Early Career Sanity

Student job nearly freezes my tail off -- but it doesn't drive me crazy

Ever been to Northern Illinois in the winter? I have. My first job after striking out on my own was working in a busy hamburger joint in DeKalb, Illinois. One of the less desirable assignments for the newcomers was known as “picking up the lot.” Right around closing time (after midnight on weekends) the lucky worker – me – would take a cardboard box and venture out into the night to pick up empty cups, paper bags, burger wrappers and whatever else the customers had tossed onto the parking lot. I’d like to say “weather permitting” but that wasn’t a consideration. “Cold” doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Some years later, after getting my degree (Marketing, NIU, 1970) I began getting “real jobs” and working in my “real” career, sales and marketing. After working for a number of corporations over a period of about 10 years, I began to evaluate my experiences.

Surprise: I realized that my first job back in that hamburger joint was in some ways much more satisfying, and definitely more “sane” than virtually all of my experiences in the “corporate world.” Admittedly I made a lot less money back then. But somehow it had been okay in some fundamental ways that my loftier, more lucrative positions simply were not.

I was intrigued.

By this time I had become interested in careers in general, along with why so few people seemed to enjoy theirs. I decided to take some time and try to figure out what was different about this early job of mine -- it may have given me a few backaches (at least until I graduated from “lot picking”), but it didn’t drive me crazy like my corporate positions did.

What was different about my "real" jobs?

Here are some of the things I realized were different:

Work in the hamburger joint was very clear-cut; objectives were clearly defined and reachable. There was nothing mysterious involved in determining whether the work was done well or not: when the customers got served quickly and efficiently, all was well.

Much of my work in the corporate arena consisted of sales work. In general, no matter how much you sold last year, you need to sell more this year – regardless of the economy, competitive factors, whatever. Being held to an arbitrary objective, in many cases clearly unreachable, is a great way to lose your motivation.

My part of the job was easily evaluated and did not depend on others to perform successfully. Later on, when I became an assistant manager, this changed – I was counting on those reporting to me to do a good job. But I had authority to go along with this responsibility. I was able to replace those who were unwilling or unable to get the job done right. (See The "Molly" Story)

In my corporate work the opposite was frequently true: I was responsible for things that required the cooperation of others to achieve, but without any authority over the others involved. This is known as “crazymaking” -- responsibility without corresponding authority.

Sometimes the others involved were terrific individuals, which made all the difference. But in all too many cases they were struggling with their own issues, and/or had their attitudes destroyed by arbitrary and stupid decisions by management. No "I" in team? Maybe not. But frequently very little morale either.

As a student, keeping living expenses down as low as possible was understood. Money was always tight but somehow I got by. There was never any question of spending money to impress someone or to keep up with someone or to distract myself from unpleasant aspects of my life.

Once I started my “real” career I could have spent more but somehow I never quite fell into this particular behavior. Much of it probably was due to my lack of interest in having children, an event that seems to seal the deal financially for many.
It’s also true that I benefited from the good fortune the owners of this particular business enjoyed: their timing was superb. Business was fabulous for them, labor was plentiful and inexpensive. For several years they had relatively little competition in their particular market. This might explain why they didn’t do the obsessive “cost cutting” that makes life so difficult for so many managers of retail operations: we always had plenty of resources available to get the job done right.

In later years, especially as the U.S. prosperity began to wane due to increasing competition elsewhere in the world, more and more companies have become much more preoccupied with cutting costs, perhaps to a fault. I know this affected my work in sales: I was frequently faced with reduced sales support resources but still expected to sell ever-increasing amounts of product. In one case I invested in my own typewriter because the company insisted on using an old one that put out horrible looking quotations.

I’m certainly not advocating “McJobs” as career goals… besides, I suspect that those are much more “corporatized” today, with their fair share of corporate nuttiness. But I think it’s well worth examining the factors that made my humble student job so much more satisfying in some fundamental ways than more prestigious work I did later.

Whether I did a good job or not was entirely up to me. This was the most important thing I learned from this comparison of work situations; my goal then became to figure out how to achieve this in my career (without going back to that blasted parking lot in Northern Illinois).