College students are wrapping up the school year; high school students will be finishing soon. This summer, if news reports are correct, most of them won’t be doing the kinds of things we did when we were their ages. In other words, they won’t be getting summer jobs. Maybe that’s a mistake.
A lot of them will be pursuing internships of course, which can give them a leg up on a career. (In fact, we said goodbye to our first editorial intern at The Mid recently, after she graduated from college and had to leave us.) But supposedly only 25 percent of high school and college kids work during the summer now—and I’m talking about the classic kind of work, where you do something, and somebody pays you for doing it.
Now, this isn’t a post about how kids nowadays are lazy and how when I was their age … blah blah blah. The truth is that when I was in high school and college, I could be plenty lazy, and when I did work, my favorite summer job (the one I had for several years) was working as a lifeguard at a big lake in a state park. But I also had some harder, dirtier jobs—things I didn’t love doing, but where the lessons I learned guide me even today.
The truth is, you learn a lot from working, especially jobs that really feel like work. Here are some of the top life lessons you wind up taking with you:
Learn how to work with only a little sleep.
Does anyone really like getting up early in the morning? I worked in a warehouse one summer, along with a second job at night in a telemarketing firm. The schedule was insane, and it meant that I had to be up at 5:45 a.m. every day to commute to the first job, work all day, come back home, take a shower, and drive off to my second job—returning each night around 11:00 p.m. It sucked, and in truth I still don’t love getting up early, but I learned to make it work. Years later, when I was in the army and had to be standing in a military formation by 6:00 a.m., it wasn’t that big a deal because I’d done it before.
Appreciate hard, physical things.
I’m not advocating that your kids head to Alaska to work on a fishing boat or carry rocks for the summer, but there’s something that sticks with you when you’ve had a difficult, manual labor job. You appreciate not having to do that kind of thing for a living later in life, for example. But there’s also a sense of accomplishment that is different than what you get in an office job or an internship. I don’t really want to go back to hauling 30-lb. boxes around a cavernous warehouse, but the fact is that I still think about that experience 20 years later.
Two decades after I worked that warehouse job (and after I spent my nights harassing the good people of southern New England on the phone, trying to get them to replace their windows), I sometimes think about the people I worked with. I was trying to make a lot of money that summer before studying abroad in the fall, and that meant I was working with other people who were also trying to make a lot of money—but mostly because they were providing for their families.
Learn how (not) to be bored.
Let’s talk about lifeguarding for a second. I worked at the only inexpensive place to swim that was on a bus line from the city, and we had a lot of inexperienced swimmers. That meant we wound up legitimately rescuing one or two people a week. It also meant that for a lot of the rest of the time, we were sitting in those big chairs on the sand, twirling our whistles on lanyards, and trying not to go insane.
That combination of hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror led me to learn to be an excellent multitasker—years before the word became commonplace.
Develop respect for others’ skills.
I lasted only one day on the most difficult summer job I ever had—working on an assembly line at a toy factory in Rhode Island. The pay was good, for the time anyway—it was probably something like $8 to $12 an hour. The variability had to do with the fact that we were divided into teams, and paid an hourly rate based on how efficiently the entire team worked. Let’s just say that there were people who had been working on the line for years, and it was incredible how quickly they could assemble toys. They also weren’t exactly thrilled to have a neophyte like me slowing them down and hitting them in the pocketbook.
(Aside: If you bought a My Little Pony play set in the 1990s and the roof of the barn was glued on all wrong, and it looked like the pieces had just been thrown in the box, I apologize.)
Develop healthy skepticism.
There was a forklift driver who worked with us in the warehouse. Every day he’d have another story for us about life—how he’d had to drop out of college after he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant in the 1980s, how he’d resented working in the warehouse his entire life, how he and his wife were having problems, how his daughter was battling cancer …. It was depressing stuff, but he had a way of telling the stories with dark humor that made us laugh in spite of ourselves.
On one of the last days we worked with him, we told him we’d be thinking of him and his daughter—and he asked us, “What daughter?” Then he remembered the tales he’d been telling us all summer, and said with a smile, “Ah, I just like telling stories because there’s nothing better to do in here.”
Learn about money.
I once did a project analyzing the people on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. It was a revelation to me that of those who hadn’t inherited their fortunes, almost everyone had either gone to a non-elite college or had dropped out of school, and had experiences where they’d had to work at difficult jobs early in their careers. There’s probably no better way to learn to value money than to have traded your own sweat and effort for it, especially when you’ve spent your days doing something difficult.