What Does Your First Job Say About You?

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.

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Kathy Rapp
Kathy Rapp is the President of hrQ, where she helps companies find groovy HR Talent or HR Consultants to drive business results.  Prior to joining hrQ, Kathy booked more than 15 years of human resources leadership experience working for such companies as Morgan Stanley and First Data Corporation.  A connoisseur of the intersection between pop culture and business, Kathy believes many talent issues can be addressed via the succession planning lessons experienced by Van Halen  (David Lee/Sammy and sadly, Gary Cherone).


  1. Don Currier says:

    Kathy, I can relate to your 3rd. example. My first job was on a dairy farm in upstate New York. In the barn every morning at 5 AM milking cows, then chores, then school, then milking cows again, then chores, then dinner, homework, bed and do it all over again the next day. Had a great boss, even let me off for a few days to go to Woodstock in 69!! In addition to teaching me discipline, it taught me how to manage my time and make the most of the time I wasn’t working, because there wasn’t much of it. Got my first VPHR position in 1981. After all these years, and there have been many, I still get up at 4:30 AM and arrive at work around 6 AM. Maybe when I retire I’ll learn how to sleep later. Best wishes. Don

    • Kathy Rapp says:

      Hi Don – My guess is you’ll still be an early riser in retirement….but perhaps you’ll learn to take naps! Glad you had a cool boss in ’69! Thanks for your comments!

  2. Emma Gregg says:

    Everything I know about Customer Service I learned from Publix.

    From my first minutes in the store as a would-be employee, the Store Manager went out of his way to assist when my clueless young self couldn’t get the computer to function properly–calling corporate to help me out and instilled the concept of “above and beyond” in my adolescent brain. There is no half-hearted. There is no pass the buck. Own it, get it done. I’ve definitely been a better employee because of my time there.

    There is a Publix philosophy that I’ve applied to every doorway I’ve darkened since: “{Your place of employment} will be a little better place to work, or not quite as good, because of you.”

    • Kathy Rapp says:

      Emma – I LOVE the Publix philosophy! I also love your mantra of “own it, get it done”. Great feedback and thanks for sharing!

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