My very first job ended in complete disaster for me.
But it also taught me two of the most important lessons I carry with me to this day.
Lesson #1: A business is a business – it doesn’t care about the individual. Note: This may seem harsh, but so many people carry an allure of being irreplaceable. If they have not learned this yet (and many just did with recent Big Tech lay-offs), they are very wrong. Read more about this on So You’ve Been Laid Off…
Lesson #2: A business is usually run by flawed (sometimes very flawed) humans. Note: This couldn’t be more apparent with what happened at Theranos under Elizabeth Holmes’ leadership and Sam Bankman-Fried at FTX, but inherently flawed humans also run businesses not making headlines. Because, well, humans are inherently flawed.
I was 16 years old and worked at a boutique tennis retail store in Los Angeles, making $4.25/hour – minimum wage at the time. I worked after school and on weekends for about a year. At the time, Andre Agassi was my hero – and yes, I had the jean tennis shorts with the pink lining – but we won’t talk about that.
During my time at this job, I became the top salesperson – which, for a kid, was pretty impressive. As such, I felt it appropriate to ask for compensation representing a top revenue earner – regardless of age.
One day I walked into the owner’s office and asked for a few minutes. In that meeting, I asked for a raise commensurate with my performance. I asked for $5.50/hour (which at the time was what I felt was ‘making it and what the 18-year-olds made). In response, after some dialogue and clear surprise from the owners that a “kid” knew their sales numbers – they asked me: “So if you don’t get this raise, will you quit?”
TRAP. IT’S A TRAP.
That’s what I wish I had thought.
I did not.
I answered, “Yes.”
Well, they did what a bunch of savvier business leaders would do when a kid stepped beyond their expectations – they said, “Thank you for your time – we are sorry to see you go. Goodbye.”
And that was my last day at that job. I was quitted.
I didn’t realize at the time that they had a super simple rubric for assessing value. Under 18 years old, they would pay $4.25/4.50 an hour; for over 18-year-olds and older, they would pay $5.50 an hour (and up). That was it.
That one 5-minute conversation taught me the above two lessons. It turns out that the owners hadn’t considered that an individual’s contributions and value could vary regardless of age. Or that jobs for a 16-year-old willing to hustle were not hard to get – especially at a starting point of minimum wage. They eventually realized this because the business stopped paying minimum wage about a month after I left. Whether my departure had any impact on their sales is not relevant – but what I thought was value to them was only value to me. I thought being the top seller would showcase the value of the individual – regardless of age. I was wrong.
This was well over a quarter of a century ago at this point. But its lessons have never left me.
Think you are irreplaceable? You are wrong.
Think you are going to convince leadership to think differently? You may be able to, but you may lose your job in the process. So you have to be aware of that before you try.