The Fantastic Life

Career Wisdom, Found in the Trash

As a parent, I tell my kids stories about growing up and making my way in the world.  The Fantastic Life and LIFEies both began as ways for me to try and help them along their path.  Another way I’ve tried to guide them has been helping them with summer opportunities to work.  Below is a fabulous article on the importance of summer jobs and some of the lessons the author learned.  These include:
–Nothing prepared the author better for life than his summer job as a janitor.
–Never turn down an opportunity to take on more responsibility.
–You have to show up every day and on time.
If my kids could learn these lessons before they graduate from college, I will be a happy father.


The Fantastic Life Rule #17: Life is About Opportunity, Too

Don’t be afraid to take on changes and challenges when new opportunities come your way. There will be a lesson learned from each and every one of them.


Pearls of Career Wisdom, Found in the Trash



SEPT. 27, 2014



Credit–Thomas Pitilli

As a business owner and television executive, I’ve interviewed lots of job candidates. They have their résumés ready, and they’re primed to show off their knowledge of the business. But they’re often thrown by a question I ask early in the interview: What did you do in the summers during college and high school?

I’ve learned more from that question than any other. And here’s why: Before I was an E.V.P., S.V.P. or V.P., I worked as a janitor. For two summers I cleaned toilets, mopped floors and smelled like garbage. It had nothing to do with my chosen profession. And yet nothing was better for preparing me for work and life as an adult.

I learned firsthand about the hierarchy of employment faced by anyone with a job, and I peeked into the window of class distinctions that are still all around us.

The janitorial job was also my introduction to the bottom rung of show business. I was part of a ragged group on the evening shift at Wolf Trap, the outdoor venue near Washington designed for all kinds of acts: classical, rock, folk, jazz, opera, ballet, musical theater. We cleaned up backstage and throughout the park, where picnicking patrons left us their empty wine bottles and chicken bones.

Despite a childhood aversion to gross encounters, I had no choice but to dig in and handle the messes that others had created. I can testify that scrubbing dozens of toilets used by strangers not only makes you less squeamish about anything messy for the rest of your life, it can quiet your kids who may complain about household chores that are less demanding.

I had no illusions that sweeping dusty floors represented the nobility of work, but for a middle-class college kid headed for a white-collar life, it was an eye-opening way to start a career.

Once a concert ended, the other janitors and I took our positions backstage with mops, buckets, push brooms and cleaning rags. We soon discovered that many of the people you might have thought would be sloppy or grungy — folk, jazz or rock acts — were surprisingly fastidious behind the scenes. On the other side of the spectrum, the ballet corps from major companies of the world were by far the dirtiest from a janitorial standpoint, as we confronted used toe shoes and sweat-filled garments, as well as makeup-laden tissues clogging the toilets.

As we cleaned up after the performers and the audience, we learned the ultimate truth about being a janitor: No one pays attention to you. In our scruffy Wolf Trap T-shirts, we were virtually invisible to everyone except one another. This allowed us to eavesdrop on the surrounding public, while chuckling to ourselves and creating inside jokes. We called ourselves “the Club” — what passed for irony among too-hip college students — and had our own lingo. For instance, when asked about the progress of our work, we would answer dryly that business was “picking up.” When people overheard us, they might have thought we were speaking another language. That’s if they thought of us at all — from that job I came to understand that while we often ignore service workers, they take in much more than the people around them realize.

To this day, I worry about sounding condescending if I engage in banter with office cleaning workers. But I also don’t like to pretend they aren’t there. A simple hello or smile goes a long way in acknowledging our mutual humanity.

At Wolf Trap, we discovered that any attempt to break the barrier would have to come from us. Backstage — as in most other workplaces — there was a strict hierarchy. A friend on the crew once dared to put down his mop and approach an imposing maestro, the conductor Eugene Ormandy. For a moment, a wave of alarm crossed Ormandy’s face. But when the musically inclined janitor asked him a question about an orchestral piece performed that evening, Ormandy was visibly relieved and gave a thoughtful answer.

In the park, the Club encountered the nightly scourge of overflowing trash bins: garbage juice. In the patrons’ admirable zeal to clean up after themselves, they would pile their picnic remains into the large pails at the edge of the lawn and other outdoor areas. Even if a pail was full, they would stuff their trash on top of other trash. The result was an oozing liquid of mixed origin that collected at the bottom of the industrial-strength plastic bags, revealed when we pulled them up to prepare them for their ultimate resting place. We had to be careful not to break the bags, or else the juice would flow onto us. We often went home smelly.

But it didn’t take long for us to learn how to tie garbage bags to avoid breakage: Don’t use twist-ties or drawstrings or anything except the bags themselves. Even now when handling a garbage bag, I create a strong bond by making two handles from the sides and tying them together in a knot at the top. After that, almost nothing can fall out of the bag when it’s tossed into the collection bin or your home garbage can. (Janitors and sanitation workers everywhere thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.)

For our boss, who was several years older than us, this wasn’t a summer job; it was a full-time career. He was less educated than the collegians in his charge. He had some rough edges, and his views often differed from those of his employees, on everything from politics to social issues to music preferences — partly because he was older and also because his life experience was different from ours.  We learned that we didn’t have to agree with everything he said; we just had to do the work — a lesson that was helpful to me with countless bosses over the years.  I ultimately found him to be fair and wise.

In one thoughtful discussion, he gave me advice more valuable than a dozen management books. “Never turn down a chance to take on more responsibility,” he said. It may be surprising but it’s true: The best career guidance I ever got was from my janitorial supervisor.

Before I joined the Club, I never thought twice about who picked up my trash. My experience at Wolf Trap made me appreciate workers at every level, including those who deal with the grit of life in far more sensitive settings: hospital orderlies, caretakers to the aged or infirm, E.M.T.s and hospice workers. I suspect that none are paid what they deserve.

The job also bonded me with my co-workers. The Club members stayed friends forever, even reuniting at the park decades later, after one of our closest comrades died in a car crash.

As a boss, I realize that summer jobs don’t have to be gritty or humbling to make an impact. But for those summers, my janitorial job taught me the basics of all employment: You have to show up every day, and on time. You have to appreciate everyone who works around you. You should acknowledge — and learn to deal with — the pecking order in the working world. You have to exert yourself in ways you may not have learned in school. And you often have to do things that have nothing — and everything — to do with your career and your life ahead. 

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