Lessons Learned from my First Job


When people ask "What do you do for a living?"

I'm always proud to respond: "I'm an Associate Creative Director, I work for an advertising agency in Chicago. My job involves managing a team to come up with creative ideas for brands."

Some immediately understand my role while others don't have a clue. They'll look at me and ask exactly what I do or pretend to know and say things like: "That's so cool! I wish I was artistic, too!" Either way, it's been a part of my life for the past eight years and I'm happy with how far I've come. Now this didn't come easy, nor was it glamorous. Finding a career involves putting in the time. It's been hard work, long hours and an insane amount of loyalty to produce great creative work. 

But alas, my life hasn't always been pantone swatches, big idea epiphanies, and pixels. Everyone starts somewhere, and I believe my starting point was the catalyst for one of the many reasons I've arrived at where I am today.

When I was 15, my parents suggested I start making money, a big hint for me to stop asking them to cough it up for imperative teenage needs like rollerblades. Was I ready for a job? Eh, probably not. I could've gone much longer mooching off Mom and Dad. But a great work ethic is and always was instilled in me, and thus I accepted their challenge.

Low and behold I found myself working at Dairy Delight, the local ice cream store three minutes from our house. My pay was probably around $6 an hour but the ice cream flavors were many and discounted for employees and therefore I caved. Mint chocolate chip, salted caramel, and the inevitable acquired talent to swirl soft serve ice cream like a pro? SIGN. ME. UP.

I arrived on day one in a white crisp button down, and pleated khaki shorts. I stood tall and proud in my first ever job ensemble, ready to take on a world of sugar highs and sprinkles. I quickly learned that I was completely overdressed, got tossed a t-shirt, and was taught that I will most likely be covered from head to toe in what might look like ice cream abstract art. Ditching the corporate getup was inevitable.

I distinctly remember one moment when I had just started. The store manager, Sarah, was training me and the line was out the door. Realistically, she needed someone who could scoop and swirl at her expert speed, but she only had me, an ice cream novice. At one moment, an angry older gentlemen in line yelled out, in reference to me:

"What's she good for? Nothing. She's not good for a thing!"

I could understand his rage. This man wanted his delicious cone, and I was a hindrance to the speed at which it would hit his lips. I remember standing there feeling vulnerable, useless and embarrassed. My cheeks were as red as the cherries on top of the sundae's that were being produced at the speed of light.

Immediately, my manager defended me. "In fact, sir, Katie does a lot. She cleans and answers the phone and stocks all of the necessities to keep this place running."

She had saved me and made me feel valued. Despite my lack of knowledge and obvious uncertainty, she stayed positive and patient in her pursuit to make me a good employee. She could have thrown me under the bus or expressed anger. Instead, she taught me how a true leader treats her team.

After my boss had my back, I was inspired to work hard for her to prove myself. I was a quick learner, reciting ice cream jargon that would go over Baskin Robbins employee's heads and formed perfectly round scoops that wooed the long lines and sculpted my adolescent biceps. I was able to find creativity in the small things on the job by making my creations works of art. Perfectly symmetrical soft serve cones? Toppings formed in fun shapes for little kids? Three scoops of ice cream that looked like Mickey Mouse? Yes, all of it and much, much more. Perhaps it wasn't my end all be all dream job, but I was able to express my artistic side through the day to day job. In the process, I made it fun for myself and utilized my talents to shine in what could've been a mediocre job. I realized that I loved creating and putting a twist on anything I could get my hands on. 

I worked hard, stayed late, and went above and beyond my role. Many times my manager trusted me to open and close the shop with her, and I was awarded the ability to eat my own ice cream concoctions whenever I wanted, for FREE. My sweet tooth and I were in our glory. When I received my first paycheck for $100, I was elated. I so naively thought to myself, "$100?!?! I'll never have to work again!" 

That simple incident inspired years of leadership and values that I have passed down to those I've mentored in the creative world. Be good to your people, and they will work hard for you. What's more, I learned that regardless of where you work, there's always a way for your unique talents and point of view to shine through, even if it's not in the job description. Making the most of every experience can take us leaps and bounds from where we are, and teach us a thing or two about ourselves. It can't get any better – or in this case sweeter – than that.