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To celebrate Labor Day week, this week’s 5 things is 5 Jobs that I have had. Some I loved, some I hated, but they all helped bring me to this point and have helped inform who I am. That is how work is. It does not define us. We are not what we do. It does help form us, it helps shape who we are. For good or bad. We have a complicated relationship with work, one that is frequently dysfunctional. And yet there is also something ennobling and uplifting about working, especially when that work aligns with our values and the needs of the universe.
I hope that you will consider sharing a job you have had that had particular meaning or importance for you. Your best job maybe. Your worst.Your most important. Whichever you feel like sharing.
After all, we all gotta work, right?
Throughout my 4 years of college, I worked every break and every summer waiting tables. I worked at local joints (one was a pretty good riverside seafood place) and national chains (Ruby Tuesday and Texas Roadhouse). I was almost always the only guy who waited tables. And I also made more money waiting tables than I did when I first joined the Army.
Waiting tables is classified as a “low skill” job. Low skill my ass. Waiting tables was more complex than most of the missions I did in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I actually was better on those missions because I had waited tables.
Waiting forces you to keep lots of information in your head at once. You have to know that table 6 needs water, and that table 4 has a kid who is allergic to onions. You have to know that table 5 is full of people who haven’t seen each other in a while and want to hang out and talk, but table 8 is a guy on a business trip with an early morning meeting and he doesn’t want to be here any longer than he has to be. You have to remember drink orders and names if you can. You have to know where in the meal each table is. You have to know that Rocky is cooking tonight and sometimes he needs to be reminded to hurry the fuck up, but that D is on apps and he works too fast. You have to know who is on the sections near yours, who you can ask for help and who you can’t. You have to know which hostess is working and what you have to do for her to get good customers first.
And that is all just the beginning.
Waiting requires physical and mental flexibility. You have to be able to carry 4 full plates and two drinks across a crowded dining room like it was a walk in the park. You have to be able to make your own salads and desserts (it saves time to just do it yourself).
Waiting tables is a master class in human behavior. You learn how to connect with people in a very very short time. The better you connect, the better the tip. If you are good at the job you learn really quickly how to read the table, and the people sitting there. You have to be willing to flirt, or talk football, or celebrity gossip. Or sometimes all three.
Through it all you have to be prepared to be on your feet for hours at a time, personality always on. You have to be prepared for the fact that no matter how big your smile, and how charming your banter, some people will just not like you. Or they will be cheap. And you will work your ass off for little (sometimes no) tip. Sometimes you will half ass a table and be distracted and they will leave you $20. Because life is random.
You will meet amazing people. Like my trainer at Ruby Tuesday who had started waiting tables again after 10 years of being a stay at home mom because her husband ran off with his secretary. She eventually became a regional manager. Like the three middle aged women who came in for a late lunch, and stayed for 3 ridiculously flirty hours and who turned out to be the executive council of the Kiowa Indian tribe and who left me a tip big enough to take Barb out to dinner at a nicer restaurant than the one I worked at a few days later.
Waiting tables was one of the hardest jobs I ever had. It was also one of the best. And there are still times I miss it.
Assistant Manager - Blockbuster Video
In 1994, after 4 years of college, Barb graduated with honors and had her choice of jobs. She ended up taking a “fast track management” job with the Life Insurance Company of Georgia that would have had her become a regional manager in just 3 years. Initially, she was sent to Albany, GA, where her father lived and where she and I graduated from high school, to learn the life insurance business from the ground up. She was supposed to spend 9 months selling insurance.
I was in the crowd on the day Barbara, and everyone else in our class, graduated. I was still 4 classes shy of a degree. Turns out, incompletes don’t count for credit. If I had known that I might have gone to class more. Okay. I probably wouldn’t have, but it’s fun to dream.
Barb was working her corporate job in Albany and I was waiting tables and “writing.” When I was 22 being a writer meant drinking (too much) and also writing bad drunk poetry (also WAY too much). I also wrote a really shitty short story that was basically a less effective telling of the Buck Owens song Streets of Bakersfield. Barb and I were also planning a wedding. But I got cold feet (another story for another day) and I went back to Texas. Barb stayed in Georgia.
I was going to look for a job waiting tables, but my mom suggested I find something with more predictable hours. She said that she had seen a “help wanted” sign at Blockbuster. She knew I loved movies. She said “that might be fun.” So I applied, and got hired and within a few weeks had gotten promoted to assistant manager. The promotion meant an additional .75 cents an hour plus I got a key and I was responsible for counting drawers at the end of the night. That was pretty much it.
Working at Blockbuster because you love the movies is a lot like working at Olive Garden because you have a love for Italian cuisine and culture. Which is to say that one has nothing to do with the other.
I have had some shitty jobs in my time. I spent a summer working on my uncle’s dairy farm. I spent a summer working on another uncle’s bricklaying crew as a laborer. I spent 6 months every day after school and every break testing out my stepfather’s idea that we could kill all the mesquite trees on our 250 acre ranch by spraying them with a combination of Roundup and diesel fuel. Turns out he was wrong. Shockingly.
And despite all these terrible jobs, there were none as soul sucking, as genuinely awful, as working at Blockbuster video in 1994. That year saw movies like Guarding Tess, The Cowboy Way, Reality Bites and Maverick come out on video. And you will have to believe me when I say that those were the *highlights*. Not that working at Blockbuster has anything to with movies. Customers didn’t come in to talk movies. They came in to get whatever the big release was for that week and bitch if we didn’t have all the copies. Parents came in to rent the same copy of Dumbo II that they had checked out a dozen times instead of spending the 19.99 that Disney wanted for their own copy.
The job itself consisted of straightening shelves and running a computerized point of sale system that always seemed to malfunction. The corporation we worked for was - at the time - one of the biggest and fastest growing in America. The didn’t give two shits about employees or customers. It worked out well for them.
There were two redeeming things about that job. One was that every Monday, around 7pm, this young couple would come in. They were two of the most gorgeous people I have ever seen in person. They were both in their mid 20s. He was the lead singer of a local band, and she worked at the most exclusive strip club in Fort Worth. They would come in on Monday evening and they would ask me for old movie recommendations. It had started once when he had asked me - half jokingly - if there was an older horror movie that wasn’t cheesy. I recommended The Hunger. After that they just asked me what they should rent. They said that they spent every Tuesday curled up in bed together, watching movies and ignoring the rest of the world.
The other good thing about that job was that every Friday and Saturday night, an off duty Fort Worth cop named John Ornelas worked security. He had been in the Army, and talked to me about how it had changed his life and how much he loved his time. He told me about his time in Germany and Fort Hood. He did more to recruit me than my recruiter had to do. He actually teared up the day I told him that I had joined.
I don’t know what happened to the most gorgeous couple in the world, or whatever became of John. I like to dream that he is fishing somewhere and that the couple is still together. Probably still gorgeous. And on Tuesday nights after the kids go to bed they still like to snuggle under the covers and watch movies for old time’s sake. Only now they get their recommendations from Netflix.
I *do* know what became of Blockbuster. It imploded. And it took the harshly lit, poorly laid out stores with their garish blue and yellow accents with them. And while some may feel nostalgia for them, I don’t.
Some jobs are not the thing you do. Some jobs are the thing you do on the way to the thing.
Junior Enlisted Soldier
There are several paths to service in the military. Some involve going to college, either a service academy like West Point or Annapolis or a more traditional college with an ROTC program. Those who graduate from these programs become officers.
Most of the people who serve go down to their local recruiter’s office and sign up. While a high school diploma is preferred by all services, it isn’t required, and some of my best soldiers had GEDs. The people that sign up form the enlisted ranks of the United States military. Matthew recently enlisted in the Air Force. In 1995, I enlisted in the US Army.
When you join the military - as a commissioned officer or enlisted troop - you start at the bottom. The military is as close to a meritocracy as exists in the US. While the system is staffed by humans, and humans have biases and prejudices, the system works to remove some of the boundaries that exist in other parts of American society. In the military, hard work, dedication, and being good at your job usually means greater success. I didn’t realize how rare that was in America until I left the military.
Your journey up starts at the bottom, and in the military that means being a junior enlisted soldier. From the start, I was different than many of my contemporaries. I had gone to college for 4 years. I was older (I turned 23 my third day at basic). I was married. Most of the people I went to basic training with were at least a couple of years younger than me. One was only 17, and had gotten special approval to join the military as an emancipated minor.
Junior enlisted soldiers are privates, airmen basic, seamen. You have no authority, very few responsibilities, and don’t do a lot of glamorous work. Your basic responsibility is for yourself. You show up where you are told to show up, wearing what you are told to wear, and execute whatever mission you are given, from cleaning weapons to cleaning bathrooms, from jumping out of planes to jumping on a lawnmower or a buffer.
No authority. No responsibility except to do what you are asked to do.
Looking back from the perspective of lots and lots of leadership experience it sounds like heaven on earth.
At the time, of course, it was anything but. I chafed at receiving orders that I thought were ill considered or poorly thought out. I constantly suggested ways things could be better. My first platoon sergeant at Fort Hood instituted an “open door policy” with an asterisk. Anyone can come see me about anything at any time. Anyone can ask me any question and I will work to find the answer, he told the platoon. The asterisk was it was an open door policy for everyone except Private First Class Hall. I thought the policy was capricious and unfair. Until I became a platoon sergeant.
One of the things about work is that the jobs we do often look better in retrospect than they do at the time. When you are in the middle of your work day, it is tempting to see all the things that are going wrong with what you do and where you do it. You focus on the jealous co-worker, or the horrible boss, or the unreasonable contractor. You think about all the things that make work... well, work.
When I was a junior enlisted soldier, I was in a hurry to be anything but. It was my goal to get promoted as fast as possible. And I did. I made E-7 in only 7 years on active duty. I realize that most of you don’t have a frame of reference for that. But it is a lot. Very quickly. It takes most people twice that long. And many never get there.
The cost of that rapid pace was twofold. The first was that I burned myself out. By the time I hit my 12 year mark (and another pending promotion, which would have made me one of the youngest E-8s in the Army), I was exhausted mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Iraq and Afghanistan had a lot to do with that. So did the sheer amount of hours I worked.
The second impact is that I was so focused on the next job, that I never really learned to stretch out and appreciate the ones I had. Being a junior enlisted soldier was like being free to just do YOUR job and let others worry about everything else. I missed it because I was in a hurry to worry.
Sometimes, the best way to overcome challenges at work is to try and remember why you took the job in the first place. Whether it is a volunteer or elected position, or one you get paid for. Something drew you there. Look around. There is still good stuff happening every day.
You just may have to take some time to look and appreciate. And remember that they call it work for a reason. It’s not always supposed to be easy.
Senior Enlisted Soldier
If being a junior enlisted soldier was the simplest job in the world, I learned pretty quickly that being a senior enlisted soldier was perhaps one of the most complex.
When you are at the lower levels of the military (as in many jobs) you focus primarily on YOUR job. You do the thing that you were hired to do or, in the case of the military, what you enlisted to do. I joined the Army as a communications specialist. In the first few years of my Army career that meant focusing on the physical act of getting information from one place to another. I worked on computers, radios, telephones and satellite systems. I set up video conference calls. If someone’s email wasn’t working, I got the call.
As you become more senior, the job becomes more generalized. I transitioned to helping develop messages, not just on getting them from one place to another. I am both a comfortable and pretty engaging public speaker (not a boast, just an honest acknowledgement of a skill). Because of that, I frequently found myself in situations where I was tasked with presenting information to high ranking individuals and command groups. This was my primary job for 5 months in Iraq.
In addition to becoming more of a generalist in my “day job,” I also took on all sorts of additional roles. I was in leadership positions, and became responsible for not just my performance, but that of the soldiers assigned to me. As a noncommissioned officer, I was responsible for not only how they did their job, but how they handled themselves on and off duty.
Fun fact, in the late 90s the holding cell in the Harry County, SC justice center (Myrtle Beach’s jail) had a mural on one wall that said “Welcome soldiers of the 82d Airborne and Marines from Camp Lejeune.” I thought that story was bullshit until I had to drive to South Carolina at 4 in the morning one Saturday with my First Sergeant to bail out one of my troops who had been arrested for public intoxication and indecent exposure (he got drunk and peed at the beach). Sure enough, there on the wall of the drunk tank, I saw the welcoming message. It was painted over on 9-11.
But keeping soldiers out of trouble, or dealing with it when they find it, becomes a big part of the job. So does helping their families, helping them learn to budget, and helping them learn how to deal with work stress.
In addition to leadership responsibilities I also served as a master fitness trainer (it may be shocking to hear when you see me now, but I was once incredibly fit), hand to hand combat instructor, marksmanship instructor, training coordinator, and master driver. I was responsible for creating and managing duty rosters, training schedules, and education plans. When my commanders found out I could write, I would also become the person who wrote or reviewed all awards and fitness reports.
It was a lot.
I think most careers follow a similar trajectory. You start off doing whatever it is you do. And, over time, the job becomes more and more general and also more and more complex. You pick up additional responsibilities and have to deal with increasing expectations. And it all takes a toll on us.
By the end of my military career, I was frustrated and angry most of the time. I had remarkable success and have a chest full of medals and a file full of commendations. I was also tired and very far from the things that had made me fall in love with being a soldier in the first place.
That happens to all of us on a long enough work timeline I think. We lose sight of the things that bring joy to the job. Sometimes, you have to go back to the source.
Being in charge is great. And as a leader you can impact your organization in profound ways. And. You can’t do any of that if you lose sight of your love and passion for what you do.
The primary lesson I learned as a senior enlisted soldier is that you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Stay at Home Dad
I have been the primary stay at home parent since I left the military in 2007. Barb and I basically switched roles. She became the full time career professional (and primary breadwinner) and I took primary responsibility for the house and kids.
As of this year, I have now been a stay at home dad longer than I was a soldier.
I think about that sometimes and it kind of blows my mind. It feels like I was in the Army for SO much longer. I am sure that part of that disconnect is that for the first several years of doing this dad job I was pretty atrocious at it. I was still such a mess that my fathering was squished around my breakdowns.
I have become a better dad as I have gotten healthier. I have become a better person and a better friend. All my personal struggles has made me more empathetic to the struggles of my kids, and my friends.
Here’s what I do know. I know that being a parent is simultaneously the hardest job in the world and also the most rewarding.
I know everyone talks about how hard it is. People say parenting is hard because it really really is. You are completely responsible for the life, health, and well-being of ENTIRE PEOPLE. It is nerve wracking, and you are on duty 24/7/365 year after year after year. It doesn’t stop when they move out. I still worry every day about Alex and Willie and, now, Matthew.
When they’re little, the job is mostly physical. You get up and down a lot. You don’t sleep much. You are constantly chasing little bundles of curiosity and energy, much of it destructive. As they get older that changes. The job is less physical. It becomes much more emotional as you help your kids navigate relationships and friendships and school and social media and a world gone mad. You are constantly balancing their safety with their need to learn about the world, and balancing responsibility and freedom to fail.
And if you are truly insane you do all that at once because you have adult children, a teenager, and a preschooler all at the same time.
Barb and I have made a lot of sacrifices to ensure that one of us always stayed home. It has wrecked us financially. We joke about the fact that we will work until one of us dies and then the other one will need a GoFundMe to keep the lights on. It has cost us some professional opportunities and time to work on the things we hoped to.
And, nothing in life that is worth anything costs nothing. I would gladly sacrifice all we have and more for what we have gained. This big, crazy, beautiful family. No day with them has ever been the same. This job - being a dad - isn’t just a job. It is my calling.
At it’s best, the work we do can blend seamlessly with our values. We find something that so complements who we are and what we care about that it doesn’t feel right doing anything else. I loved a lot of being a soldier. And, it always felt like wearing shoes a size too small. It was just a little constricting, and uncomfortable over time. Being a dad has never felt like that. Even on the bad days. Even when I sucked at it. I still knew I loved it and wanted to be better. For them.
In the end, work is work. A job is a job. I love being a dad, and in a few minutes I am still gonna have to go into Justin’s room and argue with him for at least half an hour while he cleans up his room as s_l_o_w_l_y as he possibly can, all while telling me he would rather go outside to play. Then I will have to make sure Lizzie has done her homework and knows what Zoom class is next. And then I will cook dinner. Even the best jobs still involve... you know... work.
And what we can do can be more. I sincerely hope for you it is. And that if it isn’t that it provides you the means to get to the work that matters to you.
And always remember. What you do is just what you do. It informs who you are. It shapes who you are. But you are you. Not what you do.
May it ever be so.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.
Jeff, your writings have literally dragged me back from some dark spaces. You are a gift to the world, and I am blessed that the universe place you in my life. Thank you!!