If you want to be really good at whatever you do I recommend getting some crappy* work experience while you are young. Mop floors, work a cash register, haul junk, install drywall, dig ditches, clean bathrooms, or some kind of job that has no pre-existing skill requirement.
Let’s not get too romantic. I don’t look down on people who haven’t ever had a crappy job, nor do I look up to people who don’t like it but have never moved on from one. Still, there are some take-aways a crappy job provides that are just hard to get any other way. Here are a few things you’ll gain.
You’ll learn that attitude is everything
There literally is nothing else. When you’re working a crappy job you can’t expect things to suddenly get more exciting or rewarding on their own. Without the faintest hope of a fortunate change in external circumstances, you are forced to come to terms with what’s true for every job: attitude trumps everything. The difference in a good day cutting 2×4 studs and a bad day cutting 2×4 studs is whether or not you begin with a smile and a whistle. I’m not kidding. Try not being happy while whistling! Customers will be rude, things you just swept will get dirty again, it will rain while you’re trying to read the smudged instructions on the rented Ditch-Witch. Your laughter might be the only thing that saves you. This lesson will serve you well when you’re doing work that’s not crappy, because then the stakes only get higher and bad days can seem catastrophic if you don’t know how to deal.
You’ll learn to focus on product
Titles and family income and educational attainment and physical beauty don’t mean much on the clean-up crew. When you’re bagging groceries nobody gives a hoot how good you are at tennis or how many extracurriculars you have. There is little scope for unearned favor and politicking in a crappy job. You shut up and produce. Want a raise? Get more done. Make more customers happy. Be faster than your coworkers. Never show up late or miss a day. Work overtime. It’s too easy in some of the more complex and interesting jobs, many of which are several steps removed from the end customer, to forget what it is that actually generates the money to make the place go. You can slip into a mindset that overvalues cleverness and social gamesmanship and overlooks value creation. That won’t happen when you’re stocking shelves or emptying sticky beer bottles into the dump truck. You want to move up, you’d better create more value.
You’ll learn that you can be great
There are a lot of people who have mastered the techniques of crappy jobs and can really fly through. There are even some who genuinely love the jobs. But let’s be honest, most of the people you’ll work with at the landscaping company aren’t the type you’d want to work with later in life. In crappy jobs the majority of people you’re surrounded by are always looking for the path of least resistance, being sneaky about hours, indulging in fruitless gossip, pilfering snacks from the break room, and sometimes worse. When the skill bar is low, you get some unsavory characters who come in and out. The best part about this is that it won’t take you long to realize that, with a little effort, dedication, and basic people skills and integrity, you can rise to the top and be one of the best employees. This is a good feeling. I’m convinced that the path to greatness for most people comes not when they suddenly realize how much potential they have, but when they realize how little everyone else seems to try. Here’s the secret: this doesn’t change when you move from the grocery store to the Fortune 500 company.
You’ll learn what you want to avoid
If you’ve always been in the officer’s quarters and never with the enlisted men and women, you won’t know exactly what you’ve got. In fact, you may even long for the romantic ideal of menial work in your weaker, more stressed out moments. “If only my biggest concern was the blister on my heel”, you’ll think to yourself, imagining working the chain gang with Cool Hand Luke. Everyone who has ever worked a crappy job and moved on will laugh at you. Sure, they can reminisce about it, but they would never trade intellectually engaging, creative work for it. They see it as what it is, the first rung on a ladder of personal development. Working a crappy job helps you realize that you’ve got bigger dreams than just earning enough money to live. It will motivate you to do more, to build your skill, knowledge, and network outside of work so you can jump into something better.
You’ll learn that the worst case isn’t so bad
Yes, this post is about crappy jobs. Yes, I just said there’s nothing romantic about it and if you work one you’ll probably want out. All true. But it’s also true that these jobs aren’t so bad. You can only really know this if you’ve had one. This knowledge will come in handy when you are about to launch your startup and you have no idea if it will fail. Failure will loom as a haunting spectre, crippling you with indecision. What will happen if I’m wrong and this thing fails? That’s when the memory of your crappy job will be like a warm blanket. You’ll smile and realize that the worst case isn’t so bad. So what if your business fails? So what if no one will hire you afterwards? The worst that can happen is you’ll downgrade to a small apartment and mow lawns or ring up customers. You’ve been there. It’s not death. That’s as far as the fall can go. There’s comfort and courage in that.
*I’m painting with a broad brush here. I realize that these jobs are not crappy at all to some people. I do not mean to insult. I quite enjoyed most of my crappy jobs while they lasted. My goal is for you to imagine a job that you think would be crappy. Something you know you don’t want to do for the rest of your life, something that doesn’t require much skill to start with, and something that no one will be impressed by at cocktail hour.