6 Essential Business Lessons I Learned From My First Job: Selling Condoms To Squaddies In Boots

It’s easy to write off those teenage Saturday jobs as pointless, but could we be learning something from them that would help us to grow our businesses today?

I was chatting with a colleague this morning about the importance of your bio in social media and on your website, especially if you’re looking to write articles for national publications. She suggested we mention our first job in there — as a bit of background fun.

“No way!” was my initial response. My first job was selling condoms and ProPlus to squaddies on the Chemist counter in Boots on Saturday mornings. There was no way I wanted that in my bio. I mean, how did it relate to the work I now do, writing, speaking and mentoring small business owners and passionate world-changers?

Then I had the proverbial ‘Duh!’ moment as I realised it was, in fact, the perfect first job for my zig-zagging career.

Sometimes, it’s not until we step back and view our journey through the lenses of hindsight that we spot the golden gem lessons.

As a tender 14-year-old, I used to half-die of embarrassment, as the squaddies (young army soldiers) from the local barracks came in and asked me “which brand I would recommend”. Then they’d buy the ProPlus to let me know they were planning to be up all night. It was long before the days of Viagra and its friends.

Over the two years I did that job, I developed coping strategies that helped me to handle the squaddies more effectively until suddenly it stopped, entirely. I didn’t know back then that it was because my vibration had shifted — I no longer gave out the ‘radio signals’ of being someone they could embarrass, so they gave up trying.

And this morning I realised there were six key life lessons I learned from the squaddies-on-the-condom-counter experience — and they have all been vital in the past three decades of my career journey and the difference I now get to make in the world.
  1. Smart comebacks for hecklers.

Back in 2003 when I finished my NLP Trainers’ Training (the ‘user manual’ for your brain), one of the things they taught us was how to handle hecklers and off-topic interruptions, if you’re running a live event from the stage. We had to be able to do crazy things like be talking about the inner critic and bring a question about something as crazy as ‘tomato ketchup’ back to the point we wanted to make.

It’s something I loved — and still do. Though that’s not an invitation to try it out on me! And it stood me in good stead when I was running focus groups, for example, back when I was Head of Market Research at Dyson. The ability to take a curve ball, catch it and throw it where it needs to go, without freaking out, has been invaluable.

I realised that those early days of not reacting emotionally to the squaddies’ attempts to throw me was invaluable in practising those skills. It also taught me how to keep my cool under pressure — and how to engage in friendly banter, without allowing it to go too far.

2. Standing up for myself in a man’s world.

Back then, I had no idea I would end up studying Mechanical Engineering and spending ten years in the automotive industry, specialising in Six Sigma and process improvement — aka telling guys that they’re making mistakes! I was used to being in the minority — when I studied in Germany I was one of only five women in a faculty of over 1,100 students.

Even now, having run my own business for 15+ years and being a member of the UK’s Institute of Directors, I regularly find myself as nearly the only woman in the room at events and I draw on the skills that started with those squaddies, decades before.

Those squaddies started me learning how to be confident and how to handle the ‘locker-room banter’ that Mr. Trump recently made so famous, without being a doormat or losing my cool.

3. Know when to walk away.

Working with those squaddies gave me early experiences in setting clear boundaries. Sometimes they didn’t take the hint and I had to learn how to stand up to them, firmly, but without being aggressive or losing my temper (Saturday girls were easily replaceable). If one of the soldiers was taking it too far, I learned how to ask him to stop, without embarrassing him — which could have cost me my job. And if that didn’t work, there was always number 4:

4. Know when to ask for help.

My boss, Mary, was great. She could be scary, if she was stressed, but she always stuck up for Her Girls. So if one of the squaddies took his banter to a place I couldn’t handle, I would go and get her and ask her to help. That always shut them up. She could be fierce.

It taught me that, in life as well as in business, I’m not meant to fix every problem on my own and I need my support team around me. If you’ve already got Dare To Dream Bigger, then there’s help on how to find your Dream Team — and clear out your hidden blocks to accepting help — in Step Four: Connection.

5. It’s not about me.

The squaddies didn’t care about me — they weren’t trying to upset me, personally. They were just acting out a role that they somehow thought was expected of them. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t personal. I just happened to be the teenage girl who was standing there, ready to dance that dance. And, as the Native Americans say: “All criticism is borne of someone else’s pain.” Their behaviour said more about them than me.

Once I stopped thinking they were deliberately trying to upset me, it helped me to be able to respond more calmly, rather than emotionally. And it meant I stopped taking that stress home with me. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of difficult ‘feedback’ or unkind comments, the strategies in this podcast episode might help.

It didn’t make their behaviour ok, though, and that leads me on to my final point today, number 6:

6. The difference between ‘acceptance’ and ‘acceptable’.

I didn’t really learn this lesson until I was well on my way to qualifying as a meditation and mindfulness teacher, but I can now see that it started back in those chemist-counter days. ‘Acceptance’ of how things are is one of the vital ingredients for inner peace. But I have always been a campaigner — a passionate world-changer — as my recent work with the EU VAT Action Campaign proves. So how did I reconcile ‘accepting’ the squaddies’ behaviour with not being a doormat?

It’s that vital difference. You can ‘accept’ that something has happened, but that doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s ok — or that you shouldn’t do something about it. In fact, taking inspired action from a place of ‘acceptance’ is one of the most powerful world-changing strategies I have ever used. It’s what got the UK government and the EU Commission telling us that we had changed the way they work with micro businesses, forever. And I have those squaddies to thank, for playing their part on that journey.

So I’m curious: how did your first job help you with the work you do now?

Being able to look back and see the journey we have taken — what we have learned — can help with confidence, clearing self-doubt and imposter syndrome, and even getting clarity on why you’re doing what you’re doing now. And I’d love to hear from you:

Is there a life-lesson or business-lesson (or more than one!) that your first job taught you? How did the ‘you’ back then help to create the person you are now? What journey has that acorn taken, to become the oak tree you are now?
And if that ‘you’ could give you one piece of advice, right here in the present, what might it be?

Let me know, via the comments, and if you found this useful, please make sure you share the article via social media.

With love,

Clare x

Clare Josa, Author Of Dare To Dream Bigger | Speaker | Mentor To Passionate World-Changers