Like most high school and college students, I went through a lot of summer jobs.
I was a hostess at Applebee’s. I worked in a Ford Motor Company plant where I drove a hi-lo, picking car parts to ship off to assembly plants around the world. I was a bartender at a dive bar outside Detroit, a waitress at a sushi restaurant back when the only customers were Japanese, and I managed a chain of tanning salons.
I absolutely loved every one of those jobs.
I’m not kidding. I mean, I loved them. I still keep in touch with people from nearly every one of those jobs. My family teased me endlessly for crying on the last day of each job as I left to return to school in the fall.
As an adult in the grown-up working world, my experiences weren’t always as wonderful. My first professional jobs out of graduate school felt markedly different from my summer jobs — heavier, more serious, with much more at stake.
Somehow, being in something longer-term that was referred to as a “real” job seemed to have changed my perspective. I started thinking — a lot.
I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what I was doing and how I was doing it — was I working to my potential? How did my job stack up to others? Was I getting enough opportunities, challenge, pay, accolades?
Should I settle in or continue to look for something better? Was I doing well? What did my colleagues think of me? Did three business trips this month mean I’d have to travel a lot in the future, or was this month a fluke? What did it all mean?
It’s clear to me now that all of that thinking is what changed it for me.
The principles that led to me loving my summer jobs but not my “real” jobs are actually what I study and teach in my career today (for the record, I am positively smitten with the “work” I do today, just like in the good ole’ days).
I help people see that our experience of life comes from within us — from our own thinking — not at all from jobs, outside circumstances, or what what’s going on in the world around us.
And I teach that when our thinking settles down — as it naturally does all the time — our experience of life changes. We get to experience life as it unfolds in front of us rather than simply experiencing our thinking about life.
We get to discover life rather than confirm our theories about it. (In case it’s not obvious, the former tends to be a much richer, more fulfilling experience.)
In my summer jobs, I didn’t have much on my mind. I was in the moment, living in the continual unfolding of life. It was fabulous.
I instantly and easily connected with the people around me and threw myself into tasks that one might think are unimportant or mundane, except I didn’t because I wasn’t thinking so much. I was just being, and it was unbelievably satisfying.
That spirit of simply being and watching life unfold was completely missing in my early “real” jobs. I thought I had to take those jobs very seriously and make things happen by will and discipline.
As a result of that misunderstanding, I wasn’t actually present in those jobs at all; I was lost in my analysis of them.
I remember wracking my brain, trying to figure out where I went wrong in my post-grad jobs. I was doing work that seemed more meaningful and — in theory, anyway — more interesting than anything I had ever done before. Why did it fall so short of my summer experiences?
I did all the career coaching exercises where you look back at features present in work you enjoyed to identify themes and connect dots. Practices that are well-meaning, but firmly rooted in the idea that your happiness comes from what you do rather than how you are.
But as you might imagine, they didn’t work for me because what in the world do serving up drinks, picking auto parts, and frying spring break-bound college students in tanning beds have in common with each other? I liked people? That wasn’t much to go on.
I didn’t get it until I saw that the thread running through the jobs I loved was a lack of thinking about my experience, which made way for more actual experience.
My summer jobs taught me one big thing: I can be happy anywhere. Like seriously, deeply content in any circumstance.
That doesn’t mean I don’t care what I do. We all have innate preferences and things we feel drawn toward.
But I don’t have to do, or avoid doing, anything in particular in order to have a fulfilling life. I don’t particularly want to drive a hi-lo in an auto factory or mix drinks now, but knowing that I could have an amazing life doing those things frees incredibly freeing.