When I was a young lad of 14, my mother stalked over to the swanky tennis club around the corner and used her crazy eyes to get me a part-time job. The neighborhood I lived in was rather upscale, my family being a bit of an exception. None of my friends were getting jobs, but my mother was rather persuasive on the topic. Although it was a terrible nightmare of a part-time job, it and the others that followed were strangely, profoundly influential and brutally (like, brutally, but for dumb teenagers) educational.
Between the ages of 14 and 22, I worked a massive pile of pretty terrible jobs. For instance, I was a parking attendant (with one of those badass cone flashlights) for college football games, a counter dude at a greasy (but delicious) burger shack, and for four years I slaved away at this squash and tennis club. This job will go in history as my worst job ever (I really hope), as I was always the one cleaning gutters, staying late to do an extra load of towels, and one time missing the first half of Thanksgiving dinner because one inconsiderate husband decided to play on the courts well into when the rest of America was carving turkey.
While I complain on occasion now (my current professional life is rad), really terrible part-time work was actually very valuable. First, doing a lot of shit work as a teenager forced me away from being a self-entitled asshat. I learned early that bosses and possible employers value an efficient worker who accepts the tasks given, but with a goofy grin rather than a snarky attitude. Part-time work of this nature got me interfacing with people of all sorts, giving me an opportunity to “kill with kindness,” as my mother had taught me. It was a crash course in professional etiquette, and it has served me well since.
It is really striking to me how this kind of work, though, is deemed soul crushing. True, working at a tennis club or a burger joint was not all that creative, and often the customers or clients really walked all over you (that’s a whole other issue, you moneyed bastards). People have a way of naturally talking down to service style workers, the tip system not really helping the matter.
At times, I felt my soul crushed a little, but I walked away with financial semi-autonomy (I was still a kid) and the knowledge I’d gotten through another shift. It’s not a healthy practice to identify solely with your career, especially because that makes you the sum of your dollars and cents (very lucrative work can then be far more soul crushing). I understood before the age of 18 to very often leave work at work, knowing that I could still find time to be creative, advance in my studies, and be a social creature. The shitty nature of my job didn’t make me less of a person; in fact, the time management skills acquired gave me more push to be creative. I learned how to be thankful, something my generation and the generations following really don’t have any grasp of.
My advice, then, regardless of age, is to find yourself a job culturally defined as terrible. Work as a bartender when many media outlets look down on those who serve drinks; clean dishes somewhere for extra cash and get in a groove; do anything that forces you outside and gets you dirty. Bad part-time work is extremely valuable when you treat it not as some identifying marker of your professional or creative being, but as a skill (or set of skills) that can be applied when times get tough. Don’t worry about some fantastical professional hierarchy, and don’t bother with the whole soul crushing myth. If your soul is made of tough stuff, a part-time job or two won’t put a dent in it.
Simply learning how to work is such an important skill, in and of itself. Whatever the job, knowing how to present oneself and get the work done is immeasurably valuable. And don’t worry, you’ll still have time to make something of yourself and love what you do, but make ultimately sure you are filling those parameters to your personal desires and not to the big cultural monstrosity that stupidly only values certain types of people.