I picked up my earliest insights about the work world by starting on the bottom floor – or, sometimes, down in the dirt. It may sound old-fashioned now, but yes, I learned to work the old-fashioned way: laboring from dawn to dusk, being on time, keeping customers happy, and looking for smart ways to make a few extra cents.
Like many kids who have mowed lawns or set up lemonade stands, my first exposure to work came from experimenting with the basics of entrepreneurship. At age 11, I started a fresh-produce delivery service in the small Michigan town where I grew up. I planted, cultivated, and harvested my crops, and hired my 6-year-old brother to convert his Radio Flyer wagon into a delivery truck.
My take for an entire summer of vegetable cultivation? A whopping $14. Not enough to replace the wagon with a real truck, but more than enough to give me a taste of how business works, and how work is at the heart of business. I learned that running your own concern is hard — especially when success depends on the weather and the neighbors’ summer vacation plans.
Not long ago, manual labor was a rite of passage into nearly every industry. Bussing tables, shingling a roof, detasseling corn — the kind of demanding, often repetitive, work that left you bone-tired at the end of the day.
Some may feel that it’s a privilege to avoid that kind of work — but I don’t. Business is more than sitting at a desk to generate spreadsheets; it’s knowing how people work together. Someone who’s never worked on a farm, in a restaurant or in a mailroom may have trouble relating to the kinds of physical labor people have been doing for millennia, and on which much of the global economy still relies.
Instead, I feel privileged that my first jobs taught me about the satisfaction, pain, and potential of careers that begin with plain old hard work.
Indeed, the uncertainty and relative unprofitability of my first venture in the garden spurred me to find a steadier paycheck. At 14, I managed to get hired at the cafeteria at Michigan State University. Five days a week, starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m., I bussed tables for 75 cents an hour. My boss was gruff and demanding, and I had a long bike commute on either side; but my paycheck added up to $25 per week — twice as much as I’d earned in a whole summer of growing vegetables.
Even better, I was getting a hands-on feel for how a conventional career path works. If I excelled at bussing dishes, I could move up to dishwasher for five cents more per hour. And who knew where that could lead?
For me, it was to the college mailroom, where I delivered interdepartmental mail. Soon, people I met in the biochemistry department hired me to clean pipettes, operate a gas chromatograph, and dispose of ‘used’ laboratory rats. By then I was making twice what I did in the cafeteria.
Before long, a few grad students, having noticed my ability to keep the lab tidy, hired me to clean their dorm rooms. Overseeing the cleaning of a dozen messy student rooms presented the chance to be my own boss again. The pay was right and the hours flexible, so I put traditional ladder-climbing back on hold.
I wasn’t even out of high school and already I’d tasted two primary career modes – working for others and working for myself. I’d become familiar with the drawbacks and rewards of each; and I would shuttle back and forth between the two for the next fifty years, working my way through consulting, real estate, teaching, founding an investment firm and serving on boards.
In today’s business world, and at the many MBA programs around the country, it’s easy to forget that, for many people, bruising labor isn’t only the stuff of summer jobs. It’s how billions of workers put food on the table, support their families and pay the rent.
There’s no substitute for having done this kind of work yourself – and not simply as research. Understanding hard work will keep you in touch with employees from the headquarters to the tarmac, from the boardroom to the construction site. In my case, it started with vegetables, a wagon, and $14. Decades later, the numbers have grown a bit; but what hasn’t changed is the desire to work hard alongside people at every level of an organization, building something that’s meaningful to all concerned