I was raised by a single mother and, as the eldest of five children, I felt a special obligation to help shoulder the financial burdens created by my personal expenses. So, at age 12, I became a boy on a mission—or, more accurately, a boy who needed to raise money to go on a mission. But how? Well, it turned out that our church’s membership included many business owners, one of whom, an electrician, graciously offered me an opportunity to perform small jobs for his company. At the age of 12!
In short order, I was hooked, thrilled to be able to earn my own money. I worked for this kind man whenever he needed extra help to demo products or to carry supplies and tools for his crew. I enjoyed learning from him and his team. Electricians work very fast. They don’t mess around. I saw how precise and committed they were and that work ethic inspired and grew in me. I wanted to prove I was part of the team and be recognized by the crew as a hard worker.
I made a minimum of $7 an hour, which was enough for me to feel accomplished. Most of the time, I worked weekends or during summer breaks. I remember always being super tired after work. I would go home, shower, eat and pass out. It was hard work by itself. But I was also in middle school at the time and very involved with after school activities. I was an avid soccer player. I played for the JV team in 7th grade and the varsity in 8th grade. My plan was to continue to play in high school.
In the summer after 8th grade, a church friend asked if I would be interested in working with him. He worked for another gentleman at my church who owned a cleaning company. Recently, an employee had left and the company now needed someone to help my friend clean college dorm rooms at a local college. I was up for it, because this felt more like a real job. I worked 8:00 am to 4:00 pm every day for a few weeks. It was great working with my friend. We developed a close friendship, even though he was three years older than I was. Like the electrician and his crew, my friend did not mess around. He took his responsibilities very seriously. Every morning, he’d go over our tasks. He knew all the different cleaning products and which one worked best for a particular chore. It always amazed me how fast he cleaned.
The work wasn’t fun, but we made the best out of it. The demands were athletic. You were always changing positions—kneeling, sloshing, climbing and moving things around in order to thoroughly clean them. Playing music on a radio helped the time go by and turned the whole process into a kind of dance. In fact, sometimes I would bust some dance moves while cleaning. I admired my friend’s work ethic. We both knew this was only a temporary gig and that we’d grow out of it. Most of the time my fingers were sore at the end of the day from scrubbing stickers and leftover poster board paper from the walls. But I was grateful for the job. For a 13-year-old kid, it was a good experience and decent money.
After the dorm-cleaning job finished, I was still contacted by the cleaning company whenever they needed extra help. I always accepted, but eventually, this led to conflicts. With summer came freshman soccer tryouts. I avoided getting a physical so I could continue to work and make money. When school started, I decided to stop by practice to speak to the coach about playing. He said it was too late and would have to wait until the following year. I was not that upset. For my entire freshman year, I was now free to work for the electrician and the cleaning company whenever my help was needed.
In the summer before my sophomore year, I was again asked to work part time for the cleaning company. It would be my friend’s last year because he was going to college in the fall. I jumped at the chance and said goodbye soccer. At times I thought about playing soccer but making money and providing for myself was more important. My responsibilities included two hospital locations and a music store warehouse. There was also lots of post-construction cleaning. Some of the houses we cleaned were really impressive.
Curiosity and Relationship Building
I enjoyed working with the owner. Not only did he run a good company, he was good company. He always liked to jam out to jazz music on our rides to the sites and back to the office. I learned a lot from him about business. Speed and precision were always key. But we also had to be friendly and patient with our customers. I learned how to be more responsive—a skill that would come in handy later in my life. I also developed relationships with some regular customers. I shared my aspirations with them. One man owned a chain of music stores. We became good friends and remain so today. We’ve even worked on some education initiatives together.
After my sophomore year, I played soccer for my high school summer team. It was a lot of fun. I had a great relationship with the coach. He was one of the assistant principals at my high school. His constant encouragement revived my love of the game. I was surprised that I was still able to keep up with the guys who had played during the time I missed. But once summer was done I continued to work for the cleaning company rather than pursue soccer. It was my junior year. I needed to make money and came to depend on the income. But I didn’t like the work any better. On Tuesdays, I cleaned at a hospital, which included vacuuming a very long walkway from the indoor garage. Not fun.
Most of my close friends played basketball for the high school team. I enjoyed working out with them, but I was not the best basketball player. Nevertheless, in November I thought of trying out for the team. The problem was I needed a physical. By the time I got it, there was only one more tryout—on a Tuesday night! So I asked my friends to bring me to the hospital to do my routine cleaning. I rushed the entire time and did not wear my work gear. Meanwhile, my friends were waiting outside. When I was almost done, my boss entered the building. Naturally, the first thing he said was, “Where’s your work shirt?” Then he said, “Doesn’t look like you cleaned the window right.”
This time sports won. I told him I quit, which might not have been the best decision rationally. But I was sick of always missing out because of work and sacrificing everything else in the process. When I got into the car, I told my friends I quit my job. They were surprised and laughed. At the tryout, I demonstrated the required agility, but in the end did not make the team. Did I feel bad about it? No. How could I? I had only made it to one tryout; everyone else had attended all three. I was just happy to tryout with my friends. A few days later, my mother dropped me off to see my old boss. I needed to pick up my last check. He was very nice and even took the time to provide some extra mentoring. I thanked him for the opportunity to work for him.
Working for Mr. Tux
It did not take long before I got another job. By February of my junior year, I was working for Mr. Tux/Men’s Wearhouse as a sales associate. The company needed to hire high school students to push their prom promotion deals. My marketing teacher referred me to the job. I was ecstatic when I was hired. I was the youngest person in my location. I worked 3:30 pm to 8:00 pm weekdays and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on Saturdays. The work pace at Mr. Tux was faster than the cleaning company. Plus, I had to dress up everyday because the work was customer facing. And since it was a sales job, I always had to find opportunities to upsell our tuxedos.
Two managers provided training. One focused on relationship building; the other on the product. The one who focused on relationships was more effective. So I made that my sales strategy too. A good percentage of our sales came from booking weddings. Working with the groom and bride was always interesting. The groom never had much to say. It was the bride, mother of the bride, or mother of the groom who made all the decisions. Still, I made sure the groom had input. Even if it was only deciding the shirt style, or choosing between a conventional tie and a bow tie. I learned the backend of managing a retail store, closing, balancing the register, depositing checks and dealing with unsatisfied customers.
Mr. Tux/Men's Wearhouse stores were located nationwide. Sometimes folks would call in, fax, or email us their measurements. That caused some problems if the tux did not fit when they came to pick it up. But we always had a two-day window to make adjustments. I learned how to be resourceful. Sometimes we literally saved weddings by delivering the tuxedos ourselves the night before. Once we dropped them off on the wedding day! Those were fun times. I worked for Mr. Tux/Men's Wearhouse for several years, including when I was in college.
What I learned from my Experiences!
Working has been a rewarding experience for me. I earned decent wages, but more importantly, I learned life skills—better communication strategies, conflict resolution and presentation skills among them. I started working at a young age for a singular purpose—to make the money I needed to go on a church mission trip. But what I eventually learned was so much bigger than one job and one event.
The jobs I mentioned here are just some that conflicted with playing sports. And I do regret that I was not able to find a balance between work and soccer. But what I learned from my early work experiences shaped the approach to my post-college career. I am very grateful for the business owners at my church who took me under their wing and taught me the value of hard work. I am also grateful for the relationships I developed—from the folks whose offices I cleaned to the customers I served at Mr. Tux/Men's Wearhouse. Abruptly quitting the cleaning job was not the best decision I ever made, but the eventual result was well worth it.