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Advice to a Younger Generation On Taking Dead-End Jobs

From the cartoonist, @gapingvoid aka Hugh MacLeod

Dead-end jobs often provide a fresh reality: a realization for the kind of work you don’t ever want to do. Mine started with sales job at a clothing store in a shopping mall. I knew it was a dead-end job because I shopped there often, and the staff changed every season like their inventory. These dead-end jobs are not intrinsically bad, but rather we make them so. Perhaps the duties don’t resonate, or we feel entitled to higher responsibilities that speak to our passions and skills. Alas, the mindset of the young.

On June 23, 1885, Andrew Carnegie delivered a speech to the students of the Curry Commercial College in Pittsburg. He opened with [emphasis mine]:

“It is well that young men should begin at the beginning and occupy the most subordinate positions. Many of the leading business men of Pittsburg had a serious responsibility thrust upon them at the very threshold of their career. They were introduced to the broom, and spent the first hours of their business lives sweeping out the office. I notice we have janitors and janitresses now in offices, and our young men unfortunately miss that salutary branch of a business education. But if by chance the professional sweeper is absent any morning the boy who has the genius of the future partner in him will not hesitate to try his hand at the broom.”

While being young and in a dead-end job, it’s difficult to understand the opportunity that you’re in to develop some necessary skills, both for life and for your career; it is only in hindsight that you realize how much your of past experiences, whether good or ill, molded you. For one, it’s about learning patience and paying your dues. If you don’t have the patience to sweep, what makes you believe that you’ll have the patience for more arduous, emotional tasks like selling or pitching ideas or working under harsh deadlines? While you may be skilled and smart, most people will see you as young—and that’s it.

In Take My Advice: Letters To The Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two, a collection of letters from people you’ve probably never heard of, American novelist Florence Virginia King offers sound advice for dead-end jobs.

She said [emphasis mine]:

“Get a dead-end-job—they’re plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you’ll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little trumps are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee’s farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: ‘You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed.’”

It takes a serious level of self-awareness and humility—words that are rarely associated with the younger generation, much less our culture at large—to know that a job is a dead-end, but to perform the duties with enthusiasm and a lens for learning.

What lens is this, exactly? Ryan Holiday, in his must-read book, The Obstacle Is The Way, talks about the things that that we readily avoid in our lives and careers, but essentially why these roadblocks are opportunities in disguises:

“Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. … But you, you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re given right now. You just phone it all in, cash your paycheck, and dream of some higher station in life. Or you think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter.


Everything we do matters—whether it’s making smoothies while you save up money or studying for the bar—even after you already achieved the success you sought. Everything is a chance to do and be your best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away.”

Sometimes we justify dead-end jobs as a way to climb up a ladder. While this is true to an extent, it’s an unhelpful attitude that won’t last. Business writer Tom Peters wrote a poignant essay titled The Brand Called You in 1997 which continues to stand the test of time in its timeliness and practicality.

He admonished [emphasis mine]:

“Instead of making yourself a slave to the concept of a career ladder, reinvent yourself on a semiregular basis. Start by writing your own mission statement, to guide you as CEO of Me Inc. What turns you on? Learning something new? Gaining recognition for your skills as a technical wizard? Shepherding new ideas from concept to market? What’s your personal definition of success? Money? Power? Fame? Or doing what you love? However you answer these questions, search relentlessly for job or project opportunities that fit your mission statement. And review that mission statement every six months to make sure you still believe what you wrote.

No matter what you’re doing today, there are four things you’ve got to measure yourself against. First, you’ve got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you’ve got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you’ve got to be a broad-gauged visionary — a leader, a teacher, a farsighted “imagineer.” Fourth, you’ve got to be a businessperson — you’ve got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes.

It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.”
Pair this Robert Greene’s advice on the mindset of an apprentice, why rewards are toxic to our careers, and my most popular post in 2014, advice to the young and ambitious 20somethings who think they should be successful by now.