My first job

We want to matter. What’s your purpose? Why do you do what you do?

My first job was at the Finish Line in the mall in Green Bay. I sold shoes.

Typing this out now, it does not seem quite as cool as I thought it was back when I was 16. But back then, it was an awesome job.

For starters, the job was in the mall. For those of us of a certain age, the mall was the center of teenage activity. Without cell phones, kids would go to the mall and aimlessly walk around. So, to have a job in a sports store in the mall was the height of cool.

I like to think this is the equivalent of being paid to be an ‘influencer’ on TikTok today. TikTok influencer, shoe salesman; same job, right? Ok, maybe a bad comparison. But I thought it was awesome.

What most people don’t know about shoe sales is that sales on actual shoes is not the game. The shoe industry is insanely competitive. So, unless your store has exclusive rights to a color, or a specific shoe, the margins are very small. And so most shoe stores track two things: multiple sales and add-ons.

A multiple sale is selling more than just a pair of shoes. It could be two pairs. It could be shoes and a pair of track pants. The high-water mark for “multiples” was 50%. Half of your sales should be multiples.

But the real money was made on add-ons: socks and shoe cleaner. The goal for any associate was to try to get 15% of your sales from add-ons.

At 16 years old, I realized that if I sold the hell out of the shoe cleaner, I could increase both of my metrics at once (multiples and add-ons). So, for every customer that came in, I would ask them, “Do you want me to clean your shoes?” (Spoiler alert: everybody’s answer is always ‘yes.’) And I was down on my hands and knees cleaning their shoes.

I took great pride in the fact that in a matter of minutes, I could make someone’s old scuffed up Nikes look like they were fresh out of the box.

In reality, I was less of a shoe salesperson, and more of a shoe cleaner. But I didn’t mind. I was proud of my work. In fact, I was one of the best.

Every week they would print off the sales sheets. My number for multiples was around 80%. My number for add-ons was over 30%. Nationwide, my numbers were near the best.

I don’t usually brag about things like this, but I was killing it.

(Think about this for a second, on why metrics matter. Twenty-two years ago, I had a job where I had two goals: multiples and add-ons. And to this day, I can recite back to you what my numbers were and I’m bizarrely still proud of it. Clarity of goals and focus are an amazing thing)

Ok, back to the story about my shoe cleaning skills.

And the reason I was outperforming everyone at the company was simple: I was willing to get my hands dirty. The ‘cool’ people I worked with would never clean shoes. It was beneath them.

For me, there was real dignity and pride in this work.

I had a flashback of my first job when we were on our company-wide staff retreat.

There was one employee who was head and shoulders above the rest. He was full of joy. You could tell he loved what he was during. He had a pep in his step. And he was great at his job.

His name was Angel. And he is a ski lift operator.

If you are trying to remember if you have ever had Angel as your ski lift operator, chances are you didn’t. Because he was that memorable.

He pumped up every person he encountered. Asking about your run. Giving you knuckles. Calling you an ‘expert.’

Then the chair would come. He would grab a hold of it and pull it back, so it was more comfortable for the rider and count down, “3- 2- 1… Go get ’em, my man!”.

As an aside, I want to point out the simple act of pulling the chair back and counting down. As you know, this was my first time ever skiing. And my colleague and I decided to ride the lift up together. I’m panicked and I try to scamper to my spot, which takes longer than expected. Adam comes cruising in. Perfectly executed. I’m looking over at him and all of a sudden, I get hit by a truck… And by a truck, I mean a chair lift. This thing smokes me. I felt like I was about to fall to the ground, but the chair lift knocked out my knees and planted me right into the seat.

It was a rocky start.

But this whole thing could have been avoided had the chair lift operator simply counted down, or pulled the chair back. (Or more importantly and self accountable, if I wasn’t terrible at getting on a chair lift.)

As I rode the lift with Angel running the controls, he yelled to me, “Man, I just want to get everyone to smile. Look at this. It’s beautiful out here. We’re outside. We’re skiing. It’s beautiful. We all need to smile”.

Joy is infectious.

I was riding on that lift with a smile on my face, thinking about how wonderful life is. Think about that. The guy running the chair lift made me think about how grateful I am.

Do you think the ‘cool’ kids working that job were trying to get everyone to smile?

And here is the kicker. Angel wasn’t skiing. He was operating a chair lift. And it wasn’t beautiful if you were just standing there. It was cold as hell. With manufactured snow being blown in his face.

But you would never know. He was one of the happiest people I have ever seen. He loves his job. He takes pride in it, and he finds deep dignity in being a chair lift operator.

And dignity is something inherent in every job. Because the basis of a job is the unsaid phrase, “We need you.”

That goes for ski lift operators, bus boys, grocery clerks, computer programmers, doctors, and all of us. Every job carries with it dignity and worth.

When we are fighting for the state economy and for Illinois, we are fighting for more than just jobs. We are fighting for dignity.

We are fighting for the millions of people, like Angel, who are crushing their jobs.

Because all of us, no matter who we are, have a desire as human beings to be told, ‘we need you.’

They aren’t the problem. They are the solution.





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Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki

President @illinoispolicy the nation’s leading state-based think tank.

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