To finish this series of lessons I have learnt, I want to turn to my working life. I have worked from an early age and have broken my working life into three distinct phases.
- The first phase, which I will go into now, is part-time work. Working part-time, be it with my parents when young or independently post-high school, exposed me to an array of lessons that have stayed with me throughout my life.
- The second phase of work that I will discuss is lessons learnt while teaching. My academic career has always been important to me. Being able to run that parallel with my entrepreneurial endeavours has provided the teacher with many opportunities to be the student.
- The third phase relates to my professional life. There are times when I have been working for myself building a business, and there are times when I have been working for others in senior roles. While the tasks in both of these situations have similarities, the lessons learnt are distinct. I will finish this section on lessons learnt by discussing my profession as a psychologist. I’m very proud of being a psychologist. Being a psychologist is the overarching theme that runs through my working life, the future self that always sits at the front of my mind, which is very much about a journey intertwined with this career.
Let me begin with lessons I have learnt through part-time work. It would be accurate to say that I come from a working-class family. My father cleaned houses and their accompanying yards for the Public Trust in New Zealand after people died. My mother worked in a cafeteria when I was young, packing shelves in a supermarket at night. Eventually, Mobil Oil offered mum a secretarial job, which in hindsight, was a significant turning point for my family, but that is a story for another time.
As a young child, I would accompany my parents to their jobs. During the holidays, my brothers and I would help dad clean out the estates of the dead. During the week, as a young kid, I remember joining Mum up at Woolworths to stack the shelves, only for the shoppers to clear the shelves the following day.
In the sixth form, I left school a year before my final year to pursue my dream of becoming a professional golf coach. I immediately started work as a postman, a job that was undoubtedly my entry into adulthood. I did an array of odd jobs through university, including dish hand at restaurants, car park attendant, and bus driver. All of these jobs represent learning opportunities that I capture in five key lessons
Lesson 1: Work is an opportunity to look at other people’s lives
My parents’ jobs gave me a unique insight into other people’s lives, imprinting lessons on me that lasted a lifetime. Stacking shelves at the supermarket as a young boy on a Thursday night with my mum introduced me to a world of products that I would be oblivious to otherwise. It is easy to normalise one’s life and think that one’s experience is everyone’s experience. “What makes this toothpaste better than this toothpaste?” I’d ask my mother. “That toothpaste is what the rich people use,” she would explain as if that was all I needed to know. From such an early age, I knew the manifestation of social class represented by products stacked on a shelf.
These lessons became even starker when I would go to work with my father. I learnt the futility of possessions as we would pack boxes and boxes of “stuff” that someone treasured and would now go to the auction or, more likely, the dump. I understood the difference between the workers and “spiffs”, as my dad would call them, who went to work in offices in suits only to sit around and push pens and paper. I got to see how the other half lived, be it richer or poorer, and realised that the similarities were far greater than the differences, with both leaving the earth in the same way.
Most interestingly, I got face-to-face with the peculiarities of human nature at an early age. Remember that we are going into houses after someone died, with the house in a condition that the person left the house. We had access to their real-life in a way that perhaps no other person had. More often than not, there was the “dirty magazine collection”, as my dad would call it. I became aware of sexual expression and its many manifestations from an early age simply because it was so prevalent in the houses we went in. I would not say I desensitised to such material, but it indeed lost any titillation reasonably early on.
More interesting for me was the collections that people had: train sets, old books, stamps, bottle tops, plates. My fascination with human nature developed from these experiences and the myriad of ways that people expressed their individuality.
Lesson 2: Behind every sense of order is a sense of chaos
Working in hospitality is an experience that I think has the potential to play a crucial part in every person’s journey. Whenever I see someone being rude to wait-staff, cashiers or bartenders, I’m confident that they have never been in their shoes. To be in those shoes will invariably mean that politeness and respect, not rudeness, will be the order of the day. Respect comes from realising that any sense of order experienced comes purely because these kind souls are treading water underneath to make your experience as enjoyable as possible.
I remember working in a pizza restaurant as a dish hand. As fast as dishes would come in, they required cleaning, so the cooking process remained on target. The return, wash, cook, return process was constant from 7pm to 10:30pm every Friday and Saturday. On my night off, I would occasional eat at the restaurant (why wouldn’t I as I knew the chief was a star!) As a diner in the restaurant, I remember thinking about how calm and serene the environment seemed and how oblivious punters were to the chaos in the kitchen.
Lesson 3: Power comes in many forms and requires considered application
During my undergraduate years, I had what I describe as the dream undergraduate job. Somehow through the grace of the universe, I landed a job as the carpark attendant at Wellington Airport. What this job entailed was putting drivers’ cards into a machine, collecting their exit fee, and pushing a button to lift the barrier to the carpark. Wellington was primarily a domestic airport and was not particularly busy. Hence, my day was a burst of 30-minute activity when the planes came in, followed by downtime in which I could study. For a student, it was the perfect job.
While the job may seem somewhat routine from the outside, it did come with its sense of power. People would often lose their card, at which point I had discretion about how I handled the situation. Was the card lost, or were they trying to get through without paying? In reality, I had no way of knowing. Hence, I would rely on other criteria in making a decision.
Arrogance was always a quickfire way to end up having to pay the full penalty. Other telling variables included any sycophantic behaviour, befriending, or evident lying. Building on my social class biases, I’m not proud to say that there was an inverse relationship between how much flaunted their wealth and the penalty they received. Not fair, I agree, but in the scheme of things was my way of levelling up the scales in the balance of life.
Ever since that time, I recognised that every job has a degree of power. Sometimes that power is not apparent, but it more often than not exists. How one uses power, if you are the person with the power, will say a lot about your values and character.
Lesson 4: When you are powerless, there is power in numbers
I was 17 when I began working for the New Zealand postal service. Very early on in my tenure, I was introduced to the union representative. While joining the union was not compulsory, with my brother in the union, let us say it was encouraged! Being part of a union and recognising what leavers workers had to pull in discussion with management was an experience that I will not forget. We discussed matters relatively trivial (how long should a run be, how many circulars (paid ads) is it reasonable to ask a postie to deliver, how do we handle overtime).
The critical point, however, was that the union forced employers to engage in dialogue that may not have been the case if there was no union. We did not win an argument ever by forcing their hand and, at least as far as I can remember, ever used the union to push unreasonable demands. But the union allowed the posties to engage in constructive dialogue when there was a power imbalance. I can see both sides of the union debate, and I understand that both sides can abuse their position. But when there is a power imbalance, unions provide an opportunity to readdress that balance, which is why I see value in the voluntary union movement.
Lesson 5: Some of the jobs that do the greatest good and have the most significant responsibility are the lowest-paid
Bus driving was, hands down, one of the best part-time jobs that I had while putting myself through university. Everything about the job I loved. The training was fantastic, and getting both my heavy-duty and passenger license was something that I believed would have value post my bus driving days. The shifts worked around my lectures. Even the uniform meant that I saved on my clothing spend.
Most importantly, the job came with a deep sense of responsibility. Picking up passengers in the morning going to school or work, I felt like I was a crucial part of their daily routine and took seriously the need to get them there to their destination on time and safely.
Driving on Friday and Saturday nights, I often had to deal with people that had one too many, and psychological skills were always in my back pocket in such circumstances. Occasionally I would have a distressed person who sat up the front and told me their problems. I would engage, when appropriate, and knew that the time on the bus was a time for them to get some peace from an otherwise crazy life.
However, while this job worked for me as a student working part-time, the experience was not the same for some of my fellow drivers. These drivers would work split shifts, not seeing their young families all week, as they would arrive home when they were sleeping. The pay was $8-9 an hour, and any shortfall needed explanation and potentially made up. There was a meal allowance, but with only fish and chip stores in the vicinity, this was a ticket to health problems.
I would often think about the inverse relationship between the importance and significance of the job and the pay for service. When I think back now at all the jobs that I have seen that add little to benefit people’s lives, Bulklshit jobs, I think back to my time bus driving, and I question the merits of the way the economy has developed.
I’m a libertarian, so this is not a claim for intervention. I recognise that I must take the good with the bad with how the economy has developed. Instead, my lesson is merely a recognition of the absurdity of how some salaries come to be set.
Part-time work has had a significant impact on my development as a person. I have only touched on some of the jobs that I did through school, university, and beginning OPRA. These jobs have kept me grounded and connected me with the world of work that would be impossible had I not worked through college and university. I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had and how they have been the springboard for my professional career.
When people ask me whether I should be encouraging their teenager into some form of work, I often relay the stories in this blog. My way is not the way, but I can say that I would not be the man I am today had I not had the opportunities afforded me through working part-time.