When I was nineteen, one of my college professors wanted me to stick around campus for the summer to help him with a large project. Unfortunately, the project would really only employ me for about fifteen hours a week, so to supplement that time, he helped me hunt for another job on campus. Eventually, he connected me with another job, one that seemed really intriguing on the surface and seemed like a lot of fun for the first week or so.
It turned out to be the worst job of my life.
My job was largely to perform menial tasks in a plant research lab. Most of my work initially centered around making large batches of agar – basically, I followed one of several recipes to make a particular type of gelatin upon which bacteria could grow in petri dishes. This was fun – I actually enjoyed it and I learned quite a bit from this. I asked tons of questions about why I was making this particular agar, what people were doing on their projects, and so on.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm and expressed interest was a big mistake. Most of the other low-level workers quickly disliked my enthusiasm. They would glare at me when I asked questions (even though the scientists were usually very happy to answer them) and make comments like “Why do you care?”
After a few weeks, this resentment turned to sabotage. Several batches of the agar I made turned out completely wrong – and eventually I realized that several of the ingredients in those agars had been stored and labeled incorrectly. Obviously, the scientists in the lab were fairly upset with me for wasting a lot of time and quite a bit of lab supplies, so I began to be given worse and worse tasks. Most of the other workers in the lab basically refused to speak to me because I had been deemed a “favorite” early on because of my enthusiasm. So, what began as an exciting job started to really turn to drudgery.
Eventually, I found myself in a basement at midnight shoveling dirt into a sieve and shaking it to produce finer dirt for planting – and I realized that I hated this job. I was expected to get through several hundred pounds of dirt a night, go home, get some sleep, and be back at work in the morning for my morning tasks, followed by some afternoon hours working for the professor that originally got me the job. I was essentially working about fifteen hours a day at this point spread out through a twenty four hour day in such a way that I couldn’t get more than two or three hours of sleep.
It finally came to a head one morning. I was exhausted after a long night of shoveling dirt. At about four in the morning, I fell asleep on a bench outside of the lab, which is where I slept until about seven or so when one of the scientists came bursting out of the lab, yelling at me. Apparently, someone had spilled one of the chemicals all over the lab and, since I had obviously been there for a while, I must have been the person that did it. I didn’t know what the chemical was, but I was pretty concerned that it was carcinogenic. The scientist, however, was so irate at the mess that he ordered me to start cleaning it immediately.
I was fired.
To this day, I don’t know why the chemical was there, but I’m vaguely sure that one of the coworkers who disliked me was responsible for it – and may have even planted the idea in the scientist’s head that I had done it. But that’s water under the bridge now.
Even though the experience was a terrible one, I did learn some valuable lessons.
Build strong relationships with all of your coworkers as early as possible. Sure, we all want a strong relationship with our boss, but we also need a strong relationship with everyone we rely on in the workplace. Spend time getting to know all of these people on a personal level and make an effort to take a genuine interest in who they are and what they’re working on. The people around you can make or break you in countless little ways.
There is value in doing even the most menial job well. Many people, when charged with tasks that they think are “below” them, don’t put real effort into doing that simple task well. I fell into that trap with some of my later menial tasks at that lab. I felt like I should be doing interesting stuff in the lab – actually assisting on projects instead of down in the basement shoveling dirt. So I didn’t bother to put any pride in my work. I’d shovel around dirt in a sloppy fashion, letting big chunks miss the sieve entirely. I’d spend the absolute minimum amount of effort I could when moving the dirt, often making a big wheelbarrow of the dirt into an obstacle instead of putting it in a place where it was useful.
What I didn’t see is that doing sloppy work on these minimal tasks did nothing more than make me look far worse than before. Simple tasks are a great opportunity for you to show your excellence, because you can easily go far beyond the minimum.
Procedures can be annoying, but they can also save you in a pinch. One big problem with the lab was the lack of standard procedures for many tasks. I would be told how to do something, but the procedure was rarely documented at all. This came to a head when I was ordered to clean up the substance – there was no procedure in place at all for handling cleaning up an unknown chemical.
If you are charged with a new task that will be done regularly, take notes on the procedure you follow, document it, and share the documentation. This will virtually never be a bad thing. Even if you’re the only person doing it, it can help demonstrate how you’re making the workplace better, but the best result is that it gets others to document things. If there had been documentation on how to clean up the mess, I could have easily turned to that documentation. Instead, I was forced to make a choice and refuse to clean it up – and that resulted in my firing.
Every experience we have in life teaches us something if we’re willing to open ourselves to the lessons that it can provide. What did you learn from your worst job?