Why there’s no such thing as a “dead-end” job, and what we can take away from every experience.· 5 min read
Whenever I’m at a party or a networking group, or any place that people like to mingle, the talk nearly always turns to “What do you do?” Sometimes these stories are straightforward: “I’m a writer.” “Really? Have I ever read anything thing you’ve written?” As silly as this question is (how would I have any idea what you’ve read?), it is usually used as a substitute for the more direct but less friendly “Are you famous?” The answer is “no, I’m not.” Not yet.
Occasionally, the career talk will turn along the lines of “What’s the weirdest/craziest/most bizarre job you’ve ever had”, and I very often win this little competition. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my working life, many of them thankless, demeaning, and low-paying. There are various reasons for this, which have nothing to do with the point of this article. But I’ve gotten something valuable from every single one.
The craziest job I ever had was custodian at the large animal autopsy suite on the campus of Montana State University.
What did this job entail? I literally swamped out the locker room-sized hall following the dissection of various animals — recently deceased animals, not preserved corpses. This meant blood and tissue, disinfecting soap, and a hose sprayer. It meant scrubbing the concrete floor with a push-broom, and wiping down steel tables with bleach.
I’ve seen cows that died of bloat (ghastly looking and smelling) and skunks that had been examined for signs of rabies.
Have you ever held a cow’s heart in your hand? I have.
Once, I came in to clean up and there was a huge grizzly bear in the center of the floor. The bear had been killed by Yellowstone Park rangers because they suspected it was responsible for attacks on hikers in the park. The staff veterinarians were looking for clues as to why the bear might have taken to attacking humans. I don’t know what they might have found.
I took this job at the time because I had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian myself. I was a college sophomore, and the job paid double what minimum wage was at the time. I found it fascinating, if somewhat gruesome, but the work wasn’t terribly demanding and it was only a few times a week.
While I was swamping out, I never had the thought, “Boy, this will really help me in the future!” I had a somewhat vague notion regarding its potential to help me with animal anatomy (that cow heart was really interesting), and maybe an idea that it might look good on an application for vet school.
As it happened, however, I soon gave up on my veterinary aspirations. Not because of my job, but because I quickly realized that I was way too soft-hearted to be an effective vet. Seeing animals hurt really breaks my heart; even roadkill makes me sad. I knew that if people brought their pets to me to be put down I’d never be able to do it. Instead, I’d have every three-legged dog, blind horse, and toothless cat living in my backyard.
But here’s the thing: My experience at this job wasn’t wasted. While you might wonder what I could possibly get out of such a job if I didn’t take up a career involving animals, some of the answers might surprise you.
- Endless stories to tell. Since I’m a writer, this job has been a source of a number of stories for articles (like this one). It’s also a stunning ice breaker at gatherings.
- I learned something about myself. While I’ve already said that working the job was not what made me decide against becoming a veterinarian, it did make me more aware of my feelings about animals in general. It caused me to begin examining the ramifications of what it might mean to be a working vet — even though I never planned on treating large animals.
- It taught me responsibility and independence. This wasn’t the first job I’d ever had, but it was the first one where I was responsible for getting the work done in whatever manner I chose while being efficient and self-directed. No one greeted me when I came in after hours, nor told me what my priorities were. No one supervised me. I was my own boss.
- I got a chance to explore my process: how I think, how I organize, what motivates me. It is no small thing to have a job early in your life that lets you explore your own way of doing things. It is really only in retrospect that I can see how valuable that chance was. As children, we’re told what to do by parents and relatives, babysitters, teachers, and friends. As we grow up, we (hopefully) learn to think for ourselves and begin learning what works for us and what doesn’t when it comes to accomplishing goals.
So much of what is driven into us as children must be set aside as we grow and discover that the prescribed ways of doing things aren’t always the best ways.
I’ve had a lot of unusual jobs over the years: I’ve worked in a pet store and been bitten by ferrets (nasty, pointy teeth!) I’ve delivered flowers (everybody is happy to see you!) I’ve been a bookseller (great gig, except for the people.) I’ve been a motel maid (you just wouldn’t believe…) I’ve been a fry cook, a dishwasher, a babysitter, a plant waterer (yup, you can get paid for that.)
And every single job has given me something different. A self-esteem boost, a feeling of gratitude, an appreciation for good people, a love of nature. Some things I get immediately, and some I don’t realize until years later.
Perhaps the greatest gift I’ve received from all of these different jobs is the experience itself. Writers are always urged to “write what you know”, and, brother, do I know a lot. I know what grizzly bear fur feels like and how small you feel standing next to one. I know the musty smell of ferrets and how they love to hang on to something once they’ve set their teeth in it. I know the ways birds like to have their necks petted, and how to tell a male from a female cockatoo just by looking at them.
I know how disturbingly awful people can be to strangers, and how their perceived anonymity makes them feel like they can do and say anything they wish to anybody.
I know how industrial dishwashers work, how to make sickly plants look good again, and how it feels to see the joy that you helped bring reflected in other people’s eyes.
So yes, the craziest job you ever have can contribute more to your life than you’ll ever be able to foresee. Don’t shy away from trying different things even if you can’t see the practical applications of it right now, or even if you think you’d be “wasting” your time. There’s more to life experiences than how they look on a resume.