Friday, April 03, 2015


Shoelaces and work

Maybe the best gifts my father ever gave me were a couple of pieces of advice at the start of my career:
By the first one, he wanted to teach me that, whether you embrace it or not, change is inevitable and the most successful people are prepared to adapt. For the rest of his life, when I would come to him with a work-related problem, he would say, "You know what you need to do. Are your shoes tied?"

By the second, he didn't mean that every employer needed to possess every skill set imaginable, but that I should respect all work done honestly and with good will, no matter how boring, tedious, or distasteful I (personally) may find it. And to never reassign the responsibility for the decision along with the tasks.

My father was a good man. Not a perfect one, but a strong man with an ethical core that was as much a part of him as his crooked and much broken fingers. He gained both through a lifetime of struggle and success, mistakes and victories.

Before he was a middle-aged executive for a large manufacturing firm, he was a young man who worked in the brutal conditions of the heat-treating room of a steel plant. One of my clients invited me into their heat treating room a few years ago, and the 21st century/OSHA monitored environment was a far cry from my Dad's experience in the 1930's--- and it was still like walking into hell on earth. The heat, the sound, the smell, the gave me a new appreciation for the things he did and sacrifices he made to support our family. I may have benefitted from the later (more affluent) years, but he always told us stories about the seriously un-glamorous jobs along the way. Balloon man on the boardwalk, house painter, wallpaperer's apprentice, watch repairman for an upscale jeweler, working in the kitchen of a large beachfront hotel...Work....and all of it, no matter what, valuable.
See, like my Dad, in addition to the career-path positions that provided me with emotional and professional satisfaction, along the way I have had jobs that were just that--- JOBS. Things I did that often bored the living hell out of me but paid the bills.

I've never actually been paid to mop floors or wait tables, but I have done these things both as a volunteer and as a member of a large and complex family. I have also had paying jobs where I

  • bagged groceries
  • cared for a terminally ill person whose mobility was gone but their mind was sharp as ever
  • worked assorted retail jobs 
  • organized stockrooms
  • sold both B to B and consumer goods on commission
  • done thousands of hours of tedious data entry
  • audited accounts (via actual physical books and computer screens) until my eyes were bloodshot making accounts balance
  • in the last years of my Mother's life, I was her primary caretaker as her health deteriorated into a constant round of doctors, drugs and dialysis. (anyone who thinks that's not a job has never done it! It may not be compensated, but, trust me, it's a job. Compensation does not define work-- ask any parent of a critically or chronically ill child)
  • sold high end computers, TVs and stereos in a low-rent neighborhood. (I hated every day of it, but it paid for my kids' Christmas!)
  • made telemarketing cold calls. 
  • worked for Nielsen data collection surveying thousands of people who didn't want to talk to me
  • scheduled appointments for stockbrokers and financial consultants
  • sorted, scanned and filed receipts attached to insurance reimbursement claims 
and lots of other incredibly un-glamorous things to keep money in my pocket and gaps off my resume. And sometimes I did two of those boring jobs at once--- working 40 hours at one and another 20 or 30 at another each week, just to stay afloat.  

Increasingly, I encounter young people today who have never had that kind of experience, and don't value the many services that they are provided day in and day out. I really do think people need that experience-- whether in the workplace or at home. They need to know how much work it takes to keep a household or a business running.

They need to know that clean laundry does not magically appear in their bedrooms, and leaves are not beamed up to some space station in the outer galaxies at the push of a button. They need to understand that, in order for the  person at the drive through to hand them their burger, a whole lot of real people had to do a whole lot of real labor.

I led a pretty sheltered existence as a kid-- but my folks taught me-- by assigning me chores and encouraging me to have part time jobs as a student-- how much just plain work it takes to keep a family, a home, or a business running smoothly. We don't do kids any favor when we protect them from reality. A kid who has never even thought about what it takes to scrub muddy footprints out of a carpet, won't remember to wipe his feet at the door. An employee who has never had to balance an account won't worry all that much about accuracy in record keeping. A boss who has never been responsible for some of the support tasks his staff provides won't really grasp the impact of (what seem to him/her to be small) changes to procedure. 

Today I work in what is sometimes called "change management" ---preparing organizations and their employees for the inevitable changes forced by emerging technologies, the evolving economy, and societal shifts.  Why? Because the work world of the  twenty-first century is very different from the work world my grandfather entered at the beginning of the twentieth.  My grandfather was what would be called today an artisanal baker. In the first years of his career, he learned the techniques and methodologies he would use for the rest of his working life. His skill levels improved over time, and recipes were created or changed based on evolving tastes and preferences, but the basic core tasks remained the same over time.

No one alive and reading this will work in that sort of environment. That's just not the way the world is any more.  Some experts say that you can expect to have, at a minimum, three major job realignments over the course of your career. You may work in the same industry and/or even for the same company (though that is unlikely) but in the 40 or 50 years between your first job and retirement you will experience several major shifts that will cause more or less stress depending on how well you are prepared to adapt

I hope my family will forgive me for using them as examples, but we are pretty typical. 

And, before you think we are all in STEM-type careers and therefore atypical, think about any industry you can name-- Construction? Education? Manufacturing? Government? Food Services? Farming? Think those haven't changed dramatically over time? 

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