During my senior year at Lee College, I used my role as yearbook editor to write a snarky article about people who don’t have enough propellant to break away from the orbit of their college town — students who end up just taking a local job and sticking around. I ended the article quoting a fellow senior who said, “That’s not going to be me, I’m outta here.” I signed the article “Steve ‘outta here, too’ Watters.”
At the start of the next school year, several returning students came by to have a good laugh on me — as it turned out, I became one of those people.
Despite my opinions about where graduates should go when they finished college, I wasn’t ready for the pressures of taking on my first big job. After so many years in the classroom, I dreaded having to prove myself by finding a respectable and challenging job within my field. My backup plan was to go to graduate school as a way to put off the inevitable. That plan fell through, however, when some of my paperwork got held up and the grad program couldn’t get me in that fall.
To bide my time, I went to work for a temp agency. They doled me out to jobs that included moving hundreds of boxes, picking up trash on a construction site and pushing concrete in a wheelbarrow. After a couple of weeks of this kind of work, I was relieved when Dr. Paul Conn, the president of Lee, offered me a real job — managing a new production center the school had just built.
In His goodness, God made up for my snobbishness about sticking around college towns as well as my lack of initiative by giving me an ideal first job. It gave me something besides “Kmart stockboy” to put on my resume, but God also taught me at least three surprise lessons along the way: 1) salary isn’t everything, 2) identity doesn’t come from a uniform and 3) mistakes can teach more than success.
Salary Isn’t Everything
When Dr. Conn asked me what I had in mind for a starting salary, I made a typical rookie mistake and said, “I’ll just be glad to be making money.” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I started out making a little less than $12,000 a year. Three years later, when I left for graduate school, Dr. Conn announced at a staff meeting, “Steve finally realized that ‘all the pizza he could eat’ wasn’t such a good salary after all.”
Christian colleges have never been known for generous salary packages. As I started to get a sense of how small my income was compared to fellow graduates, I was motivated to hit the want ads. But we were in the middle of a recession and I couldn’t find any listings offering big salaries for young men with B.A.s in English. I decided to stick it out.
As I grew into the job, it dawned on me that I was no longer counting the hours or obsessing over the size of my paycheck. I found that the “payment” I appreciated most was the opportunity to be entrusted with more responsibilities as a growing professional. There were times I actually felt I should be paying Lee for the investment they made in me as a new employee.
That’s true for most first jobs. For at least the first six months, employers are taking a risk by paying you to learn your job and hoping they’ll get their money’s worth at some point. I was grateful that Lee eventually found ways to bump up my salary in the time I was there, but it was in the priceless learning opportunities that I was reminded “salary isn’t everything.”
Identity Doesn’t Come From a Uniform
For the first few months of my job, I called myself “the Duckhead executive,” because my business wardrobe consisted of little more than some khakis, a couple of button-down oxfords and a few well-worn ties.
It was about that time that I read Jerry Seinfeld’s commentary on suits: “The suit is definitely the universal business outfit for men,” he said. “I don’t know why it projects this image of power. Why is it intimidating?” He went on to speculate that when people saw a man in a suit they couldn’t help but think, “We’d better do what this guy says, his pants match his jacket.”
I got a good laugh out of this, but I also got myself some suits. In fact, I started putting a big chunk of my paycheck into business clothes. Before long, I was looking the part of a professional. I’d sit in my office with my nice furniture and a nameplate on my desk, kicked back drinking coffee in my new suit.
I thought I was something at the ripe age of 22, walking around with a crisp suit and an impressive title. On the other side of the campus, I had an uncle who also worked for the college. Uncle Gary returned to finish a degree he had started in the ’60s. He took a job managing the college’s sanitation department. Even as the manager, he still had to wear a shirt with his name sewn on it.
Early on I felt a little embarrassed when we’d stop to talk on campus. But the more I observed him, the more I knew my uncle had more strength in his identity than I could ever project with my suit and title. Listening to his stories about the messes his team encountered on a daily basis I was also reminded of a question H. Jackson Brown Jr. once asked: “Which would be more obvious, if you didn’t do your job for 30 days or if a janitor didn’t do his for 30 days?”
My conversations with Uncle Gary reminded me that it’s the godly character of serving others in humility that gives us identity — not our title or uniform. Watching him wear his work shirt with a character that transcended his role, challenged me to find my identity in a higher place and not to fall into the cliché of just being an “empty suit.”
Mistakes Can Teach More Than Successes
A primary responsibility of my job was to keep the schedule for our performance halls: one 1,500-seat auditorium and one 500-seat theater. The local community helped us build the larger auditorium so we often hosted orchestras, concerts and other public events on their behalf. One of the shows we brought in every year was The Nutcracker. A community arts director would book the show and then arrange to bus in hundreds of kids from surrounding schools to see it. The director, I found, liked to book months in advance to avoid problems.
The date she asked for was so far beyond my existing calendar that I had to turn to my future calendar section where I penciled the dates into a wide-open month. In the spirit of staying ahead of the game, I rushed out a set of contracts and got everything confirmed.
Maybe it was the fact that I was beginning to see myself as more important than just a mere buildings coordinator and had branched off into more exciting projects. But for some reason, I put off the job of fleshing out my future calendar. When I finally got around to putting together a calendar of the month that included the Nutcracker performance, I swallowed hard as I realized I had booked it on a Tuesday. Mitch Albom put Tuesday on the map with his bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie. But Tuesday was already infamous at Lee College, because that was one of three days set aside for weekly mandatory chapel services — a time when everything stopped and we got together as a body for worship and a message. I had double booked some things in the past, but this was a disaster.
I hated having to make the phone call, but I just knew I had to ask the director if she could move the performance by a day. It wasn’t going to be that easy. She wouldn’t budge. She detailed the headaches involved in juggling school buses, the schedules for hundreds of kids, not to mention the temperamental Russian dance troupe. I knew I had some crow to eat. My next phone call was even tougher — calling to explain that chapel would have to move.
It was my mistake but other people had to take on the headaches of reorganizing class schedules, rescheduling chapel participants and getting the word out to the student body. I was amazed that the announcement to students was as professional as it was — I wouldn’t have blamed them if it had read, “Due to a stupid mistake by our mindless performance center manager, we will have to reschedule a chapel service for the first time in 80 years.”
In my memorabilia box, I’ve kept some congratulation notes for various things I accomplished in my work at Lee. But no kudos I’ve received have taught me as much as that mistake. Now when I’m tempted to brush over the details of a project I’m reminded of that sinking feeling and it motivates me to be diligent.
Employment advisors tell us that, unlike our parents, we’re likely to go through several jobs in the course of our career. For that reason, we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on having the perfect first job. You’ll likely find out as I did that it’s not so much about salaries, suits and successes as it is about growing in responsibility, developing character and learning from mistakes.
Of course, when you’re in the middle of your hungry years, it doesn’t hurt if your first job can also offer “all the pizza you can eat.”
Copyright 2003 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.