candidates talk about these grandmothers who continue to work in the farms for decades for very little pay who love and take huge pride in doing what they do well. I do, however, wonder about assembly line work, the kind that is perfunctory that numbs the senses. I have never actually seen this type of work done but having read about it in Naomi Klein’s book called No Logo makes me wonder at what point is work exploitative.
My first job was quite short-lived. I was a sophomore in high school and got a sales job at a family friend’s fancy plates store (I don’t know a better name for a store like that). My very first day, a friend visited and we got to chatting like high school kids do. As soon as my friend left, the manager on site told me there was no talking in the store. Mind you, there were no customers at all when m yfriend visited. I didn’t go back the following day.
This reminds me that I’ve had more than a few jobs I didn’t go back to for a secodn shift. Hmmm…I never realized this until now. Thanks for inspiring this realization, Patty!
Hi Belinda – It’s not meant to be me, exactly, but it’s a mural from an A & W that I found on Flickr. When I was a carhop I had long blonde 1970’s hair and an orange jacket, but no hat. So I’m guessing this mural is from an earlier era. But isn’t great? I was delighted when I found it.
It’s interesting you bring up the question of work exploitation. The thing that I’ve discovered after talking with people about their work all these years is that even when the work environment is toxic, they nevertheless often take great pride in their work. It doesn’t make exploitation right, but there is this part of the human spirit that wants to feel we’re making a contribution, even in the worst places. But I do know the off-shoring of jobs and issues of paying people what they’re worth and creating suitable work environments is a huge problem.
Funny, too, about how you had a number of jobs you didn’t go back to. Me too!
Hi Patty — I enjoyed this share about your history, and I definitely resonated with what you said about accepting ourselves being key to enjoying our work. The irony in our culture, of course, is that we tend to see finding the “right” career as the key to self-acceptance! But that’s a path that, I think many of us eventually realize, leads nowhere.
Very true, Chris. So often trying to pinpoint the just “right” career leads to an endless cycle of frustration, because what we really want is a guarantee about how the future will turn out. Of course, there is no such thing, and we end up stuck and stalled, doing nothing. Better to look inside and do our own work first, because then things have a better chance of unfolding naturally. Thanks!
Patty — A carhop!!! I love the idea of this. While I never got to be a carhop…and there was a time I wanted to be one, my high school hangout was at Steak and Shake and when I was in high school (ages ago) they had carhops. I loved getting the food on the tray and admired the woman who take no crap from my the boisterous teen boys , we didn’t dare speak to:~)
Like others, I loved reading about your work history. You’ve actually got me beat in the number of jobs, but it’s interesting how your work history slowly led you down the path you’re on…thank goodness:~)
You are right about work. you can do almost any kind of work, if you see if as work and not who you are. I think we get into trouble when we identify work with the people who do it. So, we might admire the firefighter, but not the garbageman, even though we know nothing about who they are as a person. If you give yourself respect and love, then whatever work you do will reflect that.
Hi Sara – Brilliant! I think you should have written this post, because you so eloquently say what I tried to: “If you give yourself respect and love, then whatever work you do will reflect that.” I laughed, too, about the carhops who took “no crap” from the teen boys. I think we had a woman like that at A & W! But being a teen girl, I was more than ready to chat up the boys who drove in.
Waitressing at Yellowstone? Awesome! What I love most about this story is what a long, winding road your working life has been. I think that’s how it is for most of us – not a step by step logical path, but something more interesting. Yet somehow, you put it all together and ended up exactly where you should be: right here. Very inspiring!
Hi Eva – Great to see you. And yes, Yellowstone is one of the high points of my life. Truly a peak experience. I like how you term that circuitous route we take as “more interesting.” Because if we can accept that it’s not always logical, as well as trust that it will come together, then we can relax into. Thanks much for stopping by!