Most college kids get jobs as waiters or lifeguards or tutors when they need extra cash.
I did something slightly less conventional.
My sophomore year of college I landed a part-time job as a janitor. I made just $6.25 an hour, and it wasn’t glamorous, but it was one of the best life experiences I’ve had to date. Why? I learned some invaluable lessons that have stuck with me every day since.
Here are a few that stand out:
1. People are generally self-absorbed.
Many people don’t think about how their actions – even seemingly insignificant ones – affect others.
For instance, when people go to the bathroom, they aren’t thinking about aiming right so someone else doesn’t have to clean up their mess, or about picking up the paper towel when their free-throw misses the trash can. No. They are thinking about finishing their business as quickly as possible so they can get out and get on with their life.
When I first started working as a janitor, this type of self-absorption annoyed me – it got under my skin. But I eventually accepted it because I know we all have a lot going on in our lives and we’re all guilty of being at least a little bit self-absorbed. Plus, it was my job to clean up other people’s messes. That’s what I signed up for, and what I was paid to do.
2. Just because someone is your boss doesn’t mean they are best suited to be your boss.
No one is perfect. Managers are human and have faults and doubts just like everyone else. But some bosses are really just not meant to be leaders.
Even at the janitorial level, this truth struck me hard when I noticed some of the “head janitors” gossiping with employees about colleagues in a mean manner. I couldn’t believe they would stoop to that level of unprofessionalism – but I learned a good lesson: You should never put your boss on a pedestal.
I realized that just because someone lands a managerial role doesn’t mean they actually deserve it (or will be good at it).
3. People in all lines of work go on “power trips” — even janitors.
Considering I was slightly embarrassed to have to wear a bright orange janitor uniform in the first few days of my employment, I was surprised at the competitive race for managerial positions that I sometimes observed at work.
Then, once someone received a promotion, they often went overboard with discipline and micromanagement.
I finally understood the word “power trip,” or the phenomenon of people in higher up positions making their subordinates’ lives difficult just because they can. And I learned that you can’t make a power trip go away – you just have to accept it and choose your battles wisely.
4. Never be ashamed of a job.
As I said in lesson three, I was slightly embarrassed to wear the neon orange janitor uniform on my first few days on the job. However, I quickly learned not to be ashamed of my “janitor” title.
That gig required a lot of manual labor and hard work, which I think is admirable…not embarrassing.
It’s important to remember that not every job will be your “dream job,” especially if you are just entering the workforce. So keep an open mind and never judge a book (or a job) by its cover (or reputation).
And if someone makes fun of you for a job, they are not worth your time.
5. People get uncomfortable when they hear you have a low-level job.
- Evil Erin/flickr
Much like telling someone that you’re unemployed or that you’re now single can make them uncomfortable, so can telling them that you work as a janitor.
I get this. Janitors are at the bottom of the work totem pole in most people’s mind. Why do you think Matt Damon’s character in “Good Will Hunting” started off as a janitor before his incredible math skills were discovered? Because being a janitor created the most dramatic contrast. Who would ever expect the janitor to be a genius?
So when you tell someone that you work as a janitor, they don’t necessarily know the proper response. They can’t say “Cool! That’s awesome!” because it will seem sarcastic. They can’t say “That stinks!” in case you like being a janitor and will find that offensive. So they generally say, “Oh okay…and how is that?”
I tried to save people from this uncomfortable decision by saying, “I work as a janitor. It has its ups and downs, but I generally like it and it’s taught me some good lessons.” This type of answer puts people at ease and they can feel free to ask more questions about your job or to move on to a new topic.
6. You value $6.25 a lot more when you scrub toilets for an hour to earn it.
I remember being 15 and my grandmother would sometimes give me $5 or $10 “just because” and, while I appreciated the generous gift, I would usually just stick it in my wallet or spend it on an ice cream cone or movie ticket. I didn’t truly value that seemingly small amount of money.
However, once you scrub toilets, mop floors, and pick up trash across an auditorium for a solid hour just to earn $6.25, you learn to really value money – any amount of it.
7. No matter what you’re tasked with, always give it your all.
- Marcin Wichary/flickr
This lesson is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true. Whether you are cleaning toilets or running a company, you should always do your best so you develop a good work ethic that will help you to achieve your career goals and to earn good recommendations from your boss.
In addition, when you work hard, you gain confidence in yourself and your abilities. And that’s something everyone wants.
8. Nothing creates a friendship like complaining together.
- Flickr / engelene
I agree that optimism is better than pessimism, but I also know that some of my best friends have come from complaining about a teacher, or an awful school assignment, or certain aspects of my job.
One of my closest friends in college was a fellow janitor with whom I would complain about work. We both noticed some uncalled-for “drama” among some of our colleagues and bonded over how silly we found it. I had a much easier time keeping my head down when I could give my friend “the look” out of the corner of my eye.
Perhaps a better lesson is that you never know where you will meet your closest friends in college.
9. Guys can’t aim.
- Mike Mozart/Flickr
You know what this means.