I blatantly stole the idea for this post from one J. Money did a few years ago, since laying out people’s actual job histories shows how work doesn’t always form some straightforward linear path. We tend to think of careers as a track that goes from College, to a Job, then to a Better Job, and then to Even Better Jobs that steadily pay more money, but in real life most people spend a lot of time trying different things, gaining all types of work experience, and taking certain jobs just to keep the bills paid.
Everybody’s path is different, and to show you an example of mine, here’s every job I’ve ever worked since middle school (as far as I can remember), how much it paid, and how it affected my ability to do creative work. Since the list’s really long, I’ve divided it into 3 parts. Hopefully you’ll see something that resonates, or at least it’ll get you inspired to try something new ;-)
(I’m also not counting unpaid internships, housesitting gigs, or daylong jobs from Craigslist helping people move, since then we’d REALLY be here forever!)
My first actual job was walking my aunt’s dog in middle school. She had a huge collie who loved to chase cars but was friendly around people, and our walks to the covered bridge down the road usually consisted of him tugging madly on the leash as I tried to keep him out of oncoming traffic. A buck a day was a lot for a middle-school kid in the ‘90s, since I didn’t have actual bills yet and was still getting allowance from my parents, and having extra non-birthday money for the first time felt pretty good.
Effect on Creative Work: None? I was a kid, so I hadn’t started anything major, and it’s not like the walks took up that much time.
Having a dad who was a carpenter was cool because he was always able to fix stuff around the house—and it also meant that he could bring me to work with him in the summers. The days were excruciatingly long for a kid, and I remember thinking I couldn’t believe how adults could spend EIGHT WHOLE HOURS at work doing the same exact thing all day (and in some ways I still can’t…). The work was pretty simple: moving materials, grabbing tools from the truck, and a whole lot of hammering and nailing, with side trips to lumber yards and lunches spent outside, all without an office full of people telling you what to do.
Effect on Creative Work: Probably none? Again, I wasn’t doing much back then, but going to work a day or two every week in the summer definitely made me appreciate my free days spent at home playing video games.
Grocery Store Dairy Clerk
Pay: $7-8.50/hour, plus time-and-a-half for Sundays and holidays (!) and bonuses twice a year (!!)
My first job that involved an actual interview, I worked from my sophomore year of high school until senior year in college at my town’s supermarket, stocking milk, juice, yogurt, and cheese in the dairy and frozen food sections. I worked mostly evenings and weekends when school was in session and longer weeks during the summer, since I had gas and car insurance to pay for and was also going out more. The money was good and the time-and-a-half deal for Sundays was amazing (which led to my working every Sunday I could!), plus the people were chill and we used to goof off a lot in the backroom after the work was done. The flexibility was awesome because my boss kept me on the schedule for summers and holidays so I could work during college, and was cool about letting me work fewer hours when my schoolwork got busy.
This job treated me really well and in a lot of ways I was sorry to leave it, but I always knew there was no way in hell I could work there forever since I needed to move on to bigger things.
Effect on Creative Work: Had I not spent so much time working during high school and college, I definitely could have written more and done more projects, but it’s hard to say for sure. In a lot of ways, I still wasn’t ready to be my own self-motivated creative person, so having the structure of work helped me keep my life in order and gave me some good money. Still, I probably started out by working a bit too much in those early years.
Bulk Mail Envelope Stuffer
My first work study job in college, and my first job with flexible hours—when the college needed mailings done, you could come into the post office and stuff envelopes anytime you wanted before the work disappeared and you had to wait for more. Though the flexibility was AWESOME for a first-year college student, stuffing those envelopes was hands-down the most monotonous job I’ve ever had. A lot of student workers came in and out of the post office all the time, so it was hard to really meet people, and no mailings during the off-time meant no pay, which was a bummer and made it harder to develop a set routine from week to week.
Effect on Creative Work: This was my first semester in college and I felt completely overwhelmed by my great leap into the world—it was good that I got myself out there and found a job, but I also hadn’t gotten organized yet and was scrambling to figure out my college classes. In the end, I only lasted a semester at the post office and didn’t do work-study again until I was a junior and had my shit in line. Though I’m thankful I got my priorities in order, it would have been nice if I’d been able to do it sooner.
Preschool Classroom Cleaner
My second work-study job, which also came with a flexible schedule. Three evenings a week I’d come to the campus preschool for two hours to clean and disinfect the classrooms while listening to cassette tapes they had on hand for the kids—my favorites being a Cat Stevens greatest hits and a copy of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports (an amazing album you should check out RIGHT NOW). It didn’t really take two hours to clean those classrooms, so the job came with a lot of downtime where I could chill, think, and watch the sun set over the fields of the campus. It was my first really low-stress job, and it taught me that finding jobs with lower workloads could help me stay levelheaded and get other things done throughout the week, even without Brian Eno’s ambient music to help.
Effect on Creative Work: Basically none—I had things together by this point, and taking six hours a week out of my college schedule to work was WAY easier than it had been my freshman year.
My third and longest-running work-study job—for the rest of college I worked in admissions giving student tours, answering e-mails, and even doing phone interviews. I met a lot of really cool high school students embarking on their college searches, and got to talk to them like they were real people instead of reading from a script. The people (other interns, the counselors, and even the admissions head) were awesome, and we spent a lot of time sharing jokes and having genuinely stimulating conversations in the office. In a lot of ways this was the greatest job I’ve ever had—though sadly, it wasn’t the kind of thing I could do after graduation.
Effect on Creative Work: I spent more hours per week in Admissions than I did cleaning the preschool classrooms (usually eight to twelve), which distracted me a bit from my classwork, but not badly so. Since I was more experienced at juggling a myriad of responsibilities, this job actually complemented my college experience rather than detracting from it.
Lake Host/Boat Checker
A good friend from high school got me this gig checking boats at a lake a half hour from my hometown. The short of it was that the northeast had an invasive plant problem in its lakes, and when these plants got tangled around boat motors they could move with the boater from lake to lake, spreading the invasion. The program put me and some other college students by the boat ramp checking boats and educating people about invasives—which also meant we could sit in the shade by the boat ramp reading or hanging out when it wasn’t busy.
I read more books those summers than I ever have, ever, plus I got to be outside in the fresh air in a place where people were happily enjoying their weekends, making for a positive atmosphere. The only downside was the lack of hours (usually around 15 per week), which meant I had to keep my grocery store job. This created a nightmare of shuffling the schedules at both positions that sometimes left me dashing from one job to the other on the same day and changing clothes in the supermarket bathroom as I transitioned from 90-degree mornings to afternoons in the refrigeration room.
Effect on Creative Work: I got a lot of reading done, but not much else those summers, since two jobs usually meant 45 hours per week, plus commuting.
So that’s how my working life looked until I finished college, and it feels like I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. My big takeaways were that by this time I’d learned to be more outgoing in applying for different opportunities, scoop up leads I picked up from friends, and juggle multiple jobs at once, though I was just starting to manage both paid work and creative work together. Looking back, I can’t think of much I’d have done differently, except maybe focusing a bit more during my first two years of college, but I like to think I made up for it later ;-)
The post-college adventures start in Part 2, where things really get interesting….