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What Americans Lose When We Refuse Crap Jobs


The best job I’ve ever had was cleaning deep fryers at McDonald’s at 4:30 in the morning. By “best,” I don’t mean most pleasant. Each morning, I would take a filtration device (basically a heavy bucket with a filter, on wheels) up to each deep fryer, empty the fryer’s oil into it and, while it churned away, I would scrub the sides and bottom of the fryer. After the filter was done working, I would pump the filtered oil back into the fryer and turn on the heating element to prepare it for that day’s cooking.

By the end of this process, which took about an hour, I smelled like a combination of old French fries and fish filets, and I had at least one new burn per week. After finishing this job, I was expected to start up the grills and prep for breakfast service.

It was greasy, hot, and deeply unpleasant work, but in a very important way it was the best job I’ve ever had because those mornings are what I thought about in future jobs when things seemed bad. Scrubbing deep fryers will always remind me to keep a healthy perspective about work. Now, as a stay-at-home dad, even my worst day is better than cleaning those fryers, because that job was terrible.

After McDonald’s came a steady stream of crap jobs as I worked my way through college. I’ve sliced roast beef at Arby’s, tried (unsuccessfully) to corral parents during the Christmas shopping season at Toys ‘R Us, and I’ve survived a stint at the returns desk at Wal-Mart, where getting yelled at was not uncommon. None of the jobs that followed were as physically demanding or unpleasant as cleaning deep fryers, but combined, they taught me a simple truth: work is work, which is why they pay you to do it.

Everyone Should Work at Least One Crap Job

Two recent stories—one bit of idiocy by reporters on social media, and the other a self-indulgent, arrogant whine in The New York Times—have made me both thankful for my early, awful work experience and convinced that everyone, no matter who you are or where you are in life, needs to work a crap job.

First, let us look at the social media fail of reporters that have seemingly never worked in food service. They have been mocking pictures of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker eating ribs while wearing latex gloves. Looking at these pictures and others from the same event, it’s clear to me that candidates in Iowa were subjected to menial labor in the service of voter outreach. Marco Rubio and Walker served barbecue to a crowd, and in Walker’s case, he consumed said BBQ before taking off those gloves—because why wouldn’t you after spending that much time around ribs?

Here’s how our national press responded:

Yes, gloves. That’s what food service regulations require. These two journalists seem unaware that when you prepare or serve food to other people, you should have clean hands while doing so, and the best way to ensure one’s hands are clean is to wear gloves. Doing so is not a freakish anomaly, but what food-service workers do daily, all around the country.

I don’t know anything about the work experience of either reporter, but their apparent ignorance of basic food-safety regulations makes me wonder whether either has ever worked a crap job. Note to the national media: the people who make your food? They wear gloves. It’s for your benefit, not theirs.

Working for a Living Is So Unfair

The second story is a whine, and an arrogant one. Writer Lee Siegel, years after taking out loans to earn an undergraduate degree from the Columbia University School of General Studies, and a graduate degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, defaulted on his student loans. His reason is priceless, in a “special snowflake” type of way:

Years later, I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.

I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.

In other words, working a regular job like everyone else has to pay debt willingly accrued wasn’t good enough for Siegel. It was okay for him to take what he admits was the “morally and legally reprehensible” step of refusing to pay back what he owed, because that debt imprisoned him in the land of the regular people, unable to fulfill his mission of being useful to society.

He attempts to justify this position as a form of rebellion against a social arrangement, but his arguments quickly devolve into the tired language of class warfare. Siegel has hidden his argument behind some wonderful prose, but in the end it is the same old argument: rich people have it better, and we in the middle class should all resent them for it and resist the status quo in any way we can. Reading it from the perspective of one who took the path he rejected (middle-class graduate of a small state university), it seems to me he’s not truly convinced by his own words. The gentleman doth protest too much. For that reason, Siegel’s article would be rage-inducing, if it weren’t so sad. Consider this paragraph:

Maybe I should have stayed at a store called The Wild Pair, where I once had a nice stable job selling shoes after dropping out of the state college because I thought I deserved better, and naïvely tried to turn myself into a professional reader and writer on my own, without a college degree. I’d probably be district manager by now.

Yes, that paragraph has some weapons-grade condescension, but read the rest of the op-ed, in which he relates the financial struggles of one who has defaulted on student loans and the relentless manner in which the U.S. Department of Education works to collect on those loans. Imagine the anxiety, the nights spent awake with worry, and the unending burden of knowing there’s a sword hanging above your head and that your actions only slowed the fraying of the rope. Frankly, being the district manager of a shoe company sounds like nirvana compared to that reality.

Crap Jobs Are One Step on the Long Ladder to Success

Here’s an alternate scenario: imagine if Siegel had stayed at his crap job and went to college part-time at that state university. Maybe he would have had to take on loans, but they would have been smaller ones. After taking maybe six years to finish college instead of four, he could have kept the unfulfilling job while pursuing jobs that would take him to where he wanted to be. With enough writing talent (which Siegel clearly has) and enough tenaciousness, eventually he had a better-than-average chance of achieving those dreams without the angst.

It may sound like a cliché, but sometimes, hard work and perseverance do actually pay off.

In other words, imagine if Siegel had taken the path that most of us are on instead of jumping off for a shortcut that led to his dreams, at the cost of being a deadbeat who failed to fulfill a simple obligation—paying back money he agreed to borrow. This is the beauty of crap jobs: if you approach them with the right attitude and see them as a bridge rather than an endless highway, they will keep you grounded to reality.

Wait, what about those who stay in crap jobs without attending college or university? Aren’t they stuck in an unfair system doing work they hate for little money? Well, sure, if they’re terrible at it. If not, then they will find themselves enjoying one of the best benefits of capitalism. If you’re good at your job (and helping the company make money), you will move up in the organization. Wal-Mart’s CEO started his career working in one of the company’s distribution centers. Jack Welch started his career at GE as a junior engineer, and ended it as CEO. John Lasseter was fired as a Disney animator, only to return to the studio 22 years later as chief creative officer at Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon Studios. In other words, the boss.

These are extreme examples, but all across this country, there are untold stories of smaller-scale accomplishment. I know a few myself, since I still shop at Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R Us, and have been known to sneak into Arby’s or McDonald’s for lunch. The mother of three working to supplement her family’s income I worked with in the toy department at Wal-Mart is now an associate manager at our local store. The college student I used to spend long hours with re-stocking shelves diminished by the Christmas rush at Toys ‘R Us is now that store’s manager. In the years since I’ve worked at Arby’s, I’ve seen the grill manager promoted to the store manager. It may sound like a cliché, but sometimes, hard work and perseverance do actually pay off.

Never Be Ashamed of Honest Work

The hard work my former co-workers did to get where they are is no less hard because of their achievements. I’d like to think that if I’d stayed at those jobs, I’d be where they are now, but I had different goals, and worked in my own way to achieve them. Crap jobs helped me earn a bachelor’s degree, and one of the crappier jobs (graduate student assistant) helped me toward a master’s.

Get a crap job, even if you don’t need the money.

My wife and I would not be where we are today without crap jobs. She’s a nurse who has scooped ice cream and washed dishes to help get her where she is now. I’m a stay-at-home dad who has had aforementioned crap jobs and now teaches homeschool. Here’s one of the most important lessons I intend to teach my kids.

Get a crap job, even if you don’t need the money. My kids may hate it in the moments of sweat, grease, customer irritation, and fatigue, but in the end, I will push them toward crap jobs so they can experience the simple truth I mentioned earlier. I learned it over many years of putting up with customers who not only embraced the idea that they were always right, but wielded it as a weapon: Work is work, which is why they pay you to do it.