My mind always returns the summer jobs I had when I was young. I couldn’t tell you why, really. The imprint young pride perhaps? Nostalgia? Or more likely it’s this: it was the time of the test tube, the time of new practices, the trying on of unfamiliar lives, the time for young failures that sculpt the eventual tunnel. 

But this poo poo platter is necessarily modest at its start. My first ever compensated gig is perfectly symbolic of the basement of employment, I was given twenty dollars when I was 13 (a small fortune at the time) to pick up the crushed trampled discarded cups of Yale football players after they used them to chug a quick drink before returning to the game. In other words, I was charged with trashing the trash of others after they scornfully cast it aside, only avoiding being trampled through agility and will. The only real thing I learned from that gig was that football players bleed a lot. But after consuming 57 blow pops (mostly blue raspberry flavored because it turned my mouth blue), I realized that my labor was actually worth something. My time, meager as it seemed to me, had a dollar value. 

Thus began a career of modest employments with varying results: a pizza parlor that fired me when I showed up an hour late, a video store that never had any customers, a construction company that actually painted houses, another pizza restaurant where no one spoke English, and a ‘Shady Glenn’ restaurant where I bussed dishes and washed them wearing one of those white services hats from 1955. They all offered various lessons on employment, certainly: don’t show up late, don’t peel out in your boss’s pickup truck in a construction zone while he’s watching and screaming at your, don’t swear at someone who is essentially your superior and has the power to fire you because they’re sleeping with the actual superior. So a lot of ‘don’ts’ really…. Life lessons!

But by far the most valuable of my part time employments were the most worthless of them all: office work! There was something about filing paperwork, answering phones, and completing mindless administrative tasks that reeks of a lifetime of slow ticking death. To this day, the microsoft excel icon immediately recalls to me, in pavlovian response, the image of a giant industrial clock ticking menacingly toward doom. It’s something so stunningly obvious about the counting of minutes that makes you realize you don’t want to be counting the minutes one minute longer. I spent only a matter of weeks in that eternity of Sartrean hell, enough to know the flavor of quicksand and recommit myself to something else.

But these were all teenage high school occupations aimed at getting enough money to do teenage things. At some point right around the beginning of college, I began to realize that a summer job had to be a least a little bit respectable in order to put it on a resume. So I sought more prestigious gigs. A shadowing internship with a legal clerk on the judge track (no thanks), going door to door for a non-profit gathering political donations (um… getting closer?), covering little league baseball for the AP for pocket change (now we’re getting there!), and finally, an internship working at ESPN working as a production assistant (fun, but not really right either).

While these positions all demonstrated the bottom rung of ladders that led to respectable lives, their greatest was in teaching me what I did NOT want to be doing. Ultimately, they didn’t mean much to my resume. They fell off my resume a couple of years into my young twenties and that was that.

What was left was the imprint on the part of my brain that contextualizes vocational circumstance. They act in my mind as the pillars of the careers I didn’t broach– the glimpses of lives not my own. If that is the end product, then the search for a summer job should really be about leaving the comfortable circle of predictability lived in the school year. It doesn’t matter how prestigious it is or how valuable to the resume in the end, but only that you went adventuring and tried on different costumes of any kind, the more exotic and foreign the better. Finding a career is about self-discovery, finding identity by identifying all the negative space that surrounds it. Once you find it, the rest will fall into place.