My Italian immigrant father taught me everything I need to know about work
My father began working full-time at age 10, and he is still working hard at age 65. An Italian immigrant, my father instilled in me lessons about working, balancing your life, and building a career that aligns with your passions. He has always been my biggest inspiration, because his story is that of the sentimental American dream: he came to this country without money, without knowledge of the language, and without education. 50 years later, he is one of the smartest, hardest-working, and most successful people I know.
This is what he taught me about how to work hard and live well.
No job, however “menial” it may seem, is ever beneath you if it’s honest work.
My father taught me that no job is shameful if you do it honestly and diligently. When he was a fresh arrival in America, my father took a job at a sheet metal company. It was a job that didn’t require an education, but it was a job and he performed it well. In fact, he excelled so much at that position that when the company’s finances took a turn for the worst, he was one of the few new hires that was not laid off.
From him, I’ve learned that even if a job seems like it’s “beneath” you — whether you’re overqualified or have to work with incompetent superiors — no shame should ever be attached to good, honest work, no matter the field. I’ve translated that into my everyday life, especially when I was an unemployed postgrad waitressing practically full time. Many customers, making polite conversation, asked me if restaurant service was “the only thing I was doing” after college — clearly expressing that they thought the food service life was “below me,” and somehow “embarrassing.” It hurt me, but at the end of the day, I was always proud of my hustle and work ethic. And hey –the cash tips didn’t hurt either.
Because it was honest work and I did it well, I took pride in it. My dad taught me that.
Show up early, and leave late.
Speaking of hustling and distinguishing yourself at work: my dad taught me that in order for your boss to notice you, you must go above and beyond to prove your worth. More than likely, there are dozens of people at any given time who would be all too eager to get your job –especially in our economy and job market! So it’s almost necessary to do more work than you’re expected to do. Now, there is a fine line between working hard and being taken advantage of, but those who work harder than others are usually the ones who keep their jobs when the going gets tough!
Never say no to an opportunity that scares you, or that doesn’t seem “perfect.”
My father loves telling the story of how he serendipitously became the owner of a successful restaurant — for over 40 years. In the 1970s, my dad was planning to open a franchise location, but then randomly got an opportunity to become part owner of a restaurant. At first, he didn’t like the idea; it was a lot of money to spend, it was a less familiar industry, and the opportunity didn’t seem “perfect” to him. After some consideration, he decided to take the plunge.
That restaurant evolved into a successful business for 40 years. It was the business that established my father as a savvy entrepreneur, and the place where he eventually met my mother. Without taking a chance on an imperfect job, he may never have landed what turned out to be a dream career. I take that story to heart and carry it with me all the time. I try to never write off opportunities because I’m frightened, “unqualified,” or because I don’t think it is a “perfect” opportunity. No job prospect is ever 100% ideal, but it always has the potential to turn into something amazing. Why turn down that possibility?
Save money, save money, save money.
My dad was full of wisdom about saving money when my sisters and I were growing up. When we were old enough to help out at the family restaurant, we’d bus tables for a couple shifts a week to earn some pocket change. My father would then collect that money and save it in an envelope for us to have once we were older. He’d only give us a small portion of it for spending money. He instilled in us the value of a dollar, and taught us that saving a few hundred dollars could make financial emergencies much, much easier to deal with when they inevitably come along!
A good savings pile is also great for when you want to splurge on something you deserve, like a vacation or a new purse. Years later, the greatest contentment I feel is when I can transfer my paycheck into a savings account and watch the numbers grow, knowing I’m investing in a safer financial future.
Work/life balance is essential, but it’s a precarious balance.
My father’s role as a restaurant owner meant that he was gone for 12 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week. My dad was constantly working, but he was also a hands-on, present father who always wanted to spend time with his kids. That’s why he offered each of us the opportunity to work at the restaurant once we were old enough. My teenage years were spent taking shifts at the restaurant, spending time with my parents, cousins, and aunts altogether as a family. My dad made it very clear that he strongly desired to balance his work life and his family life, so he balanced them the only way he knew how: by blending them together.
In my own professional life, I struggle with work/life balance because I’ve become a workaholic. Even though I’m still learning how to organize these two aspects of my life, I remember my father and know that I’ll always find a way to spend time with the people I love.
Don’t work for your co-workers.
When I got a new job at the beginning of the year, I was plagued with the struggles of the position: the long hours, the bad commute, the terrible boss, and the dissatisfaction I felt. My only solace was my beloved co-workers: a lively group of people that became my little family. So when I started seeing opportunities to get a better, more satisfying position, I second guessed making a career move because it would mean leaving the people with whom I had bonded.
But my father made me think differently. He told me that while it’s important to have friends at work and to enjoy yourself, ultimately, you don’t work for your co-workers. You work for yourself — your career, your livelihood, your happiness. And I know that staying at a dead-end job because it was filled with fun people was not the right choice for me. I also reasoned that, if it came down to it, my co-workers wouldn’t stay at a bad job just for me. Plus, co-workers can turn into real-life friends even after you’ve changed jobs.
At the end of the day, work is a huge part of your life — so you should enjoy it.
Look — no one really loves to work. Even I, a self-professed workaholic who held down four jobs this year, like nothing better than binge-watching Netflix in pajamas. But since work is sort of necessary in order to eat and buy shoes and stuff, you may as well like your job. And that doesn’t mean you have to constantly search for the perfect job, that you must say no to opportunities that aren’t good enough, or that you have to deal with a terrible job just for the paycheck.
For me, and for my father, enjoying work means taking pride in everything you do, working hard to build a career you love, and not getting discouraged when things aren’t perfect.
It means waiting tables for years before you land a better job — but finding ways to love the hard work and the struggle. It means you’re tough and strong, and you’ll fight for the life you want. It means finding the delicate balance between what you need to do and what you want to do. It means never apologizing for ambition, or for your pipe dreams. It means embracing work as a part of life, and turning it into something you won’t hate.