Knowing who you are by your work

At this stage in my life, in my middle age, I am comfortable knowing who I am. I will not become a successful entrepreneur or highly paid technical specialist in any of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math). Nor will I be a successful business person as measured by the size of my bank account or size of the last budget I managed. I have taken a different path. And it is a good path, and it is also a professional path too. Success has other metrics.

One thing that I am comfortable with is having been a laborer and blue collar worker. I wish I could have developed a start-up company instead of having some of my crummy jobs in my youth. But there were factors and my own choices, and being lower-middle-class, there are constraints that those who are wealthier will never understand. I did run my own lawn-mowing business, but it never really took flight as a true company.

This is how I looked after a summer of hot work outside.

This is how I looked after a summer of hot work outside.

As a result of my earliest jobs, every time I see someone who is using their body to do manual labor, I feel some connection, because I did those jobs at one point. I also now agree with what Karl Marx notes in his Communist Manifesto, which has some stinging truths to those of us who have worked: “In proportion therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.”

Today I work in an office, for a local government. I am separated by a sheet of glass where I see men and women, daily, fixing the exterior to my building lately. It is very odd to have that viewpoint, knowing I had held such jobs, but I am no longer exposed to the hot sun, laboring and sweating.

Here are just a few of my jobs, and many a more famous person had dirtier, harder, and more brutal jobs than me. There is no shame in having done work getting your hands and clothes dirty.

  • Babysitter (really was not suited for this, but few jobs exist when you are younger than 16)
  • Gardener/snow shoveller (self-employed, for years)
  • Fast food cook and kitchen worker
  • Dishwasher (quit almost immediately, and that was wise)
  • Retail store assistant and janitor (yes, I really did janitorial work)
  • Librarian assistant
  • Painter
  • Roofer (hottest job I ever had)
  • Construction worker
  • Chauffeur/bus driver/tour guide
  • English teacher

Some of these jobs paid minimum wage, and one paid below minimum wage. For two of them, I likely was in violation of some state labor code, either being too young to work or not being covered properly working off the books. A few of these jobs did pay well, and the ones that did were with independent contractors, who always were excellent mentors about business, working with clients, and customer service.

By the time I was in my 20s, I finally made a move to climb up the ladder in terms of pay scale and responsibility in an organizational setting. My college degrees helped.

But I never forget the path that led me to where I am. I think former President Theodore Roosevelt summed up work nicely: “No man needs sympathy because he has to work, because he has a burden to carry. Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

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