“I Apologize for Wearing a Goofy-Looking Hat While I Take Charge of My Life”
In the past several years that I’ve spent interviewing, coaching, and training young professionals, I’ve spoken with thousands of people who worked in the following kinds of jobs: maintenance, fast food, retail, dine-in restaurants, and daycare. Most of them have been ambitious young people who expressed an interest in becoming entrepreneurs or succeeding in the business world. When they talked about what they did for a living, a fairly large percentage of them sheepishly confessed their job titles as if they were confessing a crime to a cop. When I asked them why they were speaking about their jobs so apologetically, they typically said something along the following lines: “Well, it’s just a fast food job. It’s not like I work at a bank or something.” It always amazes me that people have such an easy time seeing themselves as losers for working at a place where they flip burgers, but then they automatically assume that other people are winners just because they work in prestigious looking buildings.
This reminds me of a young man I met at a conference who told me that he worked at a local independently owned “Hot Dog on a Stick” type of restaurant. Since the business was very small and the owner was a family friend, he had the opportunity to get a ton of mentorship about the different facets of running a business. In addition to ringing up orders and serving hot dogs, he also learned several valuable things about accounting practices, inventory management, marketing techniques, and management responsibilities. Since it was his dream to own a business some day, he considered his gig at the hot dog restaurant to be the ideal place for learning how to start his own venture. This same young man also worked part-time at a bank. And even though he made less money, had less responsibility, and learned nothing outside of the role he was hired to do, his friends respected him much more for the bank job than the hot dog job. According to him, the reason was simple: When he went to work at the bank, he wore a suit. When he went to work at the hot dog place, he wore a goofy looking apron and a goofy looking hat. Now who would you respect more: A man in a suit or a man with a goofy looking hat who serves you hot dogs?
“Hi, I’m the CEO of a Company That Doesn’t Have a Mission, a Product, or a Customer, but at Least it’s Not a Menial Job. Ya know what I’m saying?”
I don’t know how you would answer that question about the man in the suit versus the man in the goofy looking hat, but I do know how a lot of young people are answering that question today because many of them are making career choices that prioritize looking respectable over learning to create value. We live in a world where people would rather call themselves the CEO of “whatever their name is + the word ‘enterprises’” even if they have no actual customers than go get a job at a sandwich shop where they can serve real people, create real value, and gain real experience. Why? Because you don’t get a business card for working at a sandwich shop.
There’s nothing inherently bad about preferring banks over fast food restaurants as your working environment of choice. Nor is there anything inherently contemptible about wanting a fancy title, a nice business card, and a cool looking workspace. The sad part, however, is that more and more people seem to mistake such things for “being entrepreneurial” or “doing business.”
Forget about having an actual mission. Forget about having a definable product or service. Forget about having real customers. People want to be entrepreneurs and they don’t have time to fool around with lowly menial work.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in a position where you can do the things you want to do without making compromises or taking stepping stones, then go do those things with unapologetic abandon. If you’re one of those people who knows what it feels like to lower your voice and bow your head when talking about what you do for a paycheck, however, then I’d like to share with you four reasons why you shouldn’t despise your so-called menial job:
1. It makes your world smaller by weakening your concept of what business is:
Business is not the art of playing dress up. Business is the art of solving other people’s problems or satisfying other people’s desires in a way that’s unique enough to make them willing to pay you for the services/products you provide. If you’re doing those things, you are involved in the business world. If you’re not doing those things, you’re not involved in the business world. Yes, you may have designed pretty business cards. Yes, you may have built a cool website. Yes, you may have dubbed yourself the CEO of Me, Me, & Me. But until you have something to sell and someone to sell it to, you’re just playing a game of dress up. A person who puts in a hard and honest day’s work at McDonald’s is much more involved in the world of free enterprise than someone who calls themselves an entrepreneur without actually doing anything that creates value for customers. When you look down on menial work, it makes it easier for you to fool yourself about this kind of stuff.
The moment you buy into overly romantic ideas about what it means to do business, you start to see yourself as successful based on superficial things that have nothing to do with customer service and revenue generation. This can easily breed a sense of entitlement if you begin to think of wealth as something you deserve solely because of your credentials or your self-esteem. If you show up to your job looking at the work you do as a gruesome middle passage through slavery, you’ll collect your paycheck (if you last long enough with that attitude) and nothing more. If you refuse to look at your job as menial, however, and you choose to look at it as an opportunity to build social capital and become more valuable, you will consistently learn insights that are transferrable to other contexts.
Some of the best profit-making opportunities are located in areas of life that aren’t glamorous. If you limit your concept of doing business to things like being the next Mark Zuckerburg or Elon Musk, you’ll overlook valuable problems that are waiting for an entrepreneurial solution. And you’ll rob yourself of the opportunity to learn from some of the smartest and most disciplined people in the world: those who do the “dirty work” of making your life awesome by performing the very tasks that you despise.
2. It hinders your ability to respect and relate to other people.
Unless you plan on opening a business that only sells products to really rich people who think of themselves as being too good for menial work, one of your greatest assets is going to be your ability to connect with a diverse range of people in a way that makes them want to be on your side. Do you know what the best way to do that is? It’s to be the kind of person who takes genuine interests in others and who’s really good at showing respect to people regardless of their background. If you sincerely believe that it would make you a loser to work at Burger King, then what in the world are you assuming about the people who do that for a living? Do you see them as losers too? Do you believe you’ll be better than them if you open a business or get a fancy job? Even if you keep those thoughts to yourself, those attitudes will show up in the way you serve, sell, hire, manage, and network with people.
Your day job, even if you don’t particularly love it, is one of the highest expressions of your personal power. It shows your willingness to invest in yourself. It demonstrates a sense of self-ownership. It offers proof of your ability to win other people’s trust. And it shows that you have enough pride and perseverance to do whatever it is you need to do in order to make your priorities a reality. Looking at your “menial work” in this way is not only much better for your self-esteem, but it makes it much easier for you to be the kind of person who makes everyone around them feel a little more valuable. Do you think that character trait is good or bad for your professional life?
3. It increases the probability that you’ll get stuck with something you don’t like:
It’s easy to get seduced by the idea that you need to be really unhappy about where you are in life before you can become motivated to change things. While it’s certainly true that dissatisfaction with the present moment can be a powerful force that inspires people to create a better future, this only works when people channel that dissatisfaction into more initiative, not less. Frustration can make you feel more determined and rebellious, but it’s not a substitute for getting things done. Anger doesn’t transform your life, action does. Never make the mistake of equating your mood with morality. Irritation is when you feel dissatisfied with something. Integrity is when you choose to take responsibility for altering the conditions that make you dissatisfied.
The people who move on to do “bigger and better things” are the ones who adopt an opportunistic approach to leveraging their current resources and connections. They do things like the following: work more shifts in order to save more money, network with customers in order to find new opportunities, improve their relationship with management in order to get a good recommendation with they leave, choose to see their job as an investor who pays their bills while they develop their side hustle during off hours, look for chances on and off the clock to develop new skills, and so on. If your dissatisfaction with the present is making you late for work all the time and grumpy in your interaction with customers, you’re more likely to get stuck in the same role or be demoted to a less valuable role. If you really want to move on to something better, the last thing you should do is treat your current situation as if it’s a completely oppressive condition that offers you no opportunities for professional advancement.
4. It weakens the strength of your inspirational messages:
I’m going to sound a bit curmudgeonly here, but stick with me.
We live in the golden age of internet positivity where everyone and their neighbor is constantly sharing quotes, videos, and blogs that are aimed at awakening others to a more inspired life. I always believed that the best motivational thinkers are the ones who went out into the real world, got knocked around a little, defied the odds, made some good things happen, and lived to tell the story. But today I meet more and more young people who haven’t worked a single job and their #1 dream is to inspire others to create a fulfilling career. There are people on this planet who have no concept of what it’s like to even have to take out the garbage, but their heartfelt “calling” is to help you take charge of your life. This bothers me precisely because I care very deeply about motivational messages and I want them to be taken seriously by as many people as possible. And nothing makes a motivational message sound more naive and unconvincing than when the speaker has a total lack of experience in the arena of ever having to adjust his or her attitude in order to adapt to unpleasant workplace challenges. If you want to inspire people to “live your best life now” or “design an awesome lifestyle” or “become a better version of yourself,” then it would be a really good starting point if you don’t treat yourself like a victim simply because you temporarily have to do what the overwhelming majority of the world’s citizens have to do: show up, be consistent, carry your weight, make yourself useful, and get things done even when it’s not fun and fulfilling.
You don’t need to make yourself suffer unnecessarily nor do you need to deny yourself opportunities to follow your passion. But if you’re one of the millions of people whose dreams aren’t being handed to them on a personal platter, then make an effort to embody the motivational messages you wish to sell. I’m not saying you should stop sharing your inspirational quotes merely because you’re not old enough or because you haven’t suffered enough. The last thing we need in this world is the chronological snobbery of some adult saying you don’t have the right to be an influencer until you’re 30 or something similarly silly. What I’m saying is that you should strive to “be the change you want to see in the world.” That is, work hard and be a living example of how someone can create a desired result in spite of starting out with less than desirable conditions. You can’t inspire others to fulfil their destiny if you’re too busy condemning your own starting point as some kind of cosmic mistake.
The Power of Professional Thinking:
Whenever I go on about anything that sounds like self-empowerment, I usually have someone in the audience who says “This is great stuff to think about, but I can’t (or don’t want) to be positive all the time.” And to that, I say “Good. Why in the world would you ever want to force yourself to be positive all the time anyway?” My message here isn’t about the power of being positive. It’s about the power of being professional.
You don’t have to exercise blind faith in some mystical belief that everything is going to be easy if you just work hard enough nor do you need to pretend to be happy about the things you hate. You only need to walk and work with a little self-respect. And you need to treat the respect you have for yourself as something that doesn’t come and go with your place of employment.
Being entrepreneurial has nothing to do with sitting around on bean bags and drinking mochas while you take selfies of yourself working at an oceanside location. It’s about approaching the things you do with a sense of self-ownership and value-creation. Entrepreneurialism is the attitude of someone who approaches their work with a sense of artistry and autonomy wherever they go.
There are people who have no soul and they work at banks, wear suits, have well-designed business cards, and have pretty office spaces with baristas. And there are people with a deep sense of purpose who serve hot dogs and root beers for a paycheck.
In the end, there are only two kinds of jobs: those that move your life in a direction you want to go in and those that don’t. This is the only distinction that matters.
If you’re doing the kind of work that’s moving your life forward, then lift your head up, take pride in what you do, and do it with all your might. There’s nothing menial about choosing to be a creative force in your professional life.