I’ve always been addicted to work. 40-hour work weeks have been a reality for me since I was 16 years old, not really because I love working per se, but mostly because I like to keep busy and like having money even more.
But before I could stress myself out at the restaurant job I worked at as a salad bar attendant/dishwasher/hostess at 16, I had a one-season stint as a youth soccer referee.
It was during this first job experience I acquired the most important skill of my career.
I was in those awkward teen years between 9th grade and 10th grade. I had way too much time on my hands and way too little money to fill that time with anything good. My teenage counterparts were whiling away their summer at the pool while I was hiding out in my basement reading obscure sci-fi romance novels and writing really terrible angsty poetry.
I was desperately in need of something worthwhile to do.
I don’t remember who suggested I apply for the referee position – my parents desperate for me to do something with my life or me – but in lieu of nothing better to do that particular evening, I tentatively showed up to an informational meeting. I took one look at the thick rule book and knew I had to master it. (Just writing that sentence makes me want to gag a little. I’m such a nerd.) I started studying right away and was ready for my first game in no time.
Like any normal person new to a job, I struggled for the first few weeks. It’s really difficult to focus on a soccer ball for 35 minutes at a time. I only got a 10-minute break each game and often reffed back-to-back games. In today’s world, losing focus is not only accepted, it’s encouraged for small amounts of time throughout the work day. But when the ball goes out of bounds and I didn’t even see it because I was daydreaming about Pacey Witter, you can bet I felt like a jerk.
There’s something else you should know about youth soccer: it makes normal people absolutely crazy. Moms who I’d see as Eucharistic Ministers in church on Sunday morning would scream profanity when I called a questionable out-of-bounds in favor of the opposing team. There was a lot of intimidation involved – from the parents, the coaches, even from some of the players, who were really only a few years younger than me.
But for some reason, I ended up being pretty good at it. I excelled at ignoring adults with opinions other than my own (something that worked out well for me at this job but drove my parents nuts at home). I was punctual, treated coaches with respect and was generally amiable with my fellow refs.
But it wasn’t until the end of the season that I gained my most valuable career skill to date.
After making a close call in a tight game, a middle-age male coach charged onto the field, coming at me at full steam, red-faced and screaming about my incompetence. It was terrifying, and I immediately started retreating. I picked up my left foot to take a shaky step backward, but something made me pause.
In that moment I realized I had a choice to make – I could back down and allow this person to tell me I’m wrong in the most ineffective way possible or I could stand my ground and refuse to let him bully me about my decision.
I put that foot firmly back on the ground and ended up getting sprayed with spit and (misplaced) rage for about 15 seconds until two assistant coaches pulled him back. After restoring order, I reffed the last 10 minutes of the game relatively unscathed.
The next weekend, my boss came to watch me ref. After my last game of the day, he sat me down to talk, and I was sure I was about to get reprimanded for the previous week’s incident.
But my boss said only one thing, “I hear a coach got in your face last week and you didn’t back down. That takes guts. You’re a good ref – you know your stuff. I want you to ref the state games this year.”
In short, standing my ground got me promoted.
I’m not advocating arrogance or unwillingness to listen to others. But when you know in your gut you’re right – even when everyone’s telling you you’re wrong – don’t back down. Steadfast assertiveness, self-assurance and calm self-control in the face of opposition will take you far in the world. I’m grateful I was able to learn this crucial lesson early on in life and have carried it with me ever since.
What about you? What was your first job? What lifelong value did it provide you? Share your story in a comment below.