What Did You Learn From Working as a Teenager?

Did you have a job when you were younger? Of course you did – we all pretty much had to! How else were you going to fill your gas tank, be able to take your date to the movies, or hang out with our friends? (Unless you were one of those kids with the rich parents ….)

What do you remember the most about working as a teen? The crappy hours? The repulsive tasks that no one else wanted to do? The impossible and un-pleaseable customers? Working ALL week long to make a few hundred dollars?

One of my first jobs ever was working in a restaurant. I started off as a bus-boy running lighting speed from table to table, clearing and cleaning it so that the customers could get seated faster. After a few years I worked my way up to take-out and eventually became a full server.

Some people may look back on their first job and lament it as slave labor. But in the four years that I worked for this restaurant, there were things I was picking up on and learning that college would have never prepared me for. It was a training ground for developing traits that would later prepare me for things to come throughout my professional career.

To illustrate my argument, I present to you my list of lessons that I learned from my early days of employment that I still carry with me today:

1. You have to show up to work on time. I can’t tell you how many people got fired for simply not coming to work. Unfortunately even as an adult, I still see people making this fatal mistake. It’s just part of that fundamental employer / employee agreement that you’ve got to come to work if you want to get paid.

2. No one likes a smart ass. Especially not your boss! Watch what you say and who you say it to.

3. All jobs are what you make of them. A job is a job is a job. As long as you’re an employee, you’ve got tasks to do that you’re not going to like. How you approach these tasks and your attitude will determine how much fun you have with them. I learned very quickly that making my coworkers laugh and using our shifts to get to know each other made the time pass a lot quicker and have a lot more meaning later on.

4. The customer is always right, even if they are wrong. One of the great lessons you learn in customer service is that your managers will ALWAYS side with the customer – no matter what! Why? Because the customer ultimately pays the bills, not you! The sooner you get with the program on this fact, the easier your life becomes.

5. Talking to complete strangers is great practice. I was painfully shy when I started my first job. But after I while I realized that with the thousands of customers I say each year, why not practice starting conversations and getting to know people? If you blew it, chances were that you were never going to see this person ever again! What a great way to practice!

6. You will have to deal with co-workers. You don’t get to pick who you work with. All you can do is deal with it, figure out how to get others to like you, and avoid those in the tar trap.

7. Avoid the tar trap. Who is the tar trap? That one employee (or group of employees) that are toxic – always complaining, always in trouble, “this close” to being fired, etc. Learning to not get associated with them is essential to your survival at the job.

8. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll change co-workers. Don’t like your co-workers? Stick it out. Turnover is usually pretty high, so if you just wait, they’ll be gone. Even when you grow up, the same thing happens when your coworkers go on to get promotions, work in different departments, transfer to different facilities, etc. Just give it time.

9. Learn what makes your boss happy. Your boss is human like you. The sooner you learn what makes them tick and what it takes to impress them, the better your job (and life) will be.

10. Learn what “not” to do from your boss. Some bosses make the mistake of assigning disproportionate work loads, showing favoritism, being generally cranky, etc. If you don’t like these things, remember how you felt about them and don’t do them when you’re the boss someday.

11. Stay ahead of the curve. It’s not hard to excel beyond your coworkers. As long as you’re ahead of the curve by being a better worker than more than half of your crew, you’ll still stand out as a great employee.

12. Multi-Tasking is the Only Way. How does one stay ahead of the curve and excel beyond their coworkers? Learning to multitask is the only way you’ll get things done and stand out among others. You’d be surprised at how many people CAN’T do this.

13. Some days will suck really, really bad. Sometimes no matter what you do, your day is just going to be terrible. It might be because of a customer, coworker, your boss. But it’s okay. Tomorrow is always a new day and a new start.

14. Change will happen no matter what. Nothing is ever going to stay exactly the same. Embrace this fact and you’ll be much better prepared for the unknown.

15. Those in general labor jobs work harder than you can imagine. Every time I go out to eat and I see those servers busting their butt, I’m reminded of how hard I use to work to make $100 in a night. Never forget what that was like. And always remember to have respect for those who are still in these positions (no matter what the reason may be).

16. The more you use your mind, the less you’ll have to labor. When I moved from being a bus-boy to a server, the job was so much different. I made a lot more money, but I was now using more of my brain than I use to. Now as a working professional, this same trend has continued to many times beyond what I was paid as a server. But my specialized knowledge has also developed many times beyond what it used to be. Don’t underestimate the value of having a specialized skill or talent.

17. If you fail, this is what you’ll come back to. If nothing else, let your experience of having a minimum wage job serve as a reminder that this is what you’ll have to come crawling back to if you fail in your professional career. Let that light a fire under you and be your motivation to give it all you’ve got!

Readers: What did you learn from your first job or working as a teenager? Did you think it was a big waste of time, or did it give you an edge in valuable life lessons? How do you feel this developed the person you are today in your professional career?


Related Posts:

1) The Value What You Know

2) Don’t Quit Your Day Job Yet

3) Do You Fake It?

Photo Credit: “Night Gig” by Emilio Labrador on Flickr


  1. says

    I think working around the house as a child may have taught me more than my summer jobs in high school. As a kid I had to help clean the house, do laundry, iron clothes, and mow the yard. It has helped me out a lot as a husband and understanding what I need to do to help my household function well.

    Working jobs though did help me understand that if you want to be successful and make financial ends-meet then you have to work and you have to work hard. The harder you work the more you set yourself a part from others and the more your bosses take notice.
    WorkSaveLive recently posted..How to Retire Comfortably: Start With the End in MindMy Profile

    • MMD says

      Chores were definitely an important prep towards that first job. However, after I got my first paycheck, working all week around the house for $5 suddenly didn’t measure up :)

    • MMD says

      I wouldn’t ever go back to it, but at the time it was a great job! All those traits are very admirable, and I bet they’ve probably stuck with you today.

  2. Bichon Frise says

    I learned that changing car tires is a dirty, nasty job. Furthermore, I learned picking the black dust out of your nose and finger nails for the next week was neither pleasant nor attractive. Lastly, I learned about the aches and pains of manual labor just as a teenager. My parents had to motivate me little to study in college.
    Bichon Frise recently posted..Protecting Income – Shopping for Life & Disability InsuranceMy Profile

    • MMD says

      From time to time we have contractors that come to our work to dig holes, tear down drywall, etc. And every time, I tell myself “Boy I sure am glad I went to college …”. That’s not a knock against laborers. It’s a knock against the fact that I would never cut it as one.

    • MMD says

      You two must have had some mad management skills! I wasn’t put in charge of anything until I was in my 20’s.

  3. says

    Oddly enough my first real job was a server for a catering company. I never want to work in the food industry after that experience, mostly because the work is really hard/long and the pay is dismal. But it was definitely a good experience. I learned many of the things you mentioned here. The most valuable for me was showing up on time, and interacting with my boss and co-workers. I think everyone can use more practice at each of those things.
    Carrie Smith recently posted..$100 Startup: The Ultimate Package for Individuals, Bloggers and EntrepreneursMy Profile

    • MMD says

      Absolutely right! Getting to know the people you work with was the one thing I remember most when I think back on the good times.

  4. says

    The lesson I learned was similar to number ten: some bosses run a popularity contest, and don’t care who’s actually doing the most or the best work. Don’t bust your ass for these people.

    I’d like to say that I learned how to kiss-butt in order to be successful, too, but that’s just not who I am.
    femmefrugality recently posted..How to Become a Mystery ShopperMy Profile

    • MMD says

      Good points. Some people will never be impressed. While at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with getting on your bosses good side (short of kissing butt) …

  5. says

    I was lucky enough to work at my mom’s video rental business when I was a teenager. So the work was actually very easy and fairly enjoyable. Still, it taught me important lessons about responsibility and customer service. I didn’t learn some of this other stuff until I got stuck with a manual labor job later in life. It really does make me appreciate how much better it is to work with your brain.
    Modest Money recently posted..Importance Of Diversifying Online BusinessMy Profile

  6. Anthony Thompson says

    My parents didn’t allow me to work when I was in high school. Instead, I got started working after graduating from high school. By then, I had already picked up some bad work habits, but fortunately, I learned quickly and did well with my first job.

    Personally, I think that the earlier in life one starts working, the sooner they will learn about the rules of the workforce without it being such an unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience once they’ve become young adults.

    This post should definitely be profiled on sites that cater to teaching youths about positive life values and principles.

  7. says

    This list is fantastic, because it’s all true. If you hated your coworkers, just stick it out because turnover is REALLY high! No one really cares about job security.

    I remember working at T-Mobile, selling cell phones. All of my coworkers were arrogant and smartasses. I ended up making the most sales because I was this sweet gal who didn’t try to upsell the customers LOL.

  8. Justin @ The Family Finances says

    I agree with everything but the point about multi-tasking. I’m of the opinion that it’s more productive to focus on one thing at a time. Even at my job now, with multiple responsibilities and projects all going on at the same time, I get more done faster by doing one thing at a time. Granted, I’m constantly keeping a mental list of everything I have going on and my gameplan for getting it all done. But for the actual execution, I focus in on onething at a time.

    • MMD says

      Interesting perspective! But after reading your description, I feel like you’re still multi-tasking. I view multi-tasking as more “being able to have several balls in the air as once” rather than trying talking on the phone and emailing at the same time. But regardless, good job on being able to get things done well at work. We all need a strategy to go above and beyond.

  9. says

    Working as a teenager is something that every kid should experience.. You learn all of the above skills, and these are important lessons in life. Our schools teach you virtually nothing about managing money, and what I learned from my early days of making $7 an hour answering the phones at a Pizza place, was invaluable down the road.
    jefferson recently posted..Applying Blackjack Strategies to Your FinancesMy Profile

    • MMD says

      I 100% agree! Intro to the World 101 = Getting and holding a job. It turns out that it is harder than it appears.

  10. Katie says

    I had a few jobs as a teenager. I remember one in particular being horrible. I tried being a waitress at Bob Evans. I wasn’t very good at balancing a tray with drinks on it…..The first day they had me on my own I dumped a glass of Coke all over this woman’s hair and she started crying. It was horrible. They gave her whole table a free meal but she demanded that they buy her a new shirt….

    • MMD says

      I can’t tell you how many trays of food I dropped! I fault Bob Evans though :) I think every time I go there they have one waitress for the whole place.

    • MMD says

      It’s those early experiences that make you really appreciate how much you make now! It’s a big crash course to the real world!

  11. Julie @ Freedom 48 says

    I loved my first job – I worked at KFC when I was 16. The pay was crappy, but the experience was amazing. To this day (13 years later), I miss it. I swear, when I retire, if I’m looking for something to keep me busy… I’m totally getting a job at a fast food restaurant! The face paced atmosphere, teamwork, customers etc. are awesome.

    My first job taught me how to cope with change. Changing co-workers, changing menu, different customers etc.

    • MMD says

      That’s hilarious. Your desire reminds me of Kevin Spacey in the movie “American Beauty” when he regresses back to working at a fast food restaurant. I will say – I do see a lot of elderly people at fast food places both working and eating there. It seems like a great hang out place :)

  12. says

    One more to add. Respect others and their work. When I worked at my father’s car dealership while I was in college in India, I used to screw up cars worked on by other mechanics. My dad soon warned me with good advice — I need to respect others’ work.
    Shilpan recently posted..4 Tips to Boost Your Self-ConfidenceMy Profile

    • MMD says

      In my case, I needed to respect the people at the restaurant if I ever wanted to eat there again without having “special ingredients” added to my food :)

    • MMD says

      That last part touches on a trend that disturbs me. I seem to observe more and more people thinking they don’t “have to” start from the bottom; that they’re too good for it. I don’t know where this sense of false entitlement is coming from, but I wish more people would wake up from it. We can’t all hire in as the vice-president.

    • MMD says

      In a lot of ways, I still feel like I work for those tips. Not that the business people I interact with are physically going to “tip” me, but that I’m working towards the deal or information I seek from them. Being a server was a great first job.

  13. says

    This is one of my favorite topics. Great tips above, that remind me how important the lessons are that I learned from those early jobs. You shouldn’t forget those lessons.

    I actually had the opposite problem of one of your points. I respected my boss too much and didn’t EVER speak up. One of the shift managers at the fast food place knew that I wouldn’t speak up so she bulldozed me. I actually got fired for something that clearly wasn’t my fault. It was so bad that (without any prompting from me or my parents) the owner fired the manager and hired me back (which was also awkward…I didn’t stay long even though I’d learned a huge life lesson).

    Great post. Thanks!
    AverageJoe recently posted..Do You Define Yourself–Like Detroit–Too Narrowly? Our Cuppa Joe DiscussionMy Profile

    • MMD says

      Thanks AJ! You’ve got to write a post and elaborate on this story! It sounds really interesting and I want to know more!

    • MMD says

      Ha – they’re everywhere! Even in the professional setting, they still suck the life and energy out of projects and really can get you down (if you let them!)

  14. CA says

    What sucks is I DIDN’T work as a teenager (had one of those “you’re not old enough” parents who’d get angry at the thought) and now at 23 I’m finding it hard as heck to maintain/find work with my thin resume.


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