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

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.
06/24/2012 02:03 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

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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