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Elizabeth Kuster

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First-Job Fears: Real-Life Advice For Those Starting Out (PHOTOS)

Posted: 06/24/2012 2:00 am

I remember my 16th birthday like it was yesterday. My mom, dad, sister and I sat in the living room together, me on the couch beside a large pile of presents. The September sunshine streamed in through the front window, illuminating the various brightly colored packages. I reached for the one nearest me -- a large, flat box that looked like it held a sweater or maybe a pair of pants. "Not that one!" Mom shrieked unexpectedly. "Save that one for last!" She had a somewhat maniacal grin on her face. My sister and dad shot each other amused looks. They were clearly in on the surprise, but it was Mom's show all the way.

As I worked my way through the other gifts, my usually laid-back mother grew more and more excited and antsy. She could barely wait for me to get to her "big gift." She kept shifting her body and bouncing around, acting like a kid at Christmastime. My own anticipation started to grow. Clearly it wasn't a boring sweater. So what the heck was it? A necklace with real sapphires? A ring? It had to be something big.

Finally the moment came. I yanked off the bow. Tore off the paper. Popped the Scotch tape with my thumb. Lifted the lid. And saw... a folded copy of The Hawk Eye. I looked under it (was the newspaper hiding a check, or maybe some cash?). Nothing. Puzzled, I shook out the paper. Still nothing. By now, Mom's grin had become almost cartoonish. My sister and dad were laughing outright. Clearly I wasn't getting the joke. I looked at the paper again, and saw that it was the Classifieds section. Then I saw that a certain ad had been circled in red -- a "now hiring part-time employees" ad for Long John Silver's. Next to it, in huge letters, Mom had scrawled, "Roy. 1:00." Comprehension started to dawn.

"You have a job interview in half an hour!" Mom crowed with glee. "With Roy, the manager! I've set it all up!"

"What?!" I was dumbfounded, torn between not wanting to disappoint Mom and wanting to absolutely kill her.

"Yes! Get ready! You have to leave in 15 minutes!" Crafty as all get-out, Mom had left me no time to argue. There was nothing for it: I had to go.

The rest of that day is a blur. I know that I met with Roy. That I got the job. And that I was filled with a fear and dread so profound it's difficult to put into words, even now. I wanted to hide. I wanted to run away. I wanted to turn back the clock and become underaged again, so I couldn't legally work. I was terrified at being "new" at something. What if I couldn't do it? What if I made a total fool of myself? What if I was so bad, so incompetent, that I got fired?

At the forefront of my oh-my-God-I-have-to-fit-in teenaged mind? What if someone from school sees me working there? This was no idle fear, either, because the Long John's uniform at the time was practically a pirate costume. It consisted of 1) navy blue pants, 2) a Smee-inspired red hat with a gold ring sewn on it (to mimic a pirate earring), 3) a red neckerchief, and, worst of all, even worse than the hat (!), 4) a polyester top with red, white and blue horizontal stripes. (Horizontal stripes?! Girls were never supposed to wear horizontal stripes! Everyone knows that!) I would die.

Up to that point, my work experience had consisted entirely of babysitting and helping my executive-secretary mom stuff envelopes in her office. And my babysitting experience wasn't nearly as extensive as my friends', either. I hated babysitting. During my third-from-the-last babysitting gig, my neighbors' son jumped on his bed (yes, I encouraged him), fell and hit his head on a table, got a huge, gushing gash and had to be taken to the emergency room for stitches. Next time around, his little sister got ahold of her mom's checkbook and distributed blank checks around the neighborhood by tossing them randomly into people's yards. Meanwhile, her older brother got attacked by bees.

Surprisingly, my last babysitting gig involved another family. They lived on the outskirts of town, and my dad guilted me into sitting for them by saying, "They haven't been able to go out since their baby was born! They can't find a sitter!" I should have asked why, but I didn't -- and so I found out the reason firsthand: They lived on the edge of a cemetery. And none of the big windows that looked out on said cemetery had any curtains.

After that, I put my foot down and refused to babysit anymore, for anyone. Exasperated, Mom threatened, "If you don't babysit for our friends, you won't get any allowance."

"That's fine with me," I responded. "You have to feed me and clothe me, and I don't need anything else." Beth 1, Mom 14,590.

Anyway, to get back to the Long John's situation.... I'd never had a "real" job before -- "real" in the sense that I worked for an actual company, got an actual check and had actual FICA taken out. ("What's FICA?" I remember asking my dad in dismay, when I saw that a chunk of my minimum-wage earnings had gone to this FICA thing and was not going to go into my brand-new savings account. He told me. In pirate-speak, my response ran along the lines of, "Aaarrrrrr!")

Yes, I sucked at first: "You're doing everything right, but you're not doing it fast enough," the assistant manager told me my first day. "You have to go a lot faster." There was a line out the door. I thought, "But I'm going as fast as I can! I can't possibly go any faster!"

But here's the thing: I did get faster. A lot faster. In fact, I eventually became one of the fastest workers in the place. And it ended up being one of my most fun jobs ever -- to this day. We had a great crew. There was tons of laughter, all the time. The other waitresses and I had races to see who could clean tables fastest. We did rock-paper-scissors to see who would have to clean the men's bathroom after a certain strange dude came in each Saturday morning. We did each other's ketchups, put in regular customers' food orders as soon as they walked in the door, and had lots and lots of running jokes. Being 16, I had giggle fits rather regularly. As soon as one kicked in, someone would yell, "Beth! Into the freezer!" And I'd immediately go into the freezer and laugh at the boxes of frozen fish until the giggles subsided. Then I'd come out, refreshed, and get back to work.

I learned so much from that excellent first job. From Roy, I learned what great managing is (be loving, but correct people with respect as soon as they goof up, making sure you tell them clearly what they did wrong and how to do it right). I learned that a great team helps each other without having to be told to. I learned that thinking up creative ways to make regular tasks more fun makes a world of difference with on-the-job attitude. And I learned that every "first" is scary, but you can always get past that and rise to mastery, as long as you keep trying and don't give up.

Memories of that first job help me with my "firsts" to this day. Whenever I'm the new girl, I think back to that first terrifying shift at Long John's when I felt so totally at sea (har!), and then I fast-forward to how quick and efficient I was at the end of my Long John's tenure. If you do something once, you can definitely do it again.

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  • Long Day At Long John's

    <strong>"Since my mom had engineered my getting the job in the first place, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that she laid in wait with a camera in order to preserve for eternity the moment I walked in after my first day on my first job. I smelled like fish. My skin was greasy from fried-clam blowback. My feet were <em>killing</em> me (note that I'd immediately kicked off my shoes upon entering the house). I felt so horribly incompetent. That first day had not gone well at all, and the last thing in the <em>world</em> I wanted to do was go back to that place. In spite of all of the negativity surging through me at that moment, however, I still smiled for my mom." -- Elizabeth Kuster, editor, Becoming Fearless</strong>

  • Hard Lesson From Soft-Serve

    <strong>"My first job was at a fast-food joint called Snowflake in Amagansett, New York. I was 12 years old, working the register and scooping ice cream in a 105-degree room with no AC! (At 12, I was already 5'11" and 185 lbs., which is probably why I was able to get the job.) Absolute disaster... until I spent my entire first paycheck on baseball cards! The lesson I learned was that people get very emotional when it comes to ice cream and that soft serve dipped into chocolate is never a good idea in the red hot summer!" -- Jordan Schultz, HuffPost Sports columnist</strong>

  • Waitressing Glory Days

    <strong>"The summer after my freshman year at the University of Florida, I worked as a server at Glory Days in Reston, VA. I was 18. I didn't have a 'real job' before then because I had been living overseas and didn't have a work permit. I was terrified about remembering the menu and memorizing the specials of the day. (How many ounces is the crab cake!? Also, what if I drop the drinks? It <em>will</em> happen -- especially when your large-chested coworkers knock into your tray while you are precariously balancing seven Cokes.) Even though I only worked there for one summer and a few school holidays after, I learned that the service industry is <em>not</em> for me. The customer is always right?! Sure, whatever. Not <em>my</em> fault you mixed up the buffalo chicken fingers and chicken tenders." -- Christiana Lilly, assistant editor, HuffPost Miami</strong>

  • Kid Journalist

    <strong>"I was hired by a local paper (owned by the <em>Orange County Register</em>) to write columns about life as a teen in Southern Orange County. <a href="" target="_hplink">My column was called 'Random Observations</a>,' and my only qualifications were that I had a heartbeat and was the editor of our high school newspaper. I think I was 15 when I started, and I learned that writing and seeing people respond to your work (via letters to the editor) are extremely rewarding. I made $35 per piece, which seemed like lots of money at the time." -- Kia Makarechi, HuffPost Entertainment editor</strong>

  • Wrong-Way Runner

    <strong>"My first paying gig was as a runner/assistant to the general manager of the original New Music Seminar in NYC. They were looking to expand into the emerging alternative Latino music scene and so a bilingual assistant was needed. That's me! I was 21, maybe had just turned 22.... On my first day, first hour on the job, I was asked to take some music videos to a studio in midtown. I promptly skipped out of the office at Broadway and Houston, right into the subway and took a seat on the train. A few minutes later, I was headed over a bridge... to Brooklyn. Wrong way, dude! What could have been a 30-minute run took over an hour. They noticed. Lesson learned: Stop, read, think, act! It has served me well ever since." -- Miguel Ferrer, managing editor, HuffPost Black Voices, HuffPost LatinoVoices and HuffPost Voces</strong>

  • Coaching Lesson

    <strong>"At 18, I was a girls varsity field hockey coach in Williamsburg, VA. Since I blended in with my kids, all the other coaches never believed I was the head or sole coach. Having to coach kids who were sometimes only a year or two younger than me was hard. They took advantage of me during my first few days because I was so submissive, but after that I made sure to act more like a coach than someone their age. That was a huge lesson for me: Sometimes in order to stand up for yourself and do what's best in a situation, you have to assert your power. By the end of the season, they admitted to feeling like I was their coach who trained and taught them. To this day, I still get messages and letters from 90 percent of my kids, either asking for advice or just wanting to keep in touch. It's lovely." -- Sahaj Kohli, HuffPost summer intern</strong>

What personal lessons have you learned about fear and fearlessness? Comment below, or tweet us all about it @HealthyLiving using the hashtag #becomingfearless.

For more by Elizabeth Kuster, click here.

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