An essay on working, 50 years after receiving a $1 award

Ever since my friends told me to apply for a job at the local A&P grocery store when I was 16 years old, I have been contributing to the GNP (Gross National Product). I can hear myself saying this during career ups and downs, “At least I am contributing to the GNP.” As of this Labor Day, 2022, I have been doing that for 50 consecutive years, with no break longer than 2 weeks—and not too many of those. 

I am writing this essay on the occasion of my 50th Labor Day as a person working for payment and paying income tax. That’s a long time. No wonder I occasionally feel tired. Not physically tired per se, but tired of the patience and compromise it takes to work for payment. “The customer is always right,” can be a heavy cross to bear. Because, of course, no one is always right. My best experiences in this vein are when the customer is wrong and realizes they are paying me to let them know how they could be right. Figuring out how to make things right can be a wonderful team-building experience.

“The customer is always right,” can be a heavy cross to bear. Because, of course, no one is always right.

My peers who are also hoping to stay in the workforce until they are 70+ have agreed that it won’t be the workload that challenges our longevity. It will be the frustration of complicated situations, made more complicated by other humans and their limitations. The ability to “put up with BS” is the single most difficult thing about working. I think everyone agrees on this. We don’t always agree on whether we are the cause of the problem or part of the solution, however.

That may be the moment I retire—when I look at a kerfuffle and realize one person caused it, and it is me.

Although I have usually tried to go along and get along, there is a rebel in me that believes she was put on this earth and in the workplace to help make improvements. To call attention to areas of opportunity with high potential for improvement. Nothing about conflict frightens me, except other people not wanting to look me in the eye after a matter is settled. The concept of “losing face” has always eluded me. If a solution serves everyone, why does anyone need their old face?

The concept of “losing face” has always eluded me. If a solution serves everyone, why does anyone need their old face?

I have always wanted to make my clients and/or bosses look good. Sometimes I feel like a reincarnated soldier who would follow the commander into battle and would gladly die trying to execute an order. “Making a boss look good” in my definition is to identify that person’s great strengths and play those up while hoping to see weaknesses fade away. 

I have won some cool awards for being a good employee, which I shouldn’t care about, but actually cherish. Once an employer gave me a secret bonus for “entering the corporation and making a significant difference.” By so doing, he bought my lifelong loyalty. 

Back at the A&P in 1972, I was called into the office by the store manager when the big boss from Boston was visiting. I thought I’d be scolded for my very short skirts. Instead, I was awarded the “Courtesy and Service Award” for the way I treated a secret shopper weeks before. That award, a silver dollar, is still in my jewelry box. Funny that I consider $1 that I received a few months into my first job as one of the great accomplishments of my life’s work.

My parents were in the throes of an acrimonious divorce while I was starting out at the A&P. I was the middle child in a family of five and absorbed some lessons. Some examples:

1) Always have your own source of income (because my mother did not).
2) Always have good credit (because my mother had none).
3) Always have dependable transportation (because with it you can drive to any job and without it, you can’t).
4) Always figure out the rules of the game and follow them. But play to win and help everyone around me win too (because I can’t win if they don’t). 

What advice would I give my young self if I could go back 50 years? Hmmm… she was a pretty independent and determined person. Not sure she would have listened to advice. But I would clue her in to the fact that things will get rough sometimes. Really rough. I might offer the following coaching tips:

1) Keep replicating successes. Being a good student can be replicated and lead to being a good employee or consultant.
2) Naysayers are there to make us stumble and fall. Learn from them but don’t let them have the satisfaction of seeing you fall.
3) Keep learning. Every time you don’t know something, find out about it. If someone else can learn how to do it, maybe you can too.
4) If you want to be wealthy, focus on that. If you want to help people and make a difference, focus on that. 

I’d tell her that the second one is the clearer path to a regret-free life.

Half a century as a worker. Wow. Maybe I’ll take the afternoon off and not contribute anything to anything. After I write an essay about it….

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