For the past seven summers, I’ve worked as a lifeguard and it was AWESOME. Basically I got paid to tan, read magazines and play sharks and minnows. The funny thing about a job like lifeguarding is that people are always asking you about getting a “real job.” I may not want to be a lifeguard when I grow up, but “not real jobs” are the place where you develop skills that you’ll need when you actually have a career. I may not need to remember how to fold towels perfectly or watch for a distressed swimmer when I work in an office, but I will know how to respect my place in a hierarchy and act under pressure. Here are six life skills that I’ve developed in a “not real job:”
Sometimes something important, something you haven’t prepared for, needs to get done, and it needs to get done fast. I’ve luckily never had to actually save a life (I did give out a lot of band-aids) but there have been times where I felt like the Mission: Impossible theme song may have been playing in the background while I was trying to do my job: finding little kids during a swim meet, fixing the chemicals in the pool before the health inspector arrived, getting a frog out of the pool; the list goes on. It doesn’t matter if you work in an office or at a pool: You will need the balls to get difficult stuff done under pressure.
If there is one thing I hated while lifeguarding, it was giving camp swim lessons. I would much rather be reading Harry Potter and the kids were too busy firing snot rockets at each other to bother listening to me. I finally had enough one day this summer and decided none of the kids was the second coming of Michael Phelps. Instead, I decided we were going to have a cannonball contest. I hammed it up as the “crazy” judge, giving the kids funny nicknames and screaming like a maniac. They ate it up. Lesson learned: When in doubt, hold a cannonball contest. Unfortunately, you can’t do this in your office job. But when it comes to solving the thorniest of problems, it means you have to think outside of the box — or in my case, outside the pool.
When I was at college, I was an editor at the school paper and in the honors program. Guess what? None of that mattered when I was scrubbing shit out of a toilet. I love when in “real job” interviews the hiring manager asks if I will be okay with menial office tasks, especially coming from an elite college. One of my first years on the job, one of the men’s toilets got backed up. It looked — and smelled — like World War III in the bathroom stall. No one else could stomach cleaning it up, so I sacked up, put some gloves on and got my hands dirty — literally and figuratively. When you’re in a job and someone asks you to do something, it may suck and it may seem pointless. But not only is it a task that needs to be done, it is one you in particular were asked to do. Suck it up and do it, preferably with a smile on your face.
This kind of fits with the whole “humility” angle. Sometimes you’ll struggle with how performing random tasks — like picking up trash and teaching swim lessons — fits into your big picture. The destination may be great, but ultimately, the journey is the most rewarding part of the adventure. Sometimes all it takes is a little kid telling you that you’re their favorite lifeguard (this actually happened a lot, I was the “fun” guard) but it’s a reminder that day-to-day life may be slow, but the little moments are what make everything you do special. Life isn’t going to be all keg stands and Jello shots, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a bit of fun along the way.
Spoiler alert: People suck! While I was lucky enough to usually be surrounded by an awesome group of coworkers, I learned there are always going to be duds. I learned pretty fast that for the time being, I was stuck with them (and in their mind, they were probably grousing how they were stuck with me). You may not like it, but you have to make it work. On the flip side, I learned pretty fast people who were very different on paper than me were very often the ones I got along best with, although one of my best friends on staff was also a blond Sam who was a swimmer. Funny how that happens.
At college, a typical Friday morning involved waking up with a hangover, rolling out of bed in sweats and heading to the dining hall for brunch with friends to recount last night’s debauchery. But honey, that lifestyle isn’t going to fly in the real world when you have to be at the pool at 8:30 to coach morning practice. That may be a bit of a stretch in calling that actual “responsibility” but when you learn real accountability pretty fast when you are liable for the safety of a pool full of kids. Developing this responsibility early on has been a really, really good thing.