I recently had a really great conversation with one of my best friends. We had a lot to catch up on and he was genuinely glad to hear from me. The conversation drifted towards experience, and in particular, not being ashamed of what has shaped us or the paths we have chosen to take (he and I are incredibly similar but have taken very different career paths). We discussed how one characteristic, achievement, trip, job or score are used to distinguish people and it made me wonder about some of my past job experiences. During college I read a quote from Christopher McCandless :
The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences.
More so than ever, this quote really strikes me as truth since I know all of my job experiences have helped define and even made me question who I am and what I represent at times.
I remember when I was 15 and first put on a hard hat and showed up for work on the job site – the new guy with only a few screwdrivers and a pair of wire cutters. I learned how to bend Electric Metallic Tube conduit (glamorously known among Electricians as – EMT pipe?) with a 3/4″ bender from a guy named Ray “Blades” and listened to stories of guys who got their girlfriends pregnant.
I ended up spending my senior year as a shorthand cook at a place called Pop’s Philly grill. Before taking this job I played football. During a Summer game, I missed a tackle that led to a touchdown and on the bus ride home I quietly decided to quit – I also knew I was not that good and had AP classes I should take. I would come home around 11pm and stay up reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte for homework. I worked with one of the kindest women I’ve ever met – Norma Sanchez. She smoked skinny cigarettes and would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. She taught me how to really load up a sandwich for a customer who tips and shared with me her financial troubles and struggles to keep her home.
During college, instead of getting an internship at some financial institution, my procrastination forced me into a job selling contracts door-to-door for Orkin pest control in the Floridian heat. This was personally one of the most challenging things I have ever done. It took discipline and an incredible sense of confidence – of which I lacked – but slowly cultivated each day walking door-to-door in the sweltering heat. I had one of my happiest days that summer and would sometimes spend extra time talking to the random people who had invited me into their home to stay out of the heat. I gained a lot of perspective that summer.
I once dug a ditch and laid most of the electrical conduit connecting different school buildings. It was terrible. The heat and the handle of that shovel were demons. I felt like my foreman (a guy named “Cowboy”) received such pleasure out of calling me a “college boy”. It annoyed me so much that I once lost my temper and, like an arrogant college boy, said I would “make more money than him one day” – he should have kicked my ass. You need thick skin to work at a construction job site and I have since developed the skin of a rhino. At the end of Summer, I wrote Cowboy a letter thanking him for the lessons I learned and the time he spent with me. This man is flawed in many ways, but his hands can fix anything, and I do respect him for this. One of the wittiest things I think I ever said was “no one is happier on a Friday than a construction worker who just got paid” – it probably is not that witty to you, but has a special meaning for me. On Fridays I would drink beer with this large Albanian named Adi. I have yet to meet anyone who can chug a bottle of Cornona faster. I loved his accent when he cursed and showed off his shrapnel scars from the war.
I worked off and on more semesters than I can remember at a place called the The Loop. The conversations I had washing dishes with Kate as she told me she was raised by two gay parents, the smell of the bleach used to wash out the plastic bins of raw chicken and the annoyance of digging out cheap bendable forks from trash cans will forever be remembered. The Loop was the place I first time heard Jack Johnson – they always played such great music. It was a great job to have because I could do it hungover, of which I was for too many of my college years.
I crunched cost data for a billion dollar company that built ships for the U.S Navy (and other foreign governments as well). I remember the first time I felt like I was going to get fired. I wiped out an entire database of cost information that was to be sent out that morning. I called my boss’ boss that morning to tell him my mistake – he was known for having a temper – and all he said was “well, no one is going to die.” I felt relieved he did not punch me through the phone and I kept my job. I sometimes use that line now when trying to calm other people down.
I arrived on the doorstep of a South African NGO that provided housing credit to some of the poorest people on the planet. They had no idea who I was or why I was there. I ended up doing bank reconciliation by hand in a small room with two other women – one which was not yet married and wore traditional tribal garb. We slowly began to ask each other questions like a game of fence and soon became friends. I always laughed to myself when they would burp out loud after lunch and quietly mutter “I’m sorry.” Over time, I gained more and more responsibility. After working there for a collective total of 18 months – and seeing them more often than my own family – I cried like a little baby at a farewell party when they gave me a gift and I was asked to say a few words.
I then had a brilliant plan to start my own business with a childhood friend. We would smile and laugh and sip our vodka as we thought up clever names for our limited liability company as we watched the sun set across the Atlantic Ocean from the deck of the multi-million dollar beach home we were staying in. A few months and three thousand dollars later, I was humbled in front of my family, friends, and community. Letting down the business partners and small home performance contractors who were willing to take a chance on me was the hardest part.
I wonder at times how this collection of job experiences adds up and the influence it will yield in shaping my future, but I’ve come to learn that this is a waste of time. I find solace in knowing that as long as you have the courage to pursue what makes you happy and treat others well, life will work out. I know it will all make beautiful and chaotic sense when I look back and I will confidently be able to say that I set forth and lived the life I imagined (thanks Thoreau).