What Does Your First Job Say About You?

Kathy Rapp Career Paths, Coaching, Engagement and Satisfaction, Kathy Rapp, Leadership, The HR Profession

For whatever reason, I was eager to start working.  My friends gave me a hard time as they were hanging out and sleeping in while I was up (and on my bike) by 7am to make it to the “Y” to teach swim lessons.  My first job (the one I filled out an application for, was interviewed and got a glorious letter a week later saying I was hired) was as a swim instructor for the YMCA.  I was 15.  I actually think they weren’t supposed to hire me unless I was 16, but I’ve always been mature (um, ok… tall) for my age.

There are lessons I believe my first job taught me that shaped who I am today.  I don’t think I’m alone.  So I asked a few people I respect, both personally and professionally, to validate my theory: the earlier your first job and the tougher your first job—the greater the chances of success in all you do.

My first friend is an industrial/organizational psychologist, consultant and teacher.  His first job was unloading trucks and he was 15.  That labor intensive job led him to operational and HR roles in his corporate career with the likes of Frito-Lay, Pennzoil-Quaker State and Hewitt.  He’s also one of the most pragmatic and down-to-earth I/O psychologists I know.  He has zero ego which allows him to tackle small and big consulting gigs with the same enthusiasm.

Next is a native New Yorker who worked on the roadside garbage clean-up crew for the town of Islip on Long Island.  At 15, SHE didn’t love the bright orange vest that was part of her uniform, but she appreciated why she was doing the work and the friends she made along the way.  Today she’s a mom, former HR leader and businesswoman leading a successful professional services practice.  She earned a Master’s in HR and worked for outstanding organizations such as TRW, Alliance Data Systems and Capital One.

At 14, my last friend was a hired hand on a working farm.  Up earlier than I was at 7am, his days were long, hard and hot.  He did anything and everything he was asked to do and learned the meaning of work ethic.  He went on to work in and lead HR organizations for Frito-Lay, Mobil Oil, Allied Signal and Pride International, all the while raising three daughters after marrying his high-school sweetheart.  Today he’s a CEO, consultant, avid Harley rider and soon-to-be pilot.

So how did these first jobs mold us?  All of them were challenging, new to us or initially uncomfortable.  These jobs required early mornings and dirty fingernails, which usually aren’t appealing to teenagers.  They gave us all a sense of accomplishment and pride.  Convincing the screaming, terrified 4-year old (and his mom) that he could trust me—and then teaching him to swim—was a big deal.

These early jobs also made us appreciate our careers. They taught us lessons around dedication and determination we’ve in turn taught our kids.  I especially appreciate that I don’t have to wear a swimsuit everyday, nor does my job require the level of patience needed to corral 6 toddlers in a pool!

Thanks to Robby, Jackie and Lonnie for sharing their stories.  Hit me with your first job and how it’s shaped you in the comments.