Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lessons on the job, Part 2

Editor's note: This week on Twitter, we're giving out tips on securing summer jobs for teens and college students. You can find us on Twitter @family_finances. Contribute your own thoughts on this in comments or in a separate e-mail to

By Robyn Davis Sekula

I’ve spent most of my working life contemplating the relationship between work and money, and I’ve found out some interesting things about myself that have helped guide my work choices.

I’ve heard people say, “I love this job so much I’d do it for free.” What a naive comment. Of course you wouldn’t. If they stopped paying you, you’d stop showing up. We work because we have to – but it’s a bonus when you love what you do, or these days, if you even like it. We work because we need the money – and often, because it gives us a sense of satisfaction. But that relationship between work and money will always be there.

My first real job involved working at a Chick-Fil-A, that wonderful haven of tasty crispy delicious chicken sandwiches. I discovered a few essential truths: if you eat fried chicken every day, you will get fat. And, if you have a well-run company and treat people with class, chances are, you’ll serve better food and your workers and customers will notice how good it feels to be in your restaurant. They’ll want to come back. I made something close to minimum wage, which is what I deserved with zero experience. But the job had other payments that made it worthwhile. I remember two significant things the owner did to show his appreciation to us: on a Sunday, they took us all to an amusement park, and paid for all of us to enjoy a day together; secondly, the owner took all of the graduating seniors to the nicest restaurant in town for dinner. I thought this was how all fast food franchise owners behaved. It’s not. He was an unusually nice person who cared about us, and to this day, if I saw him in public, I’m sure he would know me. What a guy – and what a company. I’ll eat there faithfully until the day I die of heart disease from eating too much fried chicken (and I’ll have a smile on my face). The employees are courteous, go out of their way to be helpful and talk to my children and I every single time we visit. We all love the place for the food and its kind spirit. Essential lesson: it’s profitable to be nice.

Next in the list of significant jobs was waiting tables at a Shoney’s restaurant. As it turns out, this was the job that taught me the biggest money lesson: act professionally, be nice, work quickly, and make more money. With waiting tables, you’re assigned a group of tables that is your station. I saw that station as my own workplace. I wanted those seated in my station to be happy and enjoy their experience (even if the food kinda sucked). I saw myself in some ways as an entrepreneur – it was up to me to see how much money I could make. I worked really hard and was good at my job and thus, made good money. But, that job also taught me something else: life without college puts you in a mind-numbing job like that for the rest of your life. Essential lesson: it’s profitable to be nice, and even better to be both kind and knowledgeable.

After this, I worked in a series of newspaper jobs. The newspaper industry pays famously low, and I saw it, at the ripe old age of 21, as a sign of my virtue that I made so little money. I believe that first job paid me less than $1,000 per month after taxes. Wow. I can’t imagine living on that now. After about a year at my first newspaper job, I was climbing into mounting credit card debt. I was discussing it with my now-husband who said, “You can’t just keep charging things. You don’t make enough money to survive. You need to get a second job and pay off that debt.” As I saw it, I was a professional, and the demands of being a police reporter meant that I needed to be available in the evenings, weekends, etc., in case there was a newsworthy crime I should cover. He reminded me that they only paid for the time that I worked – they didn’t own me – and had no right to tell me what to do with my time off. He was right. I took the second job, paid off the debt, saved up enough for a vacation, and then, after we got engaged, we jointly saved $10,000 to pay for our own wedding and honeymoon. Essential lesson: it’s not virtuous to work for a pittance, and if you are, likely, someone else is getting rich off of your back. (Exception of course is public service jobs. But note to journalists: newspapers are not strictly public service. They're not a non-profit. If they don't make money, they close, and the profit formula involves editorial side working very cheaply. This is OK to accept - but know that's what you're doing.)

Fast forward a little. I’m 37. I’m now self-employed. I work hard, and I make more money now than I ever have in my life. In my newspaper career, if I worked hard, all I got was tired. Now, if I work hard, I make more money, which really means something to me now. I’m paying off debt, saving for retirement and saving for my three daughters’ college. The money is meaningful to me because I have goals, and that’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. Without a set, monetary goal, your money floats away freely, frittered away on consumer purchases, meals out and meaningless, mundane everyday experiences. I am happier than I’ve ever been, because finally, my skills and knowledge are being put to great use, and I make enough to change our lives if I stick to my plan. Essential lesson: There is great risk in being self-employed, but for those who enjoy marketing themselves and have significant knowledge in their field, there is great reward. But be prepared to work hard.

So tell me what lessons you’ve learned. Post in the comments. How has what you made influenced how you feel about your job?


  1. Great article and important lessons we should all take to heart. One lesson I learned the hard way from running the office in a hospital lab is no job or amount of money is worth working in a negative environment where people treat you badly. I'm not talking about the occasional "bad day" that calls for just putting on your big girl panties and moving on. I'm talking about constant verbal abuse, insults and demeaning personal attacks. Trust me, Dr. House may make an interesting TV character, but in the real world no one should tolerate that kind of treatment. You must learn, as this article points out, to take responsibility for your own job satisfaction and success.

  2. You couldn't be more right about this. One of my very first job interviews for a "real world" job was right after I had mono. I got there at 11 a.m., and didn't leave until 7 p.m. I wouldn't have eaten that entire time if I hadn't raised my hand at 4 p.m. and said I really needed to eat. They sent me across the street to a deli, and refused to pay for my meal. Seriously. Since I was still getting over mono, I was wiped out, and they knew I was sick when I went. They offered me a job, and it was a horrible, terrible, soul-sucking place to work. Should have known by how they treated me during the interview. Some jobs are not worth any amount of abuse.


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