Stories about first jobs usually sound like mythologized twaddle to me. They start out like Horatio Alger’s tales of the poor bootblack Ragged Dick or Carl Sandburg’s account of young Abraham Lincoln on the prairie – overcoming all obstacles to prevail, extolling virtue, industry and thrift. Sure, I’m as inspired as the next guy. But what if your life isn’t really that heroic? What if your first job was just a job and you weren’t really that great at it anyway?
My teen years were filled with something-like-a-job moments of employment: paperboy, grocery bagger, laundromat attendant, Little League baseball umpire, busboy, etc. The only thing remarkable about my foray into the world of meaningful commerce was my unremarkable performance. I seldom fully understood my role and responsibilities, lost interest easily and moved on as soon as I acquired the object of my desire: Rawlings baseball glove, Gibson guitar or the latest Levi’s bell bottom jeans. Though I was never a slacker, my main interest in life was to stay eligible for football and wrestling and to win the affections of an assortment of attractive ingénues who probably didn’t even know my name. So like most of my classmates, I functioned somewhere between cynical Holden Caulfield and gullible Johnboy Walton. But, hey, that was my life in the 1970’s in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Only a few of the guys in my neighborhood went to college. Most either went to work in the monstrous automobile factories or got their journeyman’s card after they were apprenticed to a plumber or electrician. Some of the gals also went to college but their options were limited and most become teachers or nurses. The collapse of American manufacturing and the advent of the career woman were still just beyond the horizon when I graduated from high school.
I have little doubt that I too would have followed this path had it not been for a bit of good luck that set my career into motion. An average student with unremarkable grades, I had been admitted to the local public university in August only after they had received some promising achievement test scores. But having potential is worthless if you don’t have the means to realize it. That’s when a casual conversation with a family friend after mass one Sunday turned into a golden opportunity to advance my education in more ways than I could have anticipated. He gave me the inside track on a high paying job as a Teamster at the United Parcel Service unloading eighteen-wheelers that rolled in from Chicago and Detroit.
The UPS of my day was staffed by former military officers who ran their operations with precision, hierarchy and the esprit de corps of Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Each day began with a whistle at 4:00AM and a scramble of potential Olympians, minor league baseball players and a few ex-jocks rushing to toe a long white line to form ranks. The role was called and the logistics of the day were spelled out. The meeting was adjourned with the snapping of a stop watch and simple phrase – “Get to work!”
It was like boot camp. A champion athlete, I could scarcely believe how difficult it was to keep up with the endless convoy of nondescript trucks rolling in and the speeding conveyer belt rocketing packages until my position was overrun. Life in the trailers left me exposed to the suffocating heat and the stinging freezer burn that accompany an extreme four-season climate. As with most industrial depots of the day, things fell on you or cut through leather gloves or pinched your digits between spinning metal rollers. It was hard. I actually had to work at working.
I was failing again but something was different this time. I decided to watch the accomplished masters across the big belt and down the line ply their trade. Like an anthropologist I observed their work habits and copied them. I was Henry Ford in reverse. See an efficient system and deconstruct it until you can codify simple rules. Better yet, improve upon them. What at first appeared to be effortless superiority turned out to be quite the opposite. These high performers developed their own system of work. I remember these as the 3P’s:
Preparation: The best workers came in fifteen minutes early and reviewed the volume reports and situated their package cars to take advantage of the order in which the trucks would arrive. At the end of each day, they took an additional fifteen minutes to break down their stations so that they were ready the next morning.
These days I too arrive fifteen minutes early to review my key goals and plan the work flow of the day, and I stay fifteen minutes late to assess my progress and make adjustments. Though the day seldom goes as planned, I find that I’m able to pick up the trail at the next available opportunity and continue to move forward.
Pacing: My station was situated directly across the line from a former champion boxer we called Shad. It never looked like he was really hustling but he was by far the best loader. He didn’t go fast or slow but rather found a groove and worked it the whole shift. As if back in the ring, he established a sustainable tempo for all twelve rounds.
Watch people do their best to recreate their lives: Find the right career, build a business or write that novel. With passion and purpose they sprint only to find that distance is too long and the terrain is too rough. So, they quit. My own success in business and academic life is as much a result of my persistence as it is of my abilities. I find my own rhythm to create the momentum that pulls me forward.
Performance: On the big line no one really cared why you couldn’t get things done. They just knew that you couldn’t. Each time someone would miss a parcel it sailed downstream to the next guy until it reached the end of the belt and the top man had to retrieve it. If you were unprepared or failed to ask for a little timely help you would be called out as a slacker. The language was hot and the conflict direct. Your teammates always knew the score and who was accountable for the wins and losses.
Great leaders, athletes and artists know that the team can be either a source of excellence or a convenient hiding place for poor performers. In the name of getting along we often tolerate a lack of skill or will in a teammate. The problem arises when their excuses become your failures. While we all have to work with non-performers, I do my best to enlist get-it-done people who in turn raise the level of play with the addition of each new team member.
I continued to work on the docks for three years while I completed my Bachelor’s degree. I am grateful for the opportunity that it afforded me. More importantly, the job that I worked to pay for my education turned out to be an education in itself. Three years later I matriculated from my blue collar neighborhood to the ivory towers of the academy with the completion of my Doctorate. To this day, what I learned about working my first real job is still working for me.
JEFF DEGRAFF is a professor, author of Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. He is called the Dean of Innovation because of his influence on the field. To learn more about Jeff and his work on innovation please visit www.jeffdegraff.com. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff and LinkedIn.