Some of the greatest business leaders/entrepreneurs of our time had the humblest of roots and are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Just look at Daniel Schwartz, Burger King’s 32 year old CEO. Schwartz proudly boasts of cleaning 15 toilets in 2 days and making a Whopper in less than 35 seconds. Warren Buffett, many times ranked as the richest man in the world, began his days delivering newspapers. Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computers, washed dishes at age 12 in a Chinese restaurant. There are thousands of similar success stories out there. When you ask these successful entrepreneurs about their not so famous beginnings, they share a common belief – being thankful for those experiences to learn the value of money and doing what it took to be successful. I’m a firm believer these success stories are due to a belief that has biblical references, ““Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” (Luke 16:10). As a father, I believe the greatest lesson I can instill in my children is that no job is beneath them and a serving leader is worthy of people’s respect.
My career as a Dump Truck driver
My mom was so proud the day I told her I’d be driving a dump truck for a living. What mother wouldn’t! I had only spent the last 5 years making the most of my undergrad career, attending 3 colleges and still managing to graduate Cum Laude with a healthy list of course credits to boot. I’m proud that I didn’t cheat myself of the big college experience while maintaining my responsibility to get good grades.
Driving a dump truck, although not my job of choice, was a very humbling experience. I had just finished the last 6 months living in the woods trapping black bears for the US Fish and Wildlife Service as an intern for $75/week – an extension of my wildlife biology undergraduate degree believe it or not. I have never been one to shy away from a life changing experience for fear of not making real $. Besides, how many people can claim they trapped over 150 black bears, came face to face with a red wolf or nearly attacked by an alligator? I had also recently been accepted into the MBA program at the University of Tennessee and was looking to put aside some spending money to get me through the next year.
Ever since I was a teenager, I was required to have a job and pay for myself. No free lunches in my family. I did everything from delivering auto parts to brick mason laboring to landscaping to sandblasting rusted car parts to waiting tables. I’m a big believer our experiences in life shape the people we become and knowing people’s story explains their station in life. The differentiator is that some use these experiences as stepping stones while others become convinced they’re not capable or deserving of more and become trapped. The work ethic and appreciation for independence is something I am extremely grateful my parents ingrained in me at an early age.
Driving the dump truck was just part of the summer drama leading up to starting B school. At 23, some would probably never admit to such living arrangements but I am not ashamed of my blue collar roots and thankful I learned early you can’t spend what you don’t have. When I returned home from living in the woods, I found myself in a housing situation with a need for 3 months of housing and no measurable income to justify renting an apartment. With no alternative, I decided to live with my dad, grandparents and uncle, all sharing 2 bedrooms. It was quite the setup and worthy of a Jeff Foxworthy joke. My grandparents had one bedroom and my dad had the 2nd bedroom. My uncle worked night shifts so he’d sleep in the 2nd bedroom during the day. We had a spare twin mattress that I’d drag into the living room and sleep on each night. In the morning, I’d put up the sheets and drag the mattress back into the 2nd bedroom.
Regarding work, the beauty of driving the dump truck was the conversations I had with my boss. He was a young guy, only 10 years older than me, and he enjoyed asking me quite frequently how it felt to have a college degree and to be driving his dump truck – not pretentiously but just as a matter of fact. He had forgone college and had done quite well for himself hustling in the construction business. I never took offense to his questioning as I politely told him this was just a temporary situation. I might have felt differently had my father not taught me since I was a young kid that no paying job was beneath me. I have always prided myself on doing whatever it takes (legally of course) to pay my bills and never asked for handouts. Perhaps others see things differently and don’t mind their parents/grandparents subsidizing their living until they find the ‘right job’, but I have always viewed my not so glamourous vocations as stepping stones. I was able to motivate myself to do those jobs to the best of my ability knowing I wouldn’t be doing them forever and at the end of the day I owed no one a penny. Personally, college degree or not, I always thought it was cool to roll my sleeves up and do work my colleagues frowned upon.
My career waiting tables:
I think waiting tables is the best preparation for a career in sales or starting your own business. It teaches you from day 1 that your customers control your income. If they aren’t happy, your wallet will suffer, regardless if you had no control over the food preparation. Like every entrepreneur knows, having the best product (or food) doesn’t guarantee you’ll make money. People spend hard earned money and lots of it to have an enjoyable experience. You learn quickly that things will go wrong but taking ownership for the problem without making excuses goes a long way towards making someone happy. Your job is to make the customer feel good about spending their money with YOU. They have choices and will exercise that freedom if you give them a reason. I also learned quickly that a smile and enthusiasm to take care of the customer goes a long way towards setting the tone for their dining/buying experience.
I waited tables for 2 summers during college, one in a high end bar-b-que restaurant (oxymoron I know) and the other in a white table cloth seafood restaurant. Although the average entrees were a 3 to 1 relationship, the level of rudeness, impatience and overall demanding attitudes were comparable. Every day I dealt with someone that expected me to be their personal servant, believing my sole purpose that day was to wait on them hand and foot, never mind the 6 others tables I was waiting on. I loved these tables as it required me to put on my game face and creatively manage their expectations and not overlook the needs of my other tipping patrons. The same is true with business. We all deal with buttheads on a regular basis and we don’t have the luxury of avoiding them. Thanks to those experiences from waiting tables, I learned how to positively impact those interactions and still keep my sanity (and make a $ too).
Paving the path to success:
As you prepare for the challenges of the New Year, think back on your not so glamorous career experiences and take solace knowing you’ve done the small things to prepare you for the big things.
When you reach the top, don’t forget the things that got you to where you are and never be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get dirty.
Serving leaders, those who get in the trenches with their front line employees, are always respected and able to continually deliver results when others can’t. Alternatively, if you’re in the midst of a not so glamorous career, take pride in knowing you are building a foundation and following the footsteps of almost every great business leader. May the actions of Daniel Schwartz inspire you to do what others are scared to do and prepare you for unimaginable success.
I’d love to hear about your best/worst job and how it paved your road to success. We all cherish the “remember when” stories.
Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.