life lessons from my first job

life lessons from my first job

As a teen I was shy and socially awkward. In true ‘cruel to be kind’ style my Mum phoned round all the hotels in town when I was 15, and put my name down for a weekend/evening waitress job. One of them offered me a job on the spot, so I was hauled into the house (my sister and I had been outside riding our bikes,; it really was as if I stepped over from childhood to adulthood in that moment) and told to put on nice clothes so my dad could take me over for a chat with the Manager. I dutifully did so, in a mix of paralysing fear and overwhelming excitement. I was going to have a job! I was going to make my own money! But I was also going to have go out in public and face people. Talk to them. Work with them.

It was one of the best things my Mother ever did for me. I worked there until I was 17, and then came back during University holidays, and also for a brief spell after I graduated. I do believe we learn more in our first job than in any other job we have afterwards, so here’s what my first job taught me about life, work and money.

We are capable of more than we realise

On my first night, I was horrified to discover we had to take the meals into the bar and shout out a number. The customer with the corresponding number would then acknowledge me and I would take their meal over. I had to shout out a number in front of a room of complete strangers! The first time I had to do this alone, my shy heart almost hammered its way out of my chest. I was dizzy with fear and could barely remember the damn number! But after I’d done it a few times, that was it. Easy. It seems such a small deal now, as I’ve given talks to groups of nearly a hundred, but it was a massive deal at the time and it boosted my confidence no end. We are always capable of more than we realise, and once we try something, its surprising where it will lead. Remember – we can’t be brave if we never feel fear.

Manners go a long way

As both a waitress and a customer. Manners and an efficient, polite service meant more tips and pleasant customers. But at the same time, manners were beyond some customers and I really wanted to tip their food over their head. Or spit in it. I never did, but it made me aware that there are others out there who would do just that! There will always be mistakes and complaints but a customer who complaints politely and fairly, will get less of an ear-bashing than those who are just a complete arse. So yeah, be nice. But if someone isn’t nice, don’t let them ruin your day. But don’t spit in their soup, either…

Learn as much as you can

This is something I picked up unintentionally, mainly because I was scared of having nothing to do in case I got told off for just standing around. I watched the housemaids using the pedal iron, so that I could learn how to iron bed sheets and pillowcases myself. I helped the breakfast chef so that I could cook breakfasts myself in the smaller sister hotel when there was only a couple of guests. I watched everything the full-time waitresses did so that I knew what small, unimportant jobs needed to be done. This meant I could cover for various members of staff, the result of which meant I got extra hours plus I never got told off for doing nothing! As humans, we’re meant to keep learning. And the more we learn, the more scope there is for us.

Look for possibilities and take chances

Early on, I knew I wanted to work on reception. I’d grown to enjoy working with the customers and as time went on, I knew a lot about the hotel. When I was 16, I had the opportunity to do 2 weeks work experience through school. I approached my Manager and asked if I could do it in the hotel and learn how to cover reception. She agreed, so I spent 2 weeks learning the ropes, before moving on to regular reception shifts at weekends. I then progressed onto more or less running the small sister hotel during my summer holidays when I was seventeen. It was a wonderful summer and I loved every minute of it. So the point is, don’t be scared to ask. Don’t be scared to take chances and grab possibilities with both hands. People might say no. Things might not work out. But at least you tried.

People are much less interested in you than you think

Like I said above, I didn’t want to stand in the bar and shout out a number. Everyone would look at me! They might be drunk! They might make a comment! But mostly, no one cared except those waiting for their  number to be called and even then they were more interested in getting their food than in anything else. I’ve always struggled with self-esteem and a need for people to like me, but I grew less self-conscious as I came to realise that people don’t really notice me that much.

If you don’t know what to say to someone, ask questions

I was rubbish at conversation, unless it was with a close friend or family member. I would just clam up; I had no idea how to start a conversation or keep it going, But I did know how to answer questions. One other waitress was a  great conversationalist and I longed to be like her. Her trick was to ask questions, to be interested in the other person. I loved talking to her and I realised this was because she was (or at least pretended to be) interested in me – in what I did and in what my opinions were, and her way of talking to me meant I always had something to say. I copied this technique from her, and although it took me a few years to overcome my shyness, this helped me improve, and its something I still do today, What makes it better is that – for me at least – it isn’t contrived; I genuinely do find other people interesting. And people love to talk about themselves. Be curious about other people. Learn from them.

Mistakes and accidents happen

I overcharged people, undercharged people, gave the wrong orders to the wrong people, dropped cutlery on people, spilled drinks, dropped food (including two £20 fillet steaks), tripped, fell over, broke crockery and glasses, burnt toast. And that was just on my first night. Just kidding – I didn’t do these things on a regular basis – I wasn’t that bad at my job – but often enough to realise that shit happens. None of it was on purpose, and nobody died. Not only did it make me aware that making mistakes is OK but it also showed me the importance of not giving others a hard time over theirs. Where mistakes are concerned, own up. Its not always easy but its better on your conscience and nine times out of ten, they’re no big deal in the grand scheme of things.

Attention to detail is important

Waitressing sounds like something anyone can do. Yet I worked with various folk who were hopeless, and the main thing that let many of them down was their lack of attention to detail. Clean cutlery set out correctly on a table. Sugar bowls filled. Enough bread and butter for everyone at the table. Glasses polished. The small things that are so easy to overlook but are enough to ruin someone’s impressions of the place. And if attention to detail is important in something as simple as setting a table, its important in any job. And its something that can be learned. Slow down. Check things twice. Be present. Its a great way to show competence and reliability, and a guarantee that you’ll do a better job.

I like tea

I drank tea when I was very young but when I was about 6 I decided I hated it. And that was that. At work, everyone drank tea though, and when I was first offered a cup, I said yes, mainly because tea break seemed to be such a big deal. So I had a tea with four – yes, four! – sugars. And I was surprised to find I enjoyed it. I’ve been an avid tea drinker ever since (minus the sugar now though – urgh!). So the moral of this story is, just because you used to hate something, doesn’t mean you’ll always hate it. We aren’t defined by our likes or dislikes, so be open-minded. Try everything twice!

Know when its time to quit

I didn’t do this. Towards the end, I was working two jobs – this one and another – but my heart was in the other job. This one suffered. The hotel and I had run our course. But like so many other things in life, I clung onto it because I resisted change. Only when I realised that my attention to detail was seriously flagging (see above) did I realise that it was time to jump before I ended up being pushed. And this is true of many things in life – jobs, relationships, living arrangements, responsibilities. Life is ever changing, but we humans love to fight it. To keep things the same because that’s what we know. It’s safe. But it isn’t always the right thing to do and change is inevitable. You’ll know when the time is right. Act on it. The transition is always painful but once you’ve moved on, there will be no stopping you.

What did your first job teach you?


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