Monday, August 17, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever

(Or: "All I really need to know, I learned in a strawberry field in Yorkshire")

I spent most of the day on Saturday handling food while dressed in an attractive yellow t-shirt. I cut hundreds of oranges into eighths, I got covered in juice, I fought the good fight against wasps, I handed out chips and pretzels and nuts and fruit and bagels.

The experience inevitably reminded me of some of the crappy vacation jobs I had as a student. Man, do I hate working with food. My summer jobs also taught me to hate serving the public, but luckily Saturday's "customers" were, without exception, awesome and inspiring individuals who were walking 60 km over two days to raise money for cancer research. Meeting them definitely made up for the less appealing aspects of the day, but I still went home thankful for the professional career that keeps me away from the kitchens and stock rooms of the service industry.

Later the same evening, I was chatting to a couple I'd just met at a friend's birthday party. They were in their late 50s, but explained that they usually spend their time with either the over 70s or "you young 'uns", because "people our age are so boring". The woman also told me that while she's benefited throughout her life from a series of wonderful mentors, she's finding it harder and harder to find people to fill that role. An 80 year old friend apparently told her "that means it's your turn to be a mentor", but she wasn't convinced. This led to a discussion about whether a mentor has to be older than you; I say definitely not. I subscribe to the idea that "all people are my teacher" - that is, I can learn something from everyone. Sometimes, all I learn from a person is that patience is a virtue - but that's a valuable lesson in itself.

My thoughts continued on this path on Sunday morning, when I started to think about what I've learned from all the crappy vacation jobs I had as a student. Surely I must have learned something from every job. Something valuable, and maybe even relevant to my professional career.

After careful consideration, I think I was right...

Job 1: Strawberry picker
My friend and I spent several weeks each summer picking strawberries and other fruit for a local farmer, when we were too young for any other job.

- Your rewards are proportional to the effort you expend.
- Having said that, some people will try to screw you. Watch the scales like a hawk, and stand up for yourself.
- DO NOT try to compensate for the above by hiding rocks in the bottom of your punnets. Cheaters never prosper.
- It is definitely possible to have too much of a good thing1.

Job 2: Kitchen prep / cafeteria server
This was my 11th choice placement for the two-week work experience organised by my school when we were 15. The cafe was a vegetarian cooperative, and about half of the staff were recruited from a local sheltered accommodation complex for adults with developmental disabilities (mostly Down's Syndrome).

- Everyone has something to offer; everyone is my teacher.
- Most members of the public are nice. The few bad apples ruin it for everyone.
- If you make a mistake: apologise, clean up the mess yourself, and move on.
- Everyone should experience serving people for a while; it will help you appreciate those who serve you.

Job 3: EFL teacher
Between high school and university, I spent six weeks teaching English to kids in two Arab villages in the Galilee region of Israel. What I learned in this job could fill an entire blog; I'll try to keep this section brief.

- NOTHING is ever a black and white issue.
- Choose your words carefully. You will probably still manage to offend someone though.
- Some people you have to work with will have worldviews so completely different to your own that it is hard to find common ground. However, it is usually there if you look hard enough.
- There is nothing harder, or more rewarding, than teaching someone something.
- The vast majority of people ANYWHERE are just people, trying to live their lives.
- The kindness of strangers can be overwhelming.

Job 4: Sales assistant in a sports clothing store
My friend got me this job in my Christmas vacation after my first term of university. She was (and is) extremely outgoing and bubbly. I was still in my shy and quiet phase.

- Cliques are not just for high school.
- Showing initiative can single you out for praise from your superiors, but also jealousy from your less motivated colleagues.
- Some people will try to screw you. Write your hours down and get someone to sign off on them.
- It is a really, really, spectacularly bad idea to sleep with your boss. Drunkenness is no excuse2.

Job 5: Bartender
This was my favourite vacation job ever! NB British bar tenders do not get tips, but regulars will often shout you a drink.

- Bullies are not just for high school. In a vacation job, you can just ignore them. In a longer term job, you will need to find a better solution.
- Most members of the public are nice. The few bad apples ruin it for everyone. Alcohol accentuates the distinction between the two.
- Don't drink on the job; save it for after hours.
- Always look busy.

Job 6: Cinema usher / ticket seller / concession stand staff
I took this job in Columbus, Ohio one summer so I could get to know my American cousin better. It was totally worth it; she's now more like a second sister.

- Your unique skills can win you some perks, but make sure your colleagues don't start to resent you3.
- If someone else is the boss's favourite, it's usually for a good reason. Don't resent them; figure out what you can learn from them.
- Only low-quality products can be enjoyed in short bursts while doing other things. The best things in life require commitment and concentration4.
- Some national stereotypes have a firmer factual basis than others.

Job 7: Employer liaison in a job centre
I walked into my local job centre to look for a job between my undergrad and postgrad. They said "do you want to work here?", and I said "sure". I answered the phone to prospective employers, and posted their vacancies in our office.

- Most people really do want to work. Having said that, some overestimate their worth, others need significant help honing their skills, and 3-5% of the population is completely unemployable.
- Being a smart arse will amuse your peers, but annoy your superiors5.
- Anger is rarely personal. If someone yells at you, it's probably because you're the sixth person that day to tell them that they need to fill in another form before they can get their money or post their job, and their frustration has been building and building. (Think Basil Fawlty taking his frustrations out on his car after a series of unfortunate events). Keep your cool, let them vent, and try to work out what they're really angry about.


1. I couldn't eat strawberries for a couple of years.
2. Lesson learned through observation, not personal experience!
3. My "cool accent" meant that I spent more time in the air conditioned ticket booth, and less time shovelling popcorn, than my colleagues. After hearing some muttering about this, I would often offer to switch about two-thirds of the way through my shift.
4. This is a fancy way of saying that I could quite happily watch crappy movies in 10 minute bursts while sweeping up popcorn or generally keeping an eye on the audience, but that this is a most unsatisfactory way of watching a good movie.

5. The resident Humourless Git kept leaving notes on the jobs in our computer system saying that he'd corrected the public ad for "spelling and grammer". I left a second note on one such entry saying "thank you, but maybe you should learn how to spell grammAr". I got a sound telling off for this, but everyone else thought it was hilarious.


  1. Interesting, isn't it, where some of the best life lessons come from. It shows that if you have the right attitude, you can learn something everywhere and not just in those situations where it is expected.

    I love your list of jobs. No wonder you are such a well rounded person!

  2. ooh, ooh, tell us which national stereotypes you think have the most factual basis!!

    This was a fantastic post, both for the theme and the examples. You've had a lot of jobs!

  3. You've had lots of interesting jobs! And I completely agree about alcohol increasing the distinction between the good and bad apples (I waited tables for a while).

    And thanks for the bragging rights!

  4. Mermaid, true, although only in retrospect ;)

    Well rounded?! Thank you! (Or is that your way of telling me to step up the exercise?!)

    EGF, I shall plead the fifth! No, seriously, most people were so immediately nice and friendly in that way that Americans are known for, but I don't think it should have been that surprising that someone with a different accent was working in the cinema. Several people felt the need to spend whole minutes telling me how amazing it was that I was English...

    Thanks for the compliment!

    Amanda, I waited tables a couple of times at the pub when our regular waitress was sick. It sucked. I sucked. And the average tip was like 5%. I hope you managed to enjoy your job!

    People seem surprised at how many jobs I've had... I guess I just never felt like going back to the same casual job twice, unlike some of my friends who worked in the same place every summer for years at a time. If you're going to be making that little money, you may as well get some variety!

  5. YAY - I worked in a cinema too and loooved it. Not only did we get to watch movies while at work but we also got in for free all other nights. Mention any movie between 1988 and 1992 and I've most probably seen it!

  6. Great post! I think its completely true, I am always surprised how often I find myself thinking about or refering to some summer job I had in highschool and some bit of information or skill I learned from it.
    I never worked as a server but working in an amusement park taughts m the "joys" of customer service

  7. Lisbeth, did you have a house full of used movie posters too?! I acquired a surprising amount of stuff in my 3 months in the US, and sent a couple of big boxes back to the UK by surface mail when I left my cousin's place to travel around a bit. I crammed about 30 posters in there, and distributed them among my 5 roommates when the parcels finally arrived a few months later. I think a couple of them are still rolled up in the wardrobe in my old room in my parents' house!

    Liz, I almost ended up working at the six flags amusement park in Ohio (Lake Erie). It sounded like awesome fun, but I wouldn't have been able to stay with my cousin, which was kinda the point of the whole exercise! We did visit though as we're both big roller coaster fans. Have you seen that movie about kids working in an amusement park? I think it's called Pleasure Land or something. I heard it's quite good!

  8. Yes, I sure did!! LOL
    I had a steady rotation on my walls; currently I only remember the posters from 'Cry Freedom' and 'Singles'(I guess my early political awakening was replaced by more mundane teenage worries...) but they were an important benefit of the job: Had I worked when Top Gun was showing, I would have had street cred up to our roof top in my dull childhood town!
    My mum has moved house since so I guess they got tossed then if they were still around somewhere..

  9. Those are most excellent lessons, Cath.

    My only jobs ever have been lab and science-y type jobs--boring, I know! Your list makes for good stories... and teaching English in Israel to Arab students sounds absolutely fascinating.

  10. Lisbeth, I had Austin Powers, Grosse Point Blank, Jurassic Park 2, Speed 2, and Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion. Good times ;)

    Bean-Mom, I'm sure you went into your science career much better prepared than I did! I almost took a summer position in a lab after my 2nd year of university, like a couple of my friends did, but then realised that I had the rest of my life (or so I thought at the time) to work in a lab, and so I went to the US instead. I did regret that when I started my PhD and was completely unprepared for real research, though ;) (my undergrad research project was a complete disaster).

    I've tried to blog about the Israel trip a couple of times, but I can never get it the way I want it for some reason. It's a hard thing to write about.

  11. What a great post.
    The vast majority of my jobs growing up were with children. I either taught swimming lessons, was a camp counselor or taught after school science classes. I agree with you that you can learn something from anyone, even if you are younger as I learned quite a lot from those kids. Kids are great at reminding you about the simple things in life.

  12. Wow, I admire your patience!

    I forgot to mention some guitar lessons I taught. It didn't last long (I sucked).


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