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4 Life Lessons I Learned from Being a Bag Boy

"All labor has dignity" - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Recently, I was asked at work, "what was your first-ever job"? The question stopped me in my tracks because I remember my first job vividly, and surprisingly it was one of my favorite roles, a grocery bagger. Most people don't have such fond memories of their first jobs. I am lucky that not only did I enjoy my first position, it also taught me lessons that I've carried with me to this day.

Adding Value Wins

Being a bagger is the lowest rung on the grocery store hierarchy. If given a choice, most people would select the role of cashier over a bagger for several reasons, but primarily for remuneration. In 1994 at $4.85 an hour, I made considerably less per hour than the cashiers. However, I quickly learned that if I added value during my bagging process, I could earn tips. Rather than just putting the grocery items in bags randomly, I went above and beyond by grouping like items together. I also ensured bags weren't too heavy and kept fragile items like bread and eggs separate.

Due to those efforts, I racked up tips like I was Famous Dave's bbq! Joking aside, because of my level of service, I was able to make up the hourly wage difference. Plus, I had enough to buy a frozen pizza and lemonade during my breaks. In hindsight, I had an unfair advantage; I was able to provide a higher level of service than the cashiers, which is why I cumulatively earned more.

Life Lesson: If you are stuck on which job, project, or assignment to choose, ask yourself, "Which path will allow me to add the most value?"

Anyone Can Innovate

Another reason I received so many tips was by innovating. When beginning their service, most baggers will ask their customers, albeit with very little passion and enthusiasm, "would you like paper or plastic?". This dualistic approach leaves customers unserved. Instead, I added additional options such as double paper or a combination of paper and plastic to my ask. These different options reduced the amount of ripped bags our customers experienced. It took a bit more effort to prepare the bags but reduced headaches later.

Life Lesson: Be open to change. "This is the way we've always done it," is the quickest way to irrelevance.  

Anticipate Unexpressed Wishes

Responding to unexpressed wishes is one of the three service values of The Ritz Carlton. You don't need to be in a luxury market to exercise this enduring principle. As a bagger, I had several opportunities to anticipate unexpressed wishes. A small but essential unexpressed desire is to move at the pace of my customer. Lagging too far behind is just as unsettling as running too far ahead. Another obscure but important unexpressed wish is how to close the trunk of Cadillacs properly. To this day, I remember, you don't slam Cadillac trunks, you gently guide them to their soft-close function.

Life Lesson: Small details can make a big difference.

Be a Good Neighbor

Side-by-side with the owner, I learned one of my final duties as a bagger: the lot sweep. In short, I picked up trash and debris from the parking lot. At the time, it was demeaning and humiliating work. Now, I view it as a lesson in leadership, character building, and overall invaluable experience.

Dynamic leaders see things better than they currently are and bridge the gap. They are also keenly aware of the importance of first impressions. This simple exercise of cleaning up the parking lot taught me the pride of ownership and to provide attentive care to my surroundings. As an aside, one of my critiques of national chains versus local operators is that they don't show the same level of care and commitment to the physical environment within the communities they serve. I digress.

Life Lesson: Be like Mr. Rogers, be a good neighbor.

During his "Last Lecture" at Stanford for their GSB student's, Irv Grousbeck, shared career advice that has never left me, "don't spend three years getting two years worth of experience." My takeaway is to use each opportunity life gives you as an exercise in learning. My encouragement is for you to mine for the treasures of the moment. Whether that moment is a mundane task, conversation with a stranger, or an undervalued job, be open for the lessons that reside there.

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