At the height of his success at Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller said, “the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee. And I will pay more for that ability”, said John D., “than for any other under the sun”.
I never thought I’d say this, but working in the service industry is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. As someone with a long history of social anxiety, there’s no doubt in my mind that working retail has been the Archimedes lever to uplift my people skills from “100% awful” to “meh pretty good.”
And to me, pretty good might as well be perfect.
It has taken me a long time to realize this, but my social ineptitude has been dragging me down my whole life.
When I was younger, I was this human chameleon type character, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, or Mystique from the X-men. I was utterly incapable of forming anything beyond surface-level relationships with other people. There were times in college when I’d be hunched over my computer in my dorm room when my roommate’s girlfriend would come in and say hello to me in passing — as a normal person does. Instead of saying “hello” or something equally polite; a simple “how are you?” perhaps, I would just mumble “mmhm” like a neanderthal. Or literally just say “yep”.
It was bad. Red alert, full-retard bad.
I became even more aware of this uncouth social behavior after college when I started going on dates with women.
You read that right: after college.
Fed up with a lifetime of failure with women, I was determined so “solve” dating once and for all. I wanted to get better with women, but little did I know, what I needed was to get better with people. So I joined an online dating site, and it took months before a single woman would talk to me. I read books about how to attract women online; what to say in messages, how to craft a good profile, stuff like that.
Eventually I landed my first date.
*presses nerd glasses firmly to face*
The first dozen or so dates were like interviews. Bad, stale interviews. Questions about employment, schooling history, favorite this, that, and the other thing. All staples of first date conversation, but in my case, the conversation never really developed beyond surface-level facts. And when it did, I tended to linger on topics for too long.
What do you mean you don’t want to talk about Arrested Development anymore?!
I was on a first date at my favorite wine bar, and after the usual rigmarole of Q and A, the topic of conversation shifted to our experiences with online dating.
“Well, I mean, I was never great at dating, so I’m just trying to get better at it, y’know?,” I said, in an earnest display of vulnerability. “I guess I’m just trying to get better at interacting with women and having more engaging conversations.”
I told her I was basically going on these dates for practice; to make up for lost time and missed opportunities. To catch up to everyone else, essentially.
“Oh, ok so you’re autiiistiiiic“, she said, tilting her head back with drawn-out, smug conviction.
“What?! Not really… I mean… well… umm…“
Then, she eased back into her bar stool and took another sip of pinot and scarfed down a wad of cheese mashed into a piece of crusty dough bread.
Autistic, she said.
I’m not really autistic, but needless to say, there was no second date.
It was around this time that I began doing these “experiments” with women that I started working in the service industry. What began as a part-time grad school job somehow evolved into a full-time gig as a manager with modest benefits. The real reason I still work in the service industry has nothing to do with the industry I’m in, or the work itself. The reason is that the day-to-day grind of working retail has given me — and continues to give me — the opportunity to develop and hone my people skills, skills that are majorly lacking.
Simple as that.
On a daily basis I am forced to bust out of my shell and engage with people all day long, whether I’m in the mood to people please or not. Whether I’m feeling outgoing or reserved, I’m forced to connect with strangers, build relationships, and sell some shit.
Ignore the Immediate Payoff, Focus on the Long-Term
Robert Greene said: “when it comes to practical life, what should matter is getting long-term results… that should be the supreme value that guides people’s actions.”
There’s an undeniable stigma attached to working service jobs. People might think they’re lowly jobs that don’t pay much (which they usually don’t) or that they’re somehow not “real” jobs (which is hokum).
I think everyone — especially young people — should have to take a service job at some point in their life. In fact, they should want to. Whether that means working retail, bartending, or being a server at a restaurant, doesn’t matter. What does matter is the rationale for why you’re taking the job in the first place and the mindset you adopt. All service jobs are opportunities to cultivate and hone valuable people skills — skills which are arguably the most important skills you’ll ever need.
Do you know what the best part is? You get paid for it. You get paid to develop the skills that will help you in every conceivable way moving forward in life.
Every single way.
Think about it this way: you can view your job as a daily grind where you wake up every morning to suck the day’s dick, as the crude phrase goes, to a place in which the sole objective is to punch in, punch out, and collect the paycheck. That’s what a job is to a lot of people: a burdensome means to a monetary end. Life and work two separate, clashing realities, with eyes ever-fixed on the almighty dollar. The short-term payoff.
Consider this: your job is a landscape — a playground or a laboratory — to experiment in developing your people skills and honing the craft of human interaction. When you’re at work, rather than complaining about your position in life, consider what skills you can work on immediately, right in front of you. In the case of service jobs, if you pay attention, you’ll see opportunities to build people skills — skills that are immutable to every industry conceivable
For example, in a retail environment you can:
[*] Practice active listening
[*] Adjust your energy (posture, vocal intonation, eye contact etc.), studying how people perceive you and using that information as feedback so you can adjust accordingly.
[*] Practice assertiveness and displaying confidence (another skill you’ll develop)
[*] Cultivate empathy and a genuine interest in others
[*] Build real relationships built on mutual trust and respect
[*] Practice story-telling and keeping the listener’s attention; engaging the person you’re talking with
[*] Study how you react to disagreements, criticisms, or disgruntled customers
The common theme in all these examples is self-monitoring.
Use the examples above and think of the daily grind as a constant feedback loop where every day is an opportunity to experiment with being and acting a certain way. If you can confidently check off every box, you’ll be at an incredible advantage all anything you choose to do.
Keep going and keep improving.
Remember: everything that happens to you is a form of instruction if you pay attention. Your whole life is really one long apprenticeship to which you apply your learning skills.
So pay attention and think about the long-term. Sure, you probably won’t make a ton of money, you might not have the prestige and sense of importance that you’re looking for, but again, consider the bigger picture. What’s a few months, a year, maybe more, of working one job in the grand scheme of things? Tending bar is not a career for most people, neither is being a server or customer service rep. Most people have dozens of jobs during a lifetime, and you can always do something else.
Treat the service job as a valuable stepping stone, then take what you learned and apply it to the next job, the next big thing, getting better with each step forward.
Sure, I’m not making a ton of money, but I’m making enough to survive. Maybe I don’t have a prestigious job, but I’m 26 years old, and have no plans of doing this forever. I know that by putting in the reps now and investing in people skills, I’m setting myself up for success in later jobs and life in general. Having good people skills is in my mind the single most valuable skill there is because I know what it’s like not to have them; it makes you feel crippled and incapable. It feels like how I imagine drowning might feel: helpless. The only fix to this is action, and in this case, you can get paid for it. Don’t think about your job as just another job. Consider what skills the job can teach you, regardless of the amount written on the paycheck.