My very first job was washing dishes at a huge banquet center. I was 13 years old, and I desperately wanted the money. I worked every hour available, which meant most weekdays, all day Saturday until late into the night, as well as Sunday until late evening. I loved working (and still do).
Hard Work Is a Matter of Perception
There were two kinds of dishwashers. The first kind didn’t want to work spraying the dishes and loading them on the tray to push them into the dishwasher. It was disgusting, and you would be drenched by the end of the shift. The second kind didn’t want to work at the back of the dishwasher because the dishes were very hot and hard to handle.
There is always someone who doesn’t like some job and believes that something else is easier. I worked both without complaint, and neither was as bad as others made it out to be.
There Is Always a Way to Do More
The banquet center was often so busy that we didn’t have enough dishes for everyone we were serving. Some dishwashers would wait for the wait staff to clear a table and bring the dishes back. We were paid minimum wage, after all. But other dishwashers were more proactive. These dishwashers went and picked up the dishes, and they tried to make sure that we had enough of whatever dish the kitchen was going to need next.
There is always a way to contribute more than the minimum, to create more value. Some people wanted to do as little as possible. Others saw themselves as part of a team.
You Have a Work Family
I wasn’t paid very well, but the family that ran the banquet center fed the employees every meal on every shift we worked. If I worked breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a Saturday, I was given every meal, often prime rib, lasagna, and chocolate mousse.
Some people appreciated being treated as family and being included in every meal. Other people were ungrateful, and complained about it, for reasons I never understood.
Some People Have Invisible Scars
There was an old Polish immigrant who worked as a cook while I was there. One day I was helping him make sausage (a task that lives up to its reputation). Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the cook sneaking small bits of raw sausage from his pocket and eating them. This startled and horrified me. I was young, but I knew it was dangerous to eat uncooked pork. I told another cook, hoping he would do something.
The other cook told me that this gentleman was a young boy when Hitler invaded Poland. The German soldiers rounded up all of the boys his age and forced them to fight for Germany, wearing German uniforms. One night, they killed their commanders and fled to the Allies. They were immediately given uniforms and turned around, so that they could now fight the Germans. He fought on both sides of World War II. This cook was always afraid that something would happen, that food would be scarce, and that he would need to prepare.
Some events leave scars on people that are not visible to the human eye, but only to the human heart. This fact explains a lot of what you see and do not understand.
Investments Now Produce Dividends Later
One time I cut school to work a day shift. I was doing my job, washing the dishes alone, when one of my high school teachers walked in the back door of the kitchen. He was a big, burly, bearded man, and he rode a big Goldwing motorcycle. He knew where I worked, but I don’t know how he knew I would be there. He told me that I had to get an education to be valuable and make money. I told him that going to school didn’t pay me, and the people I worked for did pay me. I ended up back at school, in less trouble than I imagined.
Money now isn’t always better than money later. You don’t get paid for the investments you make in yourself while you are making them, but later they pay unimaginably outsized dividends.
A Thief is Always a Thief
One time I needed a ride home, and one of the dishwashers said that if I would give him some gas money, he’d drop me off. I gave him a few bucks to keep from having to walk the 3 miles home. On the way home, he backed up behind a car on a side street, pulled a pump out of the back of his car, and stole the gas from someone’s car.
Some people believe they are entitled to take from others whatever they want or need. I hung with a rough crowd, but none of us were thieves. I never trusted him, and never asked him for a ride home again either.
Zen and the Art of Washing Dishes
The best part about washing dishes was looking at the nice, neat, shiny, stacks of clean dishes tucked away in their place at the end of the day. There was nothing left undone, and there was nothing at all to worry about.
This is what I learned from my first job washing dishes. What have you learned?