Why everyone should work a shit job

Working in the service industry makes people tough and humble.

Photo by Jamakassi on Unsplash

My first job taught me more than ten years of school combined. At 16, I’d never paid attention to how middle-class WASPs treated people outside their tribe. It didn’t take long to change everything I’d been raised to believe about discipline and hard work.

For starters, it often goes unrewarded. Let’s say I was trying to eat a sandwich on my 15-minute lunch break. Shoppers would walk right up to me and ask questions about sales and coupons. If I ever tried to sit outside, they would hand me baskets to put up for them.

My managers didn’t like us having a private break room because they thought we would hide there. So we had the luxury of dining in the deli section. Target practice for angry customers.

One time, I spent my break on a bench by the store entrance. A middle-aged man stood in the parking lot and rattled a shopping cart at me. “Are you going to come get this, or make me walk all the way up there?”

Another time, I tried to call in sick. The manager said he would write me up if I didn’t come to work anyway. Halfway through my shift, a woman complained about me to customer service for “coughing all over” her vegetables. Like I was doing it on purpose.

Some countries demand a year of compulsory military service from everyone after their 18th birthday. That might work well for the U.S., a country that’s slowly turning into one giant Wal-Mart. We have a growing number of people who’ve never had to sit and listen to an angry customer bitch for 20 minutes. A class of people who think apologizing is for suckers. We’ve got to turn this Titanic around somehow, and I’m all out of ideas.

My time in the service industry taught me some important values. First, empathy. After you’re on the receiving end of verbal abuse, you’re less likely to dish it back to other people.

Getting yelled at sucks. And so does shrugging off a bad attitude after counting change and saying “Have a nice day” for six hours.

The other week, I watched a man flip off a cashier for closing her lane before he could throw his crap on the checkout belt. She acted with a surprising amount of restraint. The kind I’d like to see more often.

You know the other things that piss of cashiers, cooks, and servers? Walking into an establishment five minutes before closing time. It’s the ultimate dick move, and it happens every day.

But you learn not to complain about that. It’s bad for business. The ability to serve a group of people and treat them fairly, even if you think they’re a bunch of assholes. That’s a valuable tool.

In college, I worked at a popular pizza place. Friends of mine would bring big groups of people in 30 minutes before closing all the time. “You’re so nice for letting us stay,” they’d tell me.

Actually, I’d get fired if I made them leave. But I couldn’t say that.

Still, my manager would clock me out right at closing time. He wanted to go home, too. It was his way of motivating me to rush them out as passive-aggressively as possible.

Experiences like this have made me a more considerate person. And not just to other cashiers and servers. Not only do I tip everyone, I also tend to stop and think about how my actions throughout a given day effect other people. Maybe I’m just a nice person. But I suspect being treated like shit throughout my teens has made me more reflective of my behavior.

Halfway through college, I noticed a big difference between people who worked shit jobs and those who didn’t. It emerged early on. Like when one friend bragged to me about not having a part-time job. “My parents don’t want me to waste my time like that,” she said. “They want me to focus on academics and internships.”

My friends who didn’t work learned how to serve up judgment and sarcasm. But they never learned how to take it.

Unlike them, those of us who worked shit jobs developed thick skins. Some random stranger calling you a moron loses its edge after a few years. Cleaning up other people’s leftovers and washing their dishes on Friday nights builds a kind of resilience.

For a few months, one manager threatened to fire me on a weekly basis. For no reason. Just because he liked to watch people squirm. He even accused me of spitting in people’s drinks one time. I think he simply wanted to see what I’d do. How long I could endure him.

That taught me another valuable skill — calm in the face of radical unpredictability.

You learn to put up with so much crap as a cook, server, or cashier. If you can survive without developing a substance abuse problem, you can handle almost anything life hurls your way.

You develop a kind of grace and studied humility. The kind that would serve our current leadership well.

So, about my friends who didn’t work as teens. They really missed out. True adulthood equalized us. My privileged buds started encountering mean people when they moved into apartments and got jobs. It did critical damage to their self esteem. One girl couldn’t even last one summer with her “mean roommates,” and had to move back in with her parents.

Another friend of mine called me up and asked for advice. Shockingly, the fellowship from her prestigious MA program didn’t pay enough. Her parents had cut her off, and she’d had to get a job at Chili’s. “This is such a demanding job,” she said. “How did you even do this?”

I can’t remember what I told her, but it obviously didn’t help. Because she got fired a month later. I feel bad for laughing. Not really. Well, a little.

My elite friends learned the hard way. They finished college completely unprepared to deal with anyone who didn’t care about their IQ. As it turns out, that’s a lot of people.

Discipline. Balance. Strength. Grace. Kindness. Politeness. Humility. These values are going extinct in the U.S. But we can act. We can make every precocious, stuck-up teen work weekdays at Chick-Fil-A or Taco Bell for 12 months after they graduate. Maybe it’s just crazy enough to work.