Lessons from my #FirstSevenJobs

guinness-barmanI’m not usually one for getting on hashtag bandwagons on Twitter, but I made an exception to this today by partaking in the #FirstSevenJobs game.

First started on Twitter by Marian Call a few days ago, when she asked her followers to list the first seven jobs they ever did, the game caught the imagination of a lot of people and the hashtag soon began trending.

After thinking hard to remember them all, I posted an abridged version of my #FirstSevenJobs (the actual one would have been pretty much ALL ‘barmaid’ – I have worked in many, many pubs in my time).

My first realisation was that I’ve had a lot of jobs. I worked before and during university, spent several years working in the contract-based world of TV production, then had a career change in my late twenties  – my CV makes me look like the world’s flakiest employee. So it’s no surprise that I’ve ended up as a freelancer, working with multiple clients. I love the variety, flexibility and control I have over my own career now.

But thinking about the jobs I’ve had in the past also made me reflect on what I’ve learned from each of them. It turns out that I’ve learned a surprising amount – even from the rubbish ones, and that each job I’ve had has played a formative role in my career in one way or another.

So here’s a revised list – rather than being strictly my first seven jobs, these are the seven jobs that have got me to where I am today, including the lessons I’ve learned from each one.

1. Pub waitress

Lesson: Don’t put up with bullies.

Years of working busy weekend lunchtime shifts at various country pubs taught me that if someone thinks it’s acceptable to take their professional frustrations out by yelling at a teenager who earns five quid an hour, they are probably a bully. Chefs, I’m talking to you.

I took being yelled at really personally, and it certainly stuck with me. It made me realise that bullies do exist outside of school, and that just because someone was older and more experienced than me, they weren’t always right.

Oh, and it also gave me a valuable appreciation of (and for) waiting staff. Be nice to them – they’re probably earning peanuts and being yelled at so that you can enjoy your dinner.

2. Barmaid

Lesson: Don’t judge people by their backgrounds

As soon as I turned eighteen, I graduated from working in the pub kitchen to working behind the pub bar. Growing up in the epitome of middle-class Middle England, I could easily have never left a pleasant but entirely unrepresentative bubble – working as a barmaid quickly sorted that out.

I’ve worked in big pubs and little pubs, country pubs and city pubs – and in every single one I’ve met fantastic people I would never have met in my ‘normal’ life, many of whom have remained my friends ever since.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve also dealt with more than my fair share of creepy punters (you know, the ones who always ‘accidentally’ stroke your fingers when taking their change) and boringly-quiet Sunday shifts. But learning that I could have an equally good conversation with a bricklayer from the estate up the road as I could with anyone from my own background was a hugely valuable lesson that fundamentally changed me.

In case you didn’t notice, I loved being a barmaid. But I wouldn’t do it again – the hours and hours of being on my feet, the smell of stale beer, and yes, the creepy punters, were all too exhausting.

3. Service station night cashier

Lesson: Don’t. Just don’t.

Especially when you are also working a day job behind a bar. You need sleep.

4. TELEMARKETER

Lesson: Sometimes you need to pick up the phone

I know people who would rather poke their eyes out with a stick than make a phone call.

Whenever I’m with friends ordering takeaway, I inevitably end up being the one who phones up to order (when the JustEat app was launched it literally revolutionised most of my friends’ eating habits). I credit this ability to make a phone call to my time spent working as a telemarketer (and also working as a receptionist – although that doesn’t quite warrant a whole entry on this list).

In what was ultimately a soul-sucking summer spent working in a meltingly hot office with a manager who had apparently attended the David Brent School of Management, my brief stint as a telemarketer involved cold-calling unsuspecting people to ask them about their holiday choices.

The one saving grace of this job was that at least I didn’t have to sell anything – I just asked people for a few minutes of their time to complete a survey. I still got a lot of phones put down on me, and a lot of indignant people asking where I had got their number (I didn’t, they are on a list, my computer auto-dialled them and I have no idea how their number got on there).

But I also learned the art of persuasion, the need to get to the point quickly, and the value of smiling when you’re talking (you can hear it in someone’s voice when they are smiling, even on the phone). And I’m also no longer afraid to pick up the phone – something that often gets results much more quickly than sending an email.

5. TV Runner

Lesson: You make your own luck

My first ‘proper’ job, as a runner for an independent TV production company, was also one of my favourites.

After spending three years doing a Biology degree, working at a wildlife TV production company was a dream job. I landed it after doing a week of work experience during which I worked my socks off to be as helpful as humanly possible, and following up with everyone I met to let them know how grateful I was.

As I have said before, attitude is everything when it comes to getting a job in TV. Supply far outstrips demand for entry-level jobs, and with everyone in the universe a lot of people wanting to get a foot in the door, but few positions available, competition is fierce.

So I’m sure that it was persistence and willingness to muck in that got me the job, rather than luck (or even particularly talent – there’s only so well you can wash up coffee cups or transcribe hours of footage). The experience changed my attitude to luck, and formed the foundations of a career creating opportunities for myself.

A caveat to this: the work experience I did was unpaid. It was only a week, but I’m very aware that not everyone would have been able to afford doing even a week of unpaid work. As it happens, I funded this week by doing other work in the evenings and weekends (see ‘Barmaid’, above). But it’s worth mentioning, as I realise that I was able to do it in large part because of a privilege that not everyone enjoys.

6. TV Producer

Lesson: Things aren’t always what they cracked up to be

After a few years of working my way up in TV, from runner to researcher, then to assistant producer, I eventually found myself working as a producer in the Development team for another independent production company.

It was what I had set my sights on from the start – a role with real responsibility, and the autonomy to make my own decisions about what would work on screen. But once I got there, neither the anticipated sense of achievement nor the long-awaited feeling that I had finally ‘arrived’ were anywhere to be seen. Instead, I felt deflated, and quite honestly, a bit stuck.

TV development is a funny beast, in which 90% of the work that you do never goes anywhere. You can work tirelessly on a great idea that you’re truly passionate about, but unless a channel commissioner decides they like it (which going by the logic of some of their decisions, apparently often depends on what they’ve had for breakfast that morning) then your idea gets relegated to the scrapheap, and all that work – the hours of research, the lovingly-crafted proposals, the relationships carefully built with contributors – is cast aside.

The realisation that this wasn’t really where I wanted to be was a hard one to accept. A career change at that point felt like not only like a step backwards, but also like a huge personal failure. My identity was so intertwined with my job that I felt abandoning it would be tantamount to losing myself.

However, the nagging feeling that this wasn’t the right career for me eventually got too much to bear. I realised that the things I really enjoyed – writing, discovering and exploring new subjects, building relationships and connecting with people – were not exclusive to a TV career, so I bit the bullet and ventured into my next job…

7. Copywriter, Publicist and communications consultant

Lesson: Taking a risk is scary, but worth it

Having volunteered for several years with Contact the Elderly, a fantastic charity that runs monthly tea parties for lonely older people, I knew that I wanted to do a job that helped people in some way – so working for the third sector was where I wanted to be.

As a development producer, I had gained a lot of experience branding and selling ideas, writing for different audiences, and learning how to tell great stories – all skills that were ideal for a career in communications.

From the start I worked hard to adapt these skills and to learn more about the sector I was so passionate about. Actually taking the plunge and changing careers was terrifying, but hand on heart, I can say that it was absolutely, unequivocally worth it. I have now found my perfect career – one in which I am able to indulge my love of writing and relationship-building while helping charities and other third sector organisations to get the recognition they need to continue their amazing work.

Doing all this as a freelancer is the icing on the cake for me. Much as I love the charities I work with, I crave the variety and freedom of choosing my own clients and organising my own time. The flexibility of my workload allows me to have a better work-life balance than I have ever had, and the endless opportunities are hugely exciting.

It’s easy to think that it would have been better to have picked the ‘right’ career from the start – but in reality, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the many and varied jobs I’ve done. Every single one of them, even including the ones I hated (I’m looking at you, night shift at the service station), has helped me to develop both professionally and personally.

While I’ve reached a point now where I am extremely happy with the work I’m doing, I’ll never stop taking on new challenges, and I expect that my career will continue to evolve. But having finally found my ‘true calling’, I’m confident that there won’t be any more drastic changes in direction. Saying that, if I ever find an old pub for sale and I’ve got a spare few hundred grand… Nah, only joking – I’m staying firmly on the right side of the bar from now on. Cheers to that!

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