I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was either late single digits or early doubles.
I was looking through the local newspaper and saw a big, bold ad. Or maybe my parents showed it to me… I can’t remember that part either.
What I do remember is what the ad said, and how exciting it was to me at the time: Topps, the famous baseball card and candy company, was looking for taste testers.
More specifically, they wanted children taste testers. It was a one-day job. You’d go there, taste some sweet stuff, and get paid to tell them what you thought.
My brain was reeling. Paid to taste candy! Are you kidding me???
This ended up being my first paid job.
I can still picture the long wooden table. A bunch of us were sitting around it, with an adult at the head. We tried different things one at a time – gum, hard candy, and all sorts of other confectionery products.
After giving our opinions, we walked away with even more candy and $5 each.
The more I think back on it, the more I realize it might have also been my best job ever.
A job isn’t just about the raw pay. It’s about the other benefits … including doing something you enjoy.
The Gas Station
Of course, once I turned 16, I went out looking for a “real” job.
As a newly-minted driver, a gas station seemed like a logical place to start. Heck, my dad worked at one when he was a young man and the hours were pretty flexible.
I saw one of the local chains was looking for attendants so I applied.
A few days later, I was heading out for my first real job interview. I put on a collared polo shirt … a nice pair of khaki pants … and, unlike the present day, made sure my hair was neatly trimmed.
Just like the Topps gig, I can still remember what the room looked like. I was sitting in a dark, cramped office across from a guy who wasn’t nearly as dressed up as me.
After a brief introductory conversation, which I thought went well, he surprised me by saying, “Do you really think pumping gas is the right job for a kid like you?”
A kid like me? What did that mean?
I didn’t have to wait very long for the answer. He basically went on to explain that I was a little too polished for the job. It was messy, menial work and I probably wouldn’t want to do it very long.
He went on to say something about I would probably be happier as a cashier inside one of their other stations but I was already insulted.
Here I was, trying to show respect and suitability by dressing up for an interview and this guy was going to deny me the job because of that? What, because I was too qualified?
I ended up working as a line cook at a local pizza and pasta restaurant. It was just as hard and messy as the gas station job I was turned down for. It didn’t pay more, either.
Still, I showed up every day on time and did all the tasks – everything from frying wings to banging out cheesesteaks – to the best of my ability just as I would have done handling the pumps.
It was the same thing with other “menial” jobs I did during my school years – everything from working as a bouncer at a nightclub to running the counter of a pool hall.
People are going to judge you – often because of your appearance, mannerisms, or background – and it won’t always be accurate. All you can do is move on and be true to yourself.
My Stint in Government
My senior year of college, it was time to start thinking about an actual career.
My Dad, a state employee, encouraged me to take the civil service exam. It was the first step toward all types of different government jobs, and he was sure he could help me get a position if I did well.
While working for the government wasn’t exactly my ideal path, I really liked taking tests. I aced the thing without a problem and ended up with a job interview in the state capital.
Everything was going great with the interviewer.
Then, a question …
“What would you say to someone if they were criticizing state workers for getting too many days off?”
I literally had no idea why this was being asked and it was just about the farthest thing from my mind.
I remember giving some kind of diplomatic response but it reinforced what I already had thought … that government employment probably wasn’t for me.
I ended up getting myself a job on Wall Street instead, where nobody worried about getting accused of having too many vacation days. Within a couple years I was making several times as much as the state job would have paid.
Things almost always work out for the best if you choose your own path.
Back to Middle School
Eventually, my wife and I were ready to leave the city for good.
I thought about switching careers and doing something a bit more magnanimous. So I applied to become a teacher at an underserved school in Florida through the Americorps’ Teach for America program.
After a few steps, I was invited to come down to Florida for the final part of the hiring process where I would design and teach a sample lesson in front of other candidates and evaluators.
You were able to choose any grade from first through sixth. I picked sixth grade English. I designed a lesson around the haiku, a very specific form of Japanese poetry.
It was an ambitious undertaking – especially once I heard some of the other candidates walking the group through second-grade math problems – but I walked away feeling really good about my performance.
It wasn’t just me.
After the presentation, I had my final interview before flying home. At one point, the woman said something about coming back down to start the job. “Notice I said WHEN you come back down to start the job, not IF,” she told me.
As you can guess, I didn’t get offered the job and I was never given any explanation as to why not.
So, instead of teaching sixth graders about Japanese poetry, I went on to start teaching regular Americans how to better invest their money … something I’m still doing today, more than a decade later.
It suits me. It’s fun. It’s satisfying. I wear whatever I want.
And nobody asks me about how many vacations I take.
The only downside is that I have to buy my own candy.
To a richer life,
— Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap