As soon as I could drive, I was told to make some money. My parents always emphasized school as my first priority, but my father believed we also needed to develop a strong work ethic, and that went beyond studying for a big test or getting an “A” on a paper. He wanted us to learn basic skills of the working world while many kids were enjoying down time at the beach and I’m forever thankful he forced this rule on me and my brother.
After many years as a camper, I thought my best first job would be as a camp counselor. But I was wrong; after years of attending the same overnight camp with the same people as friends, I found it too hard to be in charge of them a year later. Turns out I was a much better camper. So the next year, I decided instead of working at the same sleepaway camp, I would take care of young children, preschool age. At this point I was becoming interested in psychology and thought maybe teaching or being a children’s therapist was in my future, so this summer job seemed like the right track. It wasn’t.
When I left for college, my dad’s rule still stood, and many jobs I had during my summers off continued during the school year, like working at Urban Outfitters and being a messenger at a law firm. In retrospect, those jobs were incredibly important, and I’m still grateful I had them. They helped set the groundwork for my mantra to work hard and play nice. Here’s why:
1. I was exposed to a variety of professions.
When you are a kid, you try lots of activities like sports, arts and crafts and musical instruments, and as time goes on, you dedicate your time and effort to the ones you are most naturally attracted to. Early jobs are a lot like that. I tried to test out fields I thought I might want to pursue later in life. Even when I realized it wasn’t for me, I still learned valuable skills while folding jeans, schlepping all over DC.. to deliver files for a law firm and working as a PR intern at Fox Networks.
2. I learned the importance of helping others.
When working in an office setting, I learned how to pitch in and help my clients, managers and co-workers. I learned how to be a part of a team even if I was working alone on a project and how to take things off my managers’ to-do lists. Volunteering for more work allowed me to learn new things and made the job more exciting or, in some cases, made me more certain about what I didn’t want to do in the long term.
3. I learned to be dependable and trusted.
When you work at a young age, you can’t be lazy. The need to prove yourself forces you to act like an adult before you consider yourself one. You learn to let your managers know that you are there and eager to learn, help and (let’s hope) get paid.
4. I learned to be on time.
If you are working as a teenager, you can’t rely on mom and dad to wake you up. You need to get your ass to where you need to be on time. It’s also important to show you are committed, which means not clocking out right at 5 p.m. or whatever time you are supposed to leave. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was to always check in and see if there was anything else I needed to do (and I might even get paid overtime!).
5. I explored other opportunities when possible.
Even though I was hired at one position, I learned, observed and asked questions about what others were doing, so when I was bored I could offer my help elsewhere. I learned to speak up. Even if you tend to be more quiet in group settings, it’s important to get comfortable with your manager so he or she can get to know you and your interests. Learning that skill early on enabled me to carve out unique responsibilities for myself later in my career. Even now, I tell my employees to rewrite their job descriptions to fit the job they really want, then we see if we can actually make it work. Often, this helps us see a need that needs to be filled and a talent to fill it.
Related: 7 Elements of a Strong Work Ethic
6. I learned how to budget my money.
Most importantly, having jobs throughout high school and college taught me the value of money and knowing when to spend and when to save. When you work hard, it feels great to get that first paycheck. Then it becomes a matter of deciding what to spend it on, whether it’s gas, movie nights, shots of tequila (not for me) or purses (my splurge of choice).
Even though I was young and naive and probably would have rather spent my spare time exploring, reading books, walking on beaches or doing other carefree activities, I am thankful for the lifelong lessons I learned from those early jobs, many of which I still use today. Now, running a business of my own, I appreciate meeting our youngest interns and new hires who have work experience on their resumes, because it shows they have initiative to dive in and learn more. I firmly believe that establishing a strong work ethic early on is an essential step on any quest for ultimate career happiness.