The lasting impact of your first job

'First Jobs' edited by Merritt Watts
'First Jobs' edited by Merritt Watts
Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers

Ice cream scooper, waiter, pet gravedigger — everybody has to start somewhere.

In "First Jobs: True Tales of Bad Bosses, Quirky Coworkers, Big Breaks and Small Paychecks," reporter Merritt Watts has gathered together 50 real stories of people's first experience in the workforce.

The stories span generations and industries, from a 17-year-old who spends her summers picking cherry tomatoes to the former mayor of Los Angeles who got his start shining shoes.

The collection is both hilarious and heartening, with plenty of wisdom packed into the pages. "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should," writes one contributor.

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"Either you've been a carny for life, or you haven't been broken in yet," writes another.

All of the typical first teen jobs are represented: yard work, retail, food service. There are even three separate tales of ice cream scooping — but each offers a very different lesson.

Less common jobs make the cut too, from nude model to sea urchin trader. And that pet gravedigger? He grew up to be a licensed therapist. That's one the fascinating parts of "First Jobs" — seeing people's trajectory from their first job to their later career. Often the two are unrelated, but the first job still leaves an impression.

"I quickly found that my book about first jobs was not actually about first jobs at all," Watts said. "It's about the kinds of hard-earning lessons that are worth way more than all those early paychecks combined."

Watts joined MPR News' Tom Crann on Tuesday, June 2 to talk about first jobs and their lasting influence.

On the show: What I learned from my first job

First jobs can teach you what you don't want to do

"If the only thing you learn at your first job is that it's not the job for you, that's still something," said Watts. "It's a process of elimination, figuring out where we all need to be."

A first job that's a terrible fit can actually point people in the right direction. One caller remembered his early realization that "office jobs are the worst." Now he's a ranger in a National Park — a much better match.

The most useful skills you pick up are life skills

Your ice cream scooping muscles may disappear, and you may no longer be able to recite the entire menu from memory, but the real skills that first jobs offer are more permanent.

Learning how to handle rejection and how to communicate with adults are key takeaways. For teenagers, first jobs come at a crucial time. "Developmentally, it's a really important time for your brain," Watts said. "You're making new neural connections when you're a teenager."

A first boss can leave the biggest impression

"A lot of times we think of coming of age moments as the first car and first kiss, but I think first boss is even more of a lifelong moment that people always remember," said Watts.

That impression can be good or bad: One restaurant dishwasher remembers his boss taking a head of lettuce out of a dumpster and using it in the kitchen. That's hard to forget.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, an ice cream scooper recalled dropping a full tray of orders on the way to a table. She was ready for her boss to yell at her, but he just calmly told her to get a mop. She said she thinks back to this moment a lot, especially when disciplining her own children.

Some memories never fade

One caller shared his first job at a small town newspaper. "I thought it would be like Mayberry," he said. "But it turned out to be more like 'Deliverance.'"

Whenever he made a mistake, a memorable punishment was waiting for him. "It was 1971, everybody smoked," he said. "If I made a mistake, I had to take a toothbrush and clean the nicotine off the ceiling tiles."

Join the conversation. What was your first job? What did you learn?