I Came From the Evil World of Wal-Mart

My first non-fast food job as an adult was working in the Photo Center at my local Wal-Mart in Grants Pass, Oregon. There isn’t (or wasn’t) much of an industry in Grants Pass. Basically in 1998, Grants Pass was known as the pit stop between Medford and Roseburg (it might still be known as that).

It also was the first job that didn’t start me out at minimum wage.
I started at $0.25 above minimum wage.

The only type of work I knew was the hands-on, ditch digging, weed whacking, chicken frying job that was often associated with low wages. I’ve been working since I was 11. My first job was doing yard work for $5/hr for a friend of my mom. It was great comic book and basketball card money.

When I entered the world of Wal-Mart, I kept that same work ethic. I dove into the dirtiest parts of my department and did the work that no one else wanted to do. The work that people DID want to do, I did better.

It wasn’t long before I was promoted at Wal-Mart…
and it was even less time before I was promoted from that promotion.

At the pinnacle of my career I was touring around to different stores and helping other managers and their crews be better at their jobs. I grew into a comfortable salary that I was miserable at.

Why was I miserable?

Because everyone else was miserable. Misery is contagious is you don’t cover your eyes and ears long enough. The people who were the most miserable were often miserable because they felt like they deserved more. They had been employed with Wal-Mart longer than me. They often stated that “management was against them” “nothing they would do would get noticed” “they were worth more”. Now while some of that may be true… it wasn’t always the case.

On a side note, low performers who know they’re low performers are often the happiest people at a “grunt job.” They’re happy to be employed and know it. It’s the basic worker with low-mid level work ethic and a false sense of self that is often left scratching their head. The basic worker with a kick ass work ethic are the ones who are promoted.

During my rise at Wal-Mart, certain managers “were out to get me.” I would often go months increasing sales, improving my customer service skills, etc. and never received a word of praise. I felt like I was worth more, but rarely complained.

What I did do was counteract these notions with the diligent, weed whacking, chicken frying work that brought me to the dance. Managers and employees often overlook the stuff you’re supposed to do and they ALWAYS notice the stuff you didn’t do. I outperformed my nay sayers so any “attacks” would go unaddressed because I was that damn good. Probably not the best attitude, but it worked. But you know, Haters Gonna Hate.

However, when they never notice your mistakes (because they were so rare), they start to take notice of you even more…

  • They notice that you show up to work every day 10-15 minutes early.
  • They notice that you followed every step in a procedure and never took shortcuts.
  • They noticed that you did work that made OTHERS better and less stressed.

Soon, the mistakes you make highlight your human side, not your consistent nature to fail. Because failure isn’t who you are. You’re a hard working machine who sometimes shows human characteristics.

This past Sunday night, I fell in love with a documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The story is about a man in his 80s who is consumed with making the best sushi. He often wakes up from dreams about how to perfect a certain dish. He was this way since the age of 17.

The opening segment hooked me into wanting to know more about his story:

Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and the key to being regarded honorably.

I never had a way to say it with the grace of Jiro.
However, I lived his words without knowing it.

Some of the people at Wal-Mart were quick to find things to complain about. Ways to “improve” their job by cutting out parts they deemed unnecessary. They rarely did anything to better their situation. They just expected their situation to change with no additional effort of their own. Oh… and the rumor mill was second to none.

Did I have things to complain about? Hell Yes!
Did I complain about them? Ok… sometimes… I mean it was Wal-Mart. Actually… I complained more about the people than the company. Again… that whole misery thing can rub off.

Did I take shortcuts because I thought I knew better? Not really. I may have changed the way some things were done, but it was to truly improve the process. After testing to show my way was superior, I’d run it by my boss. If I got the approval, this was now the new way. If I didn’t, I would reluctantly go back to the old way.

Jobs are defined in a specific detail for a reason. It’s ok to question that reason and if the answer is sufficient (more than a simple “because I said so”), then keep doing a full and complete job.

Sometimes people take shortcuts because they’re lazy. However, I’d like to think that people take shortcuts because they feel rushed and want to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time so they can move on to the next task. OR… sometimes they take shortcuts because they don’t understand the reasoning behind the full process.

Rushing to get a job done by leaving out a step or two means someone else is going to have to come back through after your work is done and pick up after you or even redo what you did. This is NOT a ways to make work friends, but it is a great way to get noticed in a way that you don’t want.

The lazy rarely succeed and are obvious to spot. They consistently fall short even after being told time and time again how to do something right. Eventually they work themselves out of a job. However the majority of fair to average workers who do an incomplete job are the ones left behind wondering why they didn’t receive a promotion.

I’m sure there are other reasons people are lazy, why they don’t fully perform a task to company standards. However the few examples I mentioned were the ones I noticed while working at Wal-Mart during my early to mid 20s.

Jobs come and go… The one constant that you can carry across all jobs is your work ethic.

I was a casualty of a management restructuring at Wal-Mart and found myself with a severance package and a new outlook on the world. I went back to school and completed my college education.

Even as I grew older, perhaps more educated, and my world view shifted, I did notice a lot of the same behaviors existed at future employers like Safeway and Home Depot. The moderately hard working people who took shortcuts were “overlooked” while the worker who fully completes a job (sometimes not physically working as hard as their counterparts) got the promotion.

Again… I was that guy.

The moral of this story is to be like Jiro.

Once you choose an occupation, you immerse yourself in your work. Never complain. Spend your life (or the life of your career) mastering that skill. If you find yourself continually falling short or hating the job, it’s time to move on. Especially before your distaste for a company comes across as a bad work ethic.

I’ll openly admit that I’m one of the slowest learners at a new job. In the beginning, I don’t work as fast as my counter parts. Mostly because I’d do a complete job. However with practice of doing that complete job, I was able to work as fast and often times faster than my shortcut-taking colleagues.

That is/was my secret to success.