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Ken Keller: Three of the lessons I learned from my first real job

Posted: April 13, 2010 10:03 p.m.
Updated: April 14, 2010 4:55 a.m.
I have been working since I was 13-years-old. My first job was stocking shelves at a local grocery store during evenings and on weekends. The store was a half-mile from my home, and I rode my bicycle there and back except when it was raining.

I learned many lessons from that first job of gainful, paid employment, and I would like to share three of them.

These lessons make the leap of years and generations and can be applied to anyone in business today.

While I did not recognize it at the time, that first job catapulted an emerging pattern of success to a whole new level. I had always been a good, not great, student, and this employment opportunity worked magic on more than just my work habits; it became a way of thinking and acting in every aspect of life.

Success is a relative term. After all, when you are 13 years old just having a “real job” means that you are a success when compared directly to your peers. But success can, and did, carry over into hobbies, school, sports, religion, relationships and interests. That small budding seed that I had within me grew through the years into patterns of success.

Creating a pattern of success is possible for anyone. Just because individuals may not have had the opportunity to develop that particular habit doesn’t mean it isn’t possible at any stage of life. How many of us know people we refer to as “late bloomers,” or recognize the successes of those who don’t do their best work until they are older in life?

Success patterns may not have existed because individuals may not have been given the opportunity, experienced setbacks or they have lacked a mentor. When you see someone who needs assistance, guidance, direction or words of encouragement, invest in that person so they can create their own pattern of success. It will cascade and you may find yourself impacting many others, influencing perhaps generations of individuals.

Putting groceries on the shelf provided a sense of purpose, and created a pride of ownership in what I was doing. It made me feel good inside to know that I had worked hard. I didn’t just do it for the money.

While I am sure I received recognition from the boss from time to time, nothing specifically stands out as to anything he said to me along those lines. What I do remember is that the sense of dignity I acquired came from within — not from an outside source.

The true measure of success comes from within. President Ronald Reagan said the “best social program on earth is a job.” He may have been referring to the financial rewards associated with work, but I believe he meant the feeling that comes from within that provides a sense of worth.

I was proud of the effort I made and it made me a better person. If you know others who harbor doubts about their own abilities, give them the tools and encouragement they need so that they can be successful. This requires little time and money, and yet means so much to the giver and the recipient.

Nothing happens overnight. Ask anyone about how long it takes to be good — and then great — at something and most people will tell the truth when they say “years.”

I remember dealing with co-workers who were much older than me and being treated as a peer. At that age, you deal with people who are either your superiors (parents, teachers and the like) or friends, usually in the same age range, who are peers. The whole concept of being equal with someone far older than you can initially be a shock, then it becomes a matter of fact. Your view of the world changes when something extraordinary like this happens. You make the leap to adulthood.  

The lesson I learned is that you have to have respect for yourself first and then others will come to respect you. Respect is earned, not granted. I took my job seriously and demonstrated respect for myself by showing up on time and doing the best job I was capable of doing when I was on the time clock. When my co-workers saw that I was able and could demonstrate through word, action and deed that I was taking the job seriously, they took me seriously.

I stayed at that first job for two years, learning more lessons along the way. But creating and nourishing a pattern of success in life, creating a strong sense of self worth and developing respect is now at my core.  

In these times, many owners have doubts about their own abilities. Now is the time to reflect back on past successes and to build on them to move ahead.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Brain Food for Business People” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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