Originally published November 14, 2020
It’s a classic scene that we have all witnessed. You’re doing some shopping. Or maybe you’re out to eat at a chain restaurant in your hometown. Suddenly, as you’re trying to find shoes in your size or tell the waitress you’d like a side of ranch with your cheese fries, a commotion draws your attention to your left. Voices are rising, and an occasional word registers in your brain. “Refund…expired…manager…” You turn towards the commotion and you find it easily. A person in their 40s is getting angrier and angrier at the salesclerk or cashier or waitress or ticket-taker. Loud enough for everyone in the area to hear, the complainer asks to speak to the manager, then dives right in when the manager arrives.
Eventually, things end. The complainer was appeased in some way. Store credit, maybe a free dessert. Meanwhile you get home and find that you can’t remember any aspect of your day except for witnessing the first-class hissy you witnessed. You tell everyone, and in every story the complainer is the bad guy.
So, how does this relate to a post about the jobs people should have? Because one huge advantage to having the jobs below is that it helps you become a better patron later on. With this in mind, let’s take a look:
Everyone should work in retail for six months. And let’s interpret the word “retail” pretty liberally. Retail can be a department store, grocery store, sporting good store, home and garden store…almost anything with the word “store” in the description. It also includes theme parks, batting cages, bowling alleys, and almost any place where the customers outnumber the staff like the Persians outnumbered the Spartans at Thermopylae. And really it doesn’t matter what position you hold. From the janitor to the store manager, everyone gets crapped on by a customer at some point.
So why should you have a retail job? The first is alluded to above and is that you become a better customer. I don’t mean better in that you know where to find the deals or get discounts or whatever, although that can be part of it. I mean in the way of mindfulness. You’ve worked in retail so you know that there’s nothing really in “the back” and that someone at Corporate is in charge of how items are displayed, not you. You know the drama of interpersonal relationships of the staff, of associates versus managers, and how doing the absolute bare minimum when cleaning the toilets. You know that someone didn’t show up and so someone else has to work a double now. You know that there’s likely one clerk who is nursing a hangover. And because of this, you change the way you behave a bit.
You don’t act so entitled when asking for something. You accept that the employee helping you may actually not know the answer to the question you asked. You take the time to look at expiration dates on coupons. You put clothes back on hangers after you try them on. You take things back to where they belong if you decide halfway to the register that you don’t want them. You don’t dilly-dally at the register, you don’t wait until prompted to have your method of payment ready, and you don’t go full Christian Bale on an associate when that thing you want is out of stock.
But the other huge advantage is that you learn how to deal with a variety of personalities. Working retail you will come across people who are painfully nice and people who are painfully mean; people who are kind and centered, and people who are aloof and angsty; people who fly off the handle, and people who are so understanding that you end up feeling worse because you’ve disappointed them. And that’s just the customers. You’ll also deal with good bosses and bad bosses and learn what makes a good boss versus a bad boss. Same with coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates. The more experience you get just dealing with people, the better prepared you will be to deal with people in the realest parts of the real world. That experience is invaluable going forward, trust me.
The other type of job everyone should have is in food service. Once again, the position doesn’t really matter. Being in the kitchen (or back of house to use the jargon) and being waitstaff (or front of house in the same jargon) are both great experiences that can teach a lot of the same lessons as each other. Some of the lessons you learn will be just like retail in dealing with awful customers. But you’ll learn more restaurant-specific tricks, too. You’ll learn that if something is a special, that probably means it’s about to expire. You’ll learn that sometimes an order is delayed because the freaking receipt machine in the kitchen has another freaking jam. You’ll learn that beer and soda are two of the highest markups in the business. You’ll learn to ask waiters’ recommendations on what not to order, and follow the recommendation.
You’ll also learn how waiters are actually paid (which, contrary to what CNN would have you believe, is always at least minimum wage). This will likely make you a better restaurant patron because you’ll come to appreciate tips and understand how much crap waiters put up with. But mostly you’ll learn a lot of stuff that seems like it should be common sense. If you are at a new restaurant at 7:00 on a Saturday night, you’re probably going to have to wait because of the crowd. I know everyone knows this in theory, but so many people seem to forget it in practice and get upset when the restaurant is packed and things are taking a while.
One thing that retail and food service will both teach you is that stores have closing times and it’s super annoying to have customers after closing. And look, I love capitalism, and I understand that someone being there after close is often a sign of more money coming in that day, but for the love of all things holy, please wrap it up. If a restaurant closes at 10:00, don’t come in at 9:55, and if you’re already there, go ahead and get the check.
The bottom line is this: working retail and food service teaches you a lot about yourself but a lot more about others. Dealing with personalities as varied as they come in the human race is good for you. It’s very rarely pleasant, but it builds character and allows you to grow personally because you can identify toxic traits and get rid of them, or adopt traits you believe are good. Knowing how to diffuse a tense situation will come in handy in every single facet of your life. Appreciating the chaos behind the scenes that goes into presenting a calm front is always useful. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll come to fully appreciate the fact that life’s inconveniences are no excuse for treating another human like garbage.