In the final post in the “Lessons from Your First Job” series we hear from Tara Swiger. I met Tara in person for the first time at Craftcation a few years ago and we’ve since connected at several crafty business conferences. Tara is a down-to-earth, warm, supportive friend and business coach. She helps dozens of creative people propel their businesses forward through her Starship community program. If you’re looking for guidance, accountability, and straightfoward advice on marketing your handmade goods, Tara is your person.
I knew that Tara started out as the manager at a Paint Your Own Pottery studio, but I didn’t realize that she’d actually had another job first. Surprisingly enough, that first job, which she held at age 12, taught her a variety of lessons that she still uses today.
The very first job I ever got paid for was stuffing envelopes in a property management firm. I was 12 years old when I got a check for that day’s work. I went in with my step-mom. I was visiting for the summer and so bored of being at home. She was bored of hearing me whine.
I learned later that there are machines that fold letters, but they didn’t have one. So I folded letters from the management company (they’re hired by home owner’s associations to send letters that say “Please stop letting your dog poop in my yard.”) and stuffed envelopes. Thousands and thousands of envelopes.
I went in every day for a week and at the end of the week the CEO cut me a check. I made something ridiculous like $10 an hour (more than double the minimum wage at the time) and was hooked. I begged to go back whenever I could and continued working there in the summers until my parents got cable and I discovered 90210 reruns on day time TV, at around age 16.
Tara Swiger (right) with a friend. Age 15.
I loved being rewarded for my work. I grew up in a house where you did chores because they needed to be done – no allowance or reward – so being paid for doing something was a revelation. I was hooked. I started working in real jobs the week I turned 16 and worked full-time ever since my senior year of high school.
I still live to see tangible rewards for my work. Nowadays that means both paying my bills from doing what I love and seeing a student/reader’s life transformed. It’s not just nice to hear that my book or a class helped someone sell more or feel better, it is my life force. Some people can do work knowing that the reward is intangible, but not me. I gotta know that my time is worth it and that my content is not just interesting but effective at making real change.
I also learned that doing repetitive tasks with no understandable purpose is not for me. I’m a Questioner – I need to know that what I’m doing makes sense and is meaningful.
Knowing that I’m a Questioner and that something has to be meaningful, helped me realize I had to work for myself. As a French Lit major my job opportunities were secretarial in nature, and there was an awful lot of meaningless (to me) letter folding, spreadsheeting, and rubber stamping (my favorite part of the job was the actual rubber stamps I got to use). Whenever I feel stuck or uninspired, I tap back into the meaning – why am I doing this? Not just big picture, but this individual task – does it matter to the big picture?
When I complained about the soul-sucking void of meaningless letter-folding my parents said, “Go to college. (Oh, and we’re not paying for it, so get a job.)” This attitude spurred me through high school, college, and building my own businesses. If you don’t want to do meaningless work, take action. Change something. Change how valuable you are (or what you offer is) or change your location or change your meaning. But don’t just expect better jobs, opportunities, or pay to land in your lap.
My whole life is based on the lesson: If you want something different, change something. But it’s also the basis of what I teach: if you aren’t getting the results you want, instead of throwing in the towel or blaming the economy, Etsy, or your parents, just change something. Do something. Anything. One small change can spark a major transformation, but you have to do the work of doing it.
This brings us to the end of the series. A big thank you to all of the creative entrepreneurs who shared their stories these last two weeks and to all of you who shared your own stories in the comments. It’s been so interesting to see how we all began in the workforce.