When I was 18, I spent my summer working on a small, local farm. At the start of the week, the farmer would list out on a piece of paper all the things he wanted me to complete that week. The list would vary, one day I would chop wood, another I would weed a small garden, and the next I would move things around the barn. He had a full time assistant, he just needed my help with some of the smaller items. I didn’t really care about the tasks, I was young and dumb, I was just looking to earn a few bucks before I went back to college.
Come noontime on the dot, the farmer would invite me to sit with him on his little porch for lunch. It would just be the two of us and he would make tomato sandwiches, hamburgers, whatever he had around the house. (He got me to try zucchini for the first time. He liked that he got me to “broaden my horizons.”) I was quiet and reserved, but the farmer had a way to getting me to talk. Before taking over the family farm, he had worked as a teacher in a large city and liked to challenge me on what I wanted to do with my life.
Learning on the job
On one of my first days, I remember complaining to him about some worry I had. I’m sure it had to do with covering the enormous cost of college and the internal pressures I felt to get good grades, make something of myself, and make my family proud of me.
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“Most of the stuff people worry about is never gonna happen.” He joked about worrying about what was important, what I could control, and leaving the rest to the “folks rocking away on their rocking chairs.”
Another time I complained about the rich kids in my town who had nice, new cars. I complained that they were living on EZ Street and didn’t have to work for everything like I did. I remember even questioning why I didn’t have a shiny new sports car.
“When you wallow with pigs, you better expect to get dirty.” I remember looking a him strange. Pigs? Dirty? But, I got his message loud and clear, be grateful, don’t compare yourself with anyone else, and leave envy and jealousy to others. After a long pause, he told me that being jealous of others, was beneath me. I had a “bright future” and didn’t need to stoop to others level.
When I complained a few weeks later about having to drive my mother somewhere after work. I remember even joking that I could work late.
“When you make a promise, keep it, hell or high water. For good measure, he added, “when your mother calls, you jump.” I told him that I was just joking, but he wouldn’t hear of it, saying, “It’s your mother, she deserves your best.”
New job, similar messages
The next summer, I worked on a roofing crew, that consisted mainly of a few skilled men and a bunch of gopher teenagers like myself. I found myself one week working with the oldest guy on the crew. He walked slow and spoke even slower, but he expected you to move when he barked.
One time I made fun of one of the other gophers, who had a reputation for being a slacker. I thought he’d like my joke.
“Sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all.”
When I was late one Monday morning, he didn’t yell at me, he didn’t make a fool of me.
Image by Manfred Richter via Pixabay
“The biggest troublemaker you’ll ever have to deal with looks across at you from the mirror.”
Country farms to Wall Street
Each of those experiences left a mark on me. In my career, I’ve had a chance to work with country farmers and janitors, wearing rough bib overalls and dirty boots, and CEOs and business leaders, in fancy cufflinks and suits costing hundreds (dare I say, thousands) of dollars. The style of dress has never been a measure of the man or woman. A pair of bib overalls doesn’t make you less smart or vice versa. The person inside is what counts. I’ve met good and bad in both roles. Like most things, we’d all be better off if we got to know the person first.
What do you think? What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned from bosses and coworkers over the years?