I hired my first employee when I was 12. No, I wasn’t an adolescent genius. I needed a sub for my paper route. So Kenny filled in when I was sick or out of town. He lived across the street.
A lady from my congregation, who worked for the paper, got me the job even though their policy was to hire kids who were at least 13. After pulling some strings, she told me her reputation was on the line. I had to prove that a 12-year-old could handle a paper route!
Every day after school, I delivered the Tri-City Herald to 50 subscribers. It took me an hour and a half on my bike, not counting the time needed to collect subscription fees.
I made about $180 per month throwing papers for a few hours each week. It was the first time in my life I was able to tithe on my own earnings: Ten percent of my income went to the Church; another 10 percent went into a jar in my closet for the annual Feast of Tabernacles. Another sizable chunk went into a savings account (also a first). With that I was able to buy a new bike and a good baseball glove.
One night Kenny came over for a visit. He had done that many times before, but this time he seemed nervous. He didn’t stay long either, which I didn’t mind because I had homework to do.
The next day, while dressing for school, I discovered the money in my jar had been stolen! I immediately thought of Kenny’s odd visit. Someone I had spent so much time with as a boy had actually waltzed into my bedroom, while I was there, and stole my own hard-earned money.
I fired my first employee when I was 13. I was no genius—but I was beginning to learn about life in the real world. I learned that there are basically two kinds of workers: those who put in an honest day’s work to earn their wages, and those like Kenny who are lazy and want something for nothing. Sometimes they will even lie, cheat or steal to acquire it.
I wanted to become an honest, hard-working man.
I had my route for a couple years before looking to move up the ladder. Burger King caught my eye, but once again, I was too young—only 14. With a bit of persistence, however, I got hired on as the restaurant’s landscape engineer. I mowed their lawn once a week.
One day I hurried to finish mowing so I could goof off for the afternoon. In my haste, I decapitated the head of a sprinkler. I agonized over how to explain it to the owner. He had just installed the sprinkler system. When I did, I was amazed at how well he took it. He seemed to appreciate me accepting responsibility for the act. A few months later, after turning 15, I was promoted to the kitchen where I started flipping burgers—something I had yearned for.
My dad was transferred soon after I started making Whoppers “your way.” We moved to Oklahoma during the summer of 1985. I entered my sophomore year at Edmond Mid-High, hopeful that I could make the high school varsity basketball team. So for half the school year, my days were pretty much packed with classes, basketball practice and homework.
I did, however, keep my eyes peeled for potential job opportunities. Just after turning 16 in January 1986, I met a man in my congregation who needed help at his greenhouse between February and May every year. This could not have been more ideal—basketball season ended in February.
I worked at the greenhouse during the spring for three straight years. And since I was the only male who worked there, besides the owner, the staff relied on me to do the heavy labor—moving flats of geraniums, begonias, impatiens and pansies from house to house in preparation for the busy selling season. It was probably the least enjoyable job at the nursery, but as a scrawny 16-year-old, it made me feel good that they needed my raw strength and power!
Speaking of strength, you need that to resurface and finish gymnasium floors. That job, like at the greenhouse, was seasonal—during the summer when school was out. I spent the summer of ‘86 traveling to small schools in Oklahoma where my boss and I would sand down the floors, seal it with thick goo that smelled like paint thinner, and then paint all the lines. Sometimes we even stayed in the gym overnight if we were too far from home.
Being a basketball junkie myself, I had a ball with this job (excuse the pun). There’s something about seeing a sanded-down gym floor transform into a slick, shiny, perfectly painted masterpiece. Another sidelight to that summer job was that, being new to the state, it familiarized me with Oklahoma—a state I have grown to love.
I returned to school that fall. When we started practicing hoops again, I was able to critique our gym floor, pointing out all of its “obvious” flaws and glaring weaknesses. “You know, I could redo this floor if it’s uncomfortable,” I joked with my teammates.
That winter, as basketball season drew to a close, I got wind of another job opportunity, this time from one of my classmates. He worked for his aunt at Kinkos Copies. And whenever he spoke of the job, he sounded like he really enjoyed it. I started working at Kinkos just after turning 17, toward the end of basketball season. I kept my spring job at the greenhouse in the afternoons (they closed at 6 p.m.) and then made copies two evenings a week.
I started working at Kinkos in 1987, when it was relatively new and known primarily for just making copies. But things were beginning to change right about the time I was hired. I was especially interested in the new do-it-yourself typesetting department. Customers paid $6 per hour to use a Macintosh to create their own résumés, letters, invitations and pamphlets. For me, it was free as long as I used it on my own time and a computer was available. That computer experience would prove valuable later in life.
That summer, I passed up a chance to work the gym floors so I could work fulltime in landscaping. Having worked in the greenhouse for two straight spring seasons, I had developed a love for groundskeeping (something my wife might find hard to believe today). I worked all summer for a professional landscaper at the home of a wealthy local resident.
I kept my job at Kinkos through the summer, though I only worked there occasionally.
That fall, I entered my final year of high school. It would be my busiest year yet. Another basketball season. Better hours and better pay at Kinkos. And another spring season at the greenhouse.
That year, I added a paper route—not some friendly neighborhood route for boys on dirt bikes. A real route—one that required a car! Three hundred customers, mostly businesses, right in the heart of Edmond’s busiest district.
Each day, I left school straight for the greenhouse, where I worked three hours. From there I drove to the Edmond Sun to pick up my papers and hurriedly stuffed them in sacks or wrapped them with rubber bands. Then, two nights a week and on Sundays, I drove into Oklahoma City for a shift at Kinkos.
When school let out, I devoted most of my days to working at Kinkos full time. I also paid $600 for an old work truck so I could mow lawns in the evening.
That fall, I left for college in Pasadena, California. When my parents dropped me off, I stood on the campus of Ambassador College, with four suitcases and several thousand dollars in my pocket.
As a freshman in college, I obtained work as a high school janitor. Every day, I attended classes with college students and cleaned up after high school students! It was a humbling experience, but it enabled me to pay for my college tuition as I went. I also put in a few hours each week taking care of a local resident’s lawn and parking cars for the college’s concert series.
After my freshman year ended, I stayed in Pasadena to work the entire summer. I kept all three jobs—the landscaping, parking and janitor gigs. Full-time janitorial work while school is out of session is almost unbearable. That was one of the longest summers of my life. But I had learned early in life that not all jobs are fun.
When I returned to Oklahoma in August, I worked full time at Kinkos for three weeks before transferring to Ambassador’s sister campus in Big Sandy, Texas.
As a sophomore, I carried three jobs—as a landscaper, a telephone operator and librarian—the latter two giving me experience in fields I had never worked before.
While my college career was cut short by the Church crisis at the end of 1989, my work career was not. I returned home and went right back to Kinkos because I knew it would provide an immediate source of income.
While at Kinkos, I was able to help my dad design and copy Church-related materials. In fact, I designed the very first copy of The Philadelphia Trumpet on a Macintosh at Kinkos. In doing that, I discovered something I thought I would really enjoy doing in life. I started helping Kinkos’ customers with their résumés and brochures on the side.
I also started my own copy business that year. A man in my congregation worked at the public defender’s office in downtown Oklahoma City. His office made thousands of copies each week. I told him I was thinking about buying my own copy machine and asked if he could arrange for me to take over the office’s account. When he agreed, I borrowed $10,000 at 10 percent interest and bought a large office copier which I placed in my room next to my bed! Wow—did that ever fuel the entrepreneurial spirit in me! I remember many nights returning from a late shift at Kinkos only to copy dozens of legal documents on my own machine.
I didn’t make a killing with that venture—but man, did I ever learn a lot. I learned how much you have to eventually pay when you buy things on credit. I could not believe how much of my monthly payment on the copier went toward interest. I also learned a lot about running my own business—taxes, for instance, are more complicated. And you usually end up paying more. I learned about overhead—costs for supplies, repairs, travel, etc. And having my own business heightened my sense of responsibility. Now if I botched a job, it didn’t just reflect poorly on Kinkos, it reflected poorly on me personally!
But back to the desktop publishing. As 1990 wore on, typesetting proved to be what I really enjoyed. Toward the end of the summer, a Church friend who worked at Westinghouse in Buffalo, New York, contacted me about a possible student intern job opportunity. Even though I wasn’t attending college at the time, he thought he could get my application approved.
I was accepted in November 1990 and moved to New York a month later. I quit the job at Kinkos and sold the copier to the Church, which enabled me to pay off the debt. For the next six months I delved into the world of desktop publishing. By the end of my tenure as an intern, I was convinced that publishing was the line of work I wanted to get into professionally.
I returned to Oklahoma again in May 1991 where, for the fourth time, I was hired on at Kinkos. What a blessing that job turned out to be. No matter where I was in life or what I was doing, it seemed, whenever I returned to Oklahoma, they welcomed me back and I immediately started making money.
While working full time at Kinkos, I volunteered for the church at night. The church couldn’t afford to hire me full time, but it did invest in computer equipment so I could help produce its monthly magazine.
By the end of 1991, I accepted a full-time position in our church’s publishing department.
I guess you could say it was my dream job—to get paid to do something I absolutely loved doing.
The road I traveled to get there, however, was a lot less dreamy! While I’m indebted to Kinkos for always taking me back when it was convenient for me, I can’t say I ever wanted to settle for that as a profession. I wouldn’t want to throw papers for a living either, or flip burgers, pot plants, or scrub floors in high school locker rooms. And while shooting hoops in a fancy gym is enjoyable, sanding down its floor is positively boring!
The thing is, though, had I not done any of those things—had I not learned how to work as a teenager—I wouldn’t have landed my dream job later in life. I’m convinced of that.
I’ll leave you with a few things I’ve learned throughout my varied work history.
Nowadays, many young people in prosperous suburbs wear the finest clothes and drive new cars to school. The mere thought of working, especially at a fast-food restaurant or a clothing store, offends them. But one day, like everyone else, they will have to work or go broke. And chances are, those who “had it all” when they were young will find it more difficult to land their dream job when older because they “want it all” right out of college. Book knowledge will only get you so far. You need experience too! Humble yourself and take the job—any job—and start gaining experience.
Establish Good Contacts
The lady who got me my first job as a paper boy, the manager at Burger King, the greenhouse owner, the gym floors guy, the landscaper, the kid who got me into Kinkos, the man at Westinghouse—these were all people I knew personally. I am so thankful for all these individuals. Look at the wonderful opportunities they gave me. Yet would those opportunities have come knocking if I was a wallflower—locked in my room all day, eating, watching tv or listening to music? We have said before that part of your “true education” comes from contacts. I might add to that, at least with my own personal experience, that a great deal of your career success comes from good contacts.
Be Resourceful and Driven
I wish I could remember all the excuses I have heard over the years for why teenagers (and sometimes adults) can’t work. I wouldn’t like that job. They don’t pay enough. I’m going to a church camp at the end of the summer. They would never hire me. I don’t have time. I don’t have transportation. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If you really wanted to work, you could find a job! If you don’t have transportation, why not look for a job close to your house? Be resourceful! I have often asked teens about their plans for the summer. You would be surprised how many have no idea what they will do for the summer. Have a plan! Show some drive! The all-important teenage years—the years that are setting the course for your life’s journey—are about to pass you by. Get busy and learn how to do something you will be doing the rest of your life—work.
I have to wonder what Kenny is doing today. Hopefully he learned his lesson and went on to find success in the job world. But if he didn’t learn the lesson, he’s probably still bouncing around from one job to another. Stealing, cheating or lying may seem to be a quick fix when you are young, but in the real world, cheaters get fired! If you are honest, however, even after trashing a sprinkler head, your employer will take note of that honesty and undoubtedly reward you for it later.
One day, while using the paper cutter at Kinkos, I removed the hand guard to cut an odd-sized piece of paper. After cutting, I forgot to put the guard back in place. My manager was the next one to use the cutter, and after barely missing her thumb, angrily said to me, “If you ever again remove the hand guard without putting it back, you are fired!” That hit me pretty hard. But don’t we need correction at work? Of course we do. How else would we improve and become a better worker? You can be sure I learned my lesson after the hand guard incident! Correction helps teach you that it is not only important to do the job, it’s important that you do it right.
Work Before You Buy
A friend at Kinkos had learned this lesson too late. He lamented the purchase of his brand new Pontiac because in signing the dotted line, he had agreed to make hefty car payments for the next five years. With what he made at Kinkos, he could barely afford to pay for his car and the insurance premiums that are always higher for new cars. Do not buy what you cannot afford! If you do not have enough money in the bank to pay for it, you cannot afford it. Then let that motivate you to work hard so your savings account will increase. Abide by the instruction in Proverbs 24:27: “Develop your business first before building your house” (Living Bible). In other words, work first (and save of course)—then buy. Learn that lesson now while you are young and out of debt, and you will stay out of debt for life.
My dad gave me lots of guidance and direction in teaching me how to work. I needed that. Think about it—when we are born, we know nothing! We have to learn how to work. Parents, relatives, teachers, ministers, siblings, friends—all are valuable resources to draw on. But the key is seeking after it. Rebellious teens who will not listen to anyone are a dime a dozen in today’s society. But they, too, just like rich kids who appear to have it all, will one day come face to face with the real world and find that they must work. And they had better learn to listen to instruction from superiors, or they will be fired.
I also prayed to God about work opportunities. And you know what? He answered those prayers. He has always provided for me—even when I was hired as a janitor (the least enjoyable job I’ve had). He may try and test you—seeing if you will patiently wait on Him. But if you do, He will intervene to influence the course of your life. When I saw Him intervene in my life, especially in an area so seemingly insignificant, what an impression that left on me as a teenager. Jesus said, “My Father works,” in John 5:17, “and I work.” Would God have it be any different for us, the handiwork of His creation?
God wants you to learn how to work. He wants you to learn how to work hard (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The sooner you get started, the more that way of life will become a habit. Then, as an adult, when you land your dream job, your employer will come to you after an important project is completed and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things” (Matthew 25:14-30).