Jeffrey Fry, serial entrepreneur, investor, and business guru from Austin, Texas, sends out a generous and thought-provoking daily quote to his many friends in the entrepreneurial community. I look forward to it every day. Here’s one he sent me on October 28, 2013. “To be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid.” The author is Unknown. (It does, however, remind me a bit of President George W. Bush, who once said, “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.”—referring to his alcoholism and marijuana use.)
Jeffrey’s quote got me thinking about how important it was for me to go through any number of humble and humbling jobs prior to finding some success in business. I’ve had lots of jobs, including janitor, fry cook, dish washer, night watchman and catering waiter, just to mention a few. I honestly think I learned better skills to prepare me for a useful life from these lowly positions than all my academic training put together. I learned to truly experience and empathize with a wide array of folks, situations, and cultures. I learned simple things like being on time, like the importance of getting little details right, like seeing things from a broad array of other people’s points of view and cultures. I learned to listen and observe.
The Harvard Business Review on-line had a very sweet essay this fall called “In Praise of Humble First Jobs” by Professor Simon C. Y. Wong of the London School of Economics. (1:00 PM, September 26, 2013) Wong worries about the growing fixation of elite students on immediate status and careers rather than the broader learning that often comes from the experiential autodidactics of real life. Though he worked some as an intern in his field when in school, he worked more as a restaurant busboy to pay his tuition, rent, and other expenses. He recounts:
“At the restaurant, working among a highly diverse group—the staff comprised a motley crew of varying ages, ethnicity/geographic origin, educational background, and ‘life’ experience—helped me realize that people share important traits: Most of us had pride in our work, yearned to be liked and respected by peers, sought to behave decently, and nursed modest as well as grand dreams, if not for ourselves then for our offspring.
Equally instructive was narrowing ‘gaps’ with some colleagues. The restaurant’s assistant manager—a tall dignified man who was unlikely to move up the managerial ranks because he didn’t have a college degree–barely hid his contempt for me when I first started. Over time, as I worked hard to prove that I belonged, he eased up and signaled his approval through the occasional wink and pat on my shoulder. He even started sharing with me his love of wine.”
Another of Wong’s jobs was as a cleaner in a luxury goods store where he was frequently treated with disdain by sales people simply because his job entailed cleaning the windows, vacuuming the showroom, and polishing the brass door handles. He says, “That experience seared into my brain the importance of according everyone—irrespective of their occupation, stature, or station in life—a modicum of respect and regard.”
I heartily share Professor Wong’s view of the value of humble first jobs. The “little people” jobs, as Leona Helmsly so charmingly put it. My own humbling first work experiences and my five career failures were by far the most seminal, foundational experiences to what became my ultimate, and seemingly “accidental” success as an entrepreneur. Humility is a wonderful and underrated business skill. You don’t learn it in business school or as a cosseted intern. J.M. Barrie, the Brit who wrote Peter Pan, said, “Life is a long lesson in humility.” I think Dr. Wong would probably agree with that.