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Friday Short: Lessons From the First Job -- Sometimes You Have to Prove Yourself First

03/07/2014 10:58 am ET | Updated May 07, 2014

Even though it's still technically winter (and so chilly here at our Central Florida campus that just last week our beach volleyball team had to put shorts on over their bathing suits!) spring is definitely in the air. And, at Webber International University, that means it's all about the job... first real job, summer job, or an internship. And, there's just something about those of us drawn to higher education... we cannot help sharing advice, solicited or not. So, here's this week's Friday short: sometimes you have to prove yourself first.

We had the Secret Service on campus recruiting this week. Pretty sweet gig if law enforcement is your chosen career. But, along with detailing the fabulous career paths available for those who perform, the recruiter was careful to tell students that their first assignment would most assuredly not be the White House, but would rather be somewhere nobody with any seniority wanted to work. "Yup," I thought, "that's how it worked at my first job. First you get in, then you show them what you're made of."

I'll admit it... I didn't go to college to raise heck or find myself. I went because the lifestyle I wanted to live required a salary that generally wasn't obtainable without a college degree. Just a couple of weeks out of college, I left home and reported for duty at my first real job.

And it actually was a fabulous and wonderful job. I went to work for Zoo Atlanta just after the city of Atlanta realized that private industry is better at running a zoo than is a city and gave the zoo to a private, not-for-profit company. We had nowhere to go but up, and we were determined to get there as quickly as possible! Every day was an adventure, and numerous zoo director careers were launched.

But life is a series of tradeoffs. At the time (those fabulous 80s), the zoo had almost no money (quite literally), so the pay was horrific and the staffing was short. I worked 93 consecutive days -- Saturdays, Sundays, holidays -- before I got my first day off. And, most of these days, I was at work before the sun rose and there after it set. Once I paid my rent, utilities, gas, taxes and more taxes, etc., I didn't have money to eat. I very quickly learned that every afternoon at around 5pm, down at the Okefonokee Café, they tossed the unsold food from the serving line into the trash can. And every afternoon about 5pm, I intercepted my dinner just before it hit the aforementioned trash can... on good days it was fried chicken or catfish; some days it was hot dogs; a few days, it just nacho chips. But, it got me through the next few hours of work before I went on home for the day. I worked for wonderful, wonderful people... they weren't exploitive or evil; they were good folks who, much as they cared about wages and benefits, lacked the ability to conjure money out of thin air and therefore had the money they had, and my job paid what it paid (which was exactly what they said it paid when I took it).

There are those who would have felt exploited. But, I agreed to take a salary and they paid it to me every other week, just like clockwork, so they kept their end of the deal. And, there are those who would have whined that the director (who had a PhD and decades of experience) made so much more than did I, while getting much less sweaty. I took a different path: I went to work early, stayed late, worked weekends and holidays, and busted my butt. Concentrated on doing the job I actually had really well, as opposed to spending my time trying to get the job I actually wanted. I learned a lot, did my job the best I could, said "sir" and "ma'am" to everyone -- including my subordinates -- and generally proved my worth.

And choosing that path made all the difference. "Are you throwing that cheeseburger away?" didn't remain the default way of ordering my dinner for too long. When the opportunities to impact pay did become available -- someone left, some unexpected money came in, it was a new budget year -- I wasn't just someone who needed more money. I was someone who had proven his worth and dedication, someone who -- based on their own observation at their own organization -- deserved and had earned more money. And, substitute "responsibility" for "money" in the last paragraph, and it reads just as true. And the really neat thing is that I didn't have to ask (heck, didn't have time to ask).

It's an old fashioned idea, of course. You go in as an unknown... maybe you add value, maybe you don't. But, little demonstrates one's value to an employer better than actually performing. And that, for me, is one of the many lessons from my very first job ever: sometimes, before you're lavished with praise and rewards, you actually have to prove yourself first.