By Simon C.Y. Wong | Like many parents, I am troubled by the growing fixation with careers. We seem to be putting young people on the career treadmill at an earlier and earlier age. Choosing extracurricular activities, summer jobs, and even preschool is increasingly undertaken with a calculating eye towards securing career success.
I was therefore excited when I came across the New York Times article, “Why a Summer as a Chambermaid Can Be More Valuable Than an Internship.” I thought the author would share character-building life lessons gleaned from a summer spent “cleaning toilets and changing sheets” — pride in doing a good job performing unglamorous and perhaps unpleasant duties, appreciation for those who toil away at resorts, restaurants, and other establishments for the comfort of the privileged, and so forth.
My heart sank when I realized that this article was fundamentally no different from the career-promoting columns you find elsewhere, except that the “lessons” were drawn from working at a picturesque resort instead of a glum office. According to the author, the highlights from her summer as a chambermaid included meeting people who proved helpful professionally down the road, developing good work habits (in this case, reading newspapers daily), and stumbling upon a “spark” that opened up or deepened a career interest. In terms of lessons, how is this different from a positive internship experience? And doesn’t it reinforce the career obsession that the article — going by its title — seemingly derided?
Similar to many Americans, I held part-time jobs during college. While I did pursue an internship related to my field of study, I also worked as a busboy in a fine-dining restaurant and as a cleaner in a luxury goods store in order to pay tuition, rent, and other living expenses. Looking back, there is no doubt that the non-professional jobs taught me more.
At the restaurant, working among a highly diverse group — the staff comprised a motley crew of varying ages, ethnicity/geographic origin, educational background, and “life” experience — helped me realize that people share important traits: Most of us had pride in our work, yearned to be liked and respected by peers, sought to behave decently, and nursed modest as well as grand dreams, if not for ourselves then for our offspring.
Equally instructive was narrowing “gaps” with some colleagues. The restaurant’s assistant manager — a tall, dignified man who was unlikely to move up the managerial ranks because he didn’t have a college degree — barely hid his contempt for me when I first started. Over time, as I worked hard to prove that I belonged, he eased up and signaled his approval through the occasional wink and pat on my shoulder. He even started sharing with me his love of wine.
At the luxury goods store, it surprised and upset me that some salespeople looked down upon me — and treated me as largely invisible — simply because my job entailed cleaning the windows, vacuuming the showroom, and polishing the brass door handles. That experience seared into my brain the importance of according everyone — irrespective of their occupation, stature or station in life — a modicum of respect and regard.
Perhaps the most important life lesson from that period — though not always remembered — was that it didn’t take much for me to be happy.
Young people certainly need to plan carefully to achieve professional success in today’s highly competitive environment. But we mustn’t forget that a life is distinct from — and lasts longer than — a career and equal attention should therefore be given to building the foundation for a successful life, including through jobs as a chambermaid, busboy, or store cleaner.
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