Standing there with a jug of Simple Green cleaner and no meaningful defenses, I reached for the toilet lid and slowly lifted it up.

I don’t know if it was the rotten, black human waste, decomposing toilet paper or other indiscernible rubbish, but I gagged on the abhorring sight and smell. Surely, $5 an hour wasn’t worth this. Was it? At 15, I was the part-time summer help at a used mobile home lot. My job: clean out the repo’d trailers so they could be sold to someone else. My dad hooked me up, or shall we say sentenced me to the job, because he knew the owner through our church. And I wanted money. I earned so much more.

Whether its that first job as a teenager, the work you do to pay for college or your first real job after graduation, what our early employment doesn’t pay in wages, it pays in experiences that payoff later on. Even if you’re cleaning toilets or fetching coffee, these are the reasons that first job matters.

  1. It forces humility. When our work pays big bucks, leads to promotions or gets recognized on plaques, it’s easy to get a little puffed up. Maybe it’s even deserved. But success will be better handled by those who remember where they started: Cleaning crap at a two-bit sleazy trailer lot.

  2. You work with assholes. It’s been 16 years, but I still remember Brett, the chain-smoking, chain-cursing, ignorant redneck. I was assigned to help him erect aluminum carports for a day. It was a valuable lesson that the world is full of people you won’t like or even respect. We still have to work with them, and sometimes, for them. Learn how to get along with people you don’t like before the stakes of a big-time career are involved.

  3. It teaches the value of work. Remember how it felt to get that first paycheck? It’s a feeling that fades as we grow and become accustomed to jobs and compensation. But when that first check from that first job is handed out on a Friday afternoon, small as it is, we receive the blessing of understanding how a man can toil and sweat and earn something of value in return.

  4. You’ll carry the lessons with you. First jobs teach us how to be on time, how to dress for the task, how to respect a customer and how to choose what’s right when the boss isn’t looking. They might also teach you a few things about a trade you can use at home later in life. Painting houses to pay my way through college was miserable. But it’s valuable knowledge now that I’m a homeowner.

  5. Because it doesn’t really matter. The truth is, most first jobs are no more than footnotes in a career. Not many future employers will care how you acted while shoveling popcorn at a movie theater 10 years ago, or how many mistakes you made the first few months out of college. That’s something to appreciate later when every action holds bigger stakes.   

  6. You learn something about yourself. I didn’t realize how much I disliked the TV news business until I worked as an intern at a local station for awhile. It made me rethink my entire career path. First jobs tend to show us things we never would have realized otherwise.

  7. You will fail miserably. We should all be so fortunate to belly-flop on a first job. Men are defined by how they respond to failure. First jobs usually are filled with trial and error. Later on, employers won’t likely care that you got fired from a job washing dishes. But they’ll care (and you should, too) a hell of a lot about the character that failure revealed and refined.


-Adam O'Daniel