Written by .

The valuable experience from your first jobs

You’ve probably learned everything you need to know.

I’m guilty of having short-term memory when I draw upon my experience to make decisions for the problems I face now. I look to the last project, the last client, the last employer and stop there. If it didn’t happen in the last few years, I don’t remember it or dismiss it as irrelevant. I’m now realizing how much knowledge is wasted when I don’t consider all of my experience.

Like a lot of people, I began my career in minimum wage jobs that put me in close contact with the public. In junior high, I delivered flyers. Later, I worked at Blockbuster Video. Then I was guest services at a hotel and even answered phones at an Australian call centre. If I take time to think about each of these jobs there’s a lot of experience to unpack. Most of it is relevant today.

Consider your early jobs and how many valuable things you learned that you might be overlooking now. US Congresswoman,  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said that working as a bartender honed her ability to detect bullshit. And I can easily think of another three family-friendly lessons I learned that I use today.

Call Centre Agent – Responsiveness

I worked as a call centre agent in Australia on behalf of the federal government. My job was to explain a federal rebate program encouraging Australians to insulate their homes. I quickly learned that explaining the program took up little call time. Pensioners wanted someone to talk to, people who were unemployed wanted to vent, and others were curious about my accent. Taking the time to acknowledge what people were saying, validate what they were sharing, and share something in return allowed for more meaningful interactions and increased caller satisfaction.

Providing an experience for people you interact with that demonstrates you’re genuinely responding to their cues is always effective. When people feel validated and cared for it creates a far more beneficial relationship.

Hotel Front Desk – Empathy

Most hotel guests aren’t jerks. But they’re aggravated after flight delays and checking in tired at midnight. We all know what it’s like to feel tired and know the day still isn’t over. But when we understand how something feels, we also have a good idea of what a solution could be. (Lavender tea on the house, in this case.)

For me, understanding empathy was a big realization. When you’re interacting with the public, you learn that you’re only seeing a fraction of their day or their life. When you make an effort to go beyond what’s in front of you and uncover the full picture it makes a difference to them.

Blockbuster Video – Adaptability

Friday nights at Blockbuster were chaotic. It was one big rush for the few copies of whatever new releases were popular that week. Because of this you got used to delivering the news that Maid in Manhattan was out*. But after a few shifts, you knew that “no, we don’t have it” isn’t an answer that’ll endear you to customers. You learn to have alternative titles to suggest and rationale for your suggestion. It was a low-tech recommendation engine, occurring every Friday night at your local video store.

Taking feedback and adapting was another consistent theme I recognized. Often, without even being aware, I’d make tweaks to how I executed my job based on the feedback and cues I got from people. It’s still a theme true today as I get cues and feedback clients or customers and make changes based on them. And “no” is still a pretty terrible answer.

Use the past to elevate your work now

We’re told to omit old job experience from our resumes after a certain point, and that’s sound advice. No one wants to read a five-page resume. Removing experience from a resume is one thing, but taking it out of the collection of experience we draw upon in our current role is another. Draw from all of your experience, not just the recent years. You’ll find lots of lessons you’ve already learned that will elevate your work.

*No one rented Maid in Manhattan

Cover photo by Alvin Balemesa on Unsplash