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Picking Strawberries: Lessons Learned About Being Happy at Work From My First Job

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Do you remember your first job? More specifically, do you remember when you first got paid to do something?

Mine was picking fruit.

I was 10 years old and my maternal grandmother, Stasia, had a strawberry patch in her yard. It seemed enormous to me at the time, but I'd guess it was about 15 feet by 30 feet. This is a lot of strawberries.

"Do you want to make some money?" Stasia asked me when I was at her house one beautiful June morning. School was out for the year. Stasia lived two houses from ours and my brothers and I were often at her house.

"Sure! What do I have to do?" I replied.

"Take this and fill it with strawberries three times and I will give you a quarter each time you fill it," she said, handing me the bottom drawer from her refrigerator. Seventy-five cents, I was going to be rich!

This drawer was the width and depth of the refrigerator and if I had to estimate it now, I'd say it must of held at least 20 quarts of strawberries. This is a lot of strawberries.

But hey, I'm 10 and I have nothing else to do; school's out and it's a beautiful summer morning so I head out to strawberry patch and start picking.

I pick one. I eat one. They're delicious beyond description. So sweet, perfectly ripe and I keep up my pattern for the next half an hour.

Stasia sticks her head out of the back door, "How's it going out there?" "Fine," I answer looking at my progress -- the drawer is about one-quarter full and it's taken half an hour. I stop eating them; I am pretty full by this time and it's slowing me down. I slowly realize that if I don't pick up the pace, it's going to take me all day to get this done.

A little over an hour later, I think the drawer is full. It's not. There's still a 2-inch gap between the level of the strawberries and the top of the drawer.

I go into the house leaving my strawberries by the side of the patch and tell Stasia, "I'm done. Can I please have my quarter?" Stasia goes out into the yard and comes back into the house, empty-handed.

"You're not done. Get back out there." "But Grammy, I think it's enough strawberries," I whine. "No, it's not. You agreed to fill up the drawer so go do it," she replied. I trudge back out to the strawberry patch and get back to work. I hate strawberries now.

In the end, it takes me nearly all day to live up to my commitment -- three refrigerator drawers' worth of strawberries filled to the top of the drawer. I had big long breaks during the day -- I'm a kid -- I'm not going to work for six or seven hours straight, nor would Stasia have expected me to.

From this experience, I learned stuff about working that I remember to this day. Work is hard. It can start out fun or seem easy, but to do a good job you have to do the work that's required and not just what you feel like doing. When you promise to do something, you have to finish it. Money is enticing, but remember -- you're trading your time for it -- I never expected to be picking strawberries all day. When you're the boss, be firm, but kind. Stasia didn't let me quit when I wanted to, but she did give me snacks and let me watch a little TV before I went back to work. When it's hard earned, money has more value than its face value.

When I think about being happy at work, I often go back to these first principles to reset my expectations about what I should expect from work. This keeps my expectations both realistic and grounded, which helps me be happy at work. I believe that we all have "first principles" that we learned from our first jobs that can help us create a foundation for being happy at work.

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