This year’s Thanksgiving post is dedicated to my job, which is itself kind of an unexpected plot twist. If someone had told me last Thanksgiving that I would soon be working full time in retail AND enjoying the experience, they would have gotten my Skeptical Face. But I hired on part time about nine months ago and happily transitioned to a full time Lead position less than two months later, and while the job is not always easy or fun, it’s been incredibly educational and I’m thankful to have it.
It didn’t come naturally to me, that’s for sure. I remember at one point grumbling to my work supervisor, “There has to be a way to thrive in retail without selling my soul.” It was maybe not the most tactful thing I could have said, considering that he and his fellow managers are doing fine in retail, presumably with their souls more-or-less intact. I was having a bad day.
As melodramatic as it must have sounded, I was serious. I’d been working there for maybe four or five months at the time, and retail still felt like an alien world to me. I was also still working through some personal issues that I had brought with me out of my Anza experiences. When I looked back at the four-and-a-half decades of my life up to that point, it seemed like one long struggle to hold onto my personal integrity while most of the people I was supposed to trust self-destructed and tried to take me down with them. I had worked out a basic life philosophy in which there are two kinds of people: the we’re-all-in-this-together types, and the every-man-for-himself types. I had it firmly in my mind that the latter type is universally destructive to themselves and to the fabric of society.
Here’s the thing: retail tends to attract the every-man-for-himself types.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job right from the start. I liked the physical exertion and the mental stimulation and the social interaction. I liked most of the people I worked with. But I didn’t trust any of them. Sometimes I felt incredibly frustrated by the lack of supportive communication and by the “sink or swim” management style. Because I really do like my workmates, I wanted them to be more like my own artistically-inclined circle of friends. Us artistic types are all about sharing our feelings and discussing our deep, profound philosophies. Try that in retail and you get coolly and politely rebuffed. Sometime they’re not even polite about it. Sometimes that bothers me more than it should. To be honest, most of the retail people that I’ve worked with are not especially “nice” in the traditional sense of the word. They’re not mean-spirited or anything, they just don’t, you know, overburden themselves with concern for other people’s feelings.
And holy crap, these people hoard information like they’re charged by the word. Fortunately we recently got a new Store Manager, and the new guy is all about the communication. Let me tell you, it is SO MUCH easier to do your job when you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time an unfamiliar situation comes up, or have to call for someone who will use their own wheel to fix the problem but not give you one or tell you how to make your own. Yeah, I could probably come up with a better analogy than the wheel thing, but whatever, my point is that it’s been an adventure.
I’ve had two major epiphanies since I started working there. The first was three or four months ago, when I actually began to notice that, despite being The Wrong Type Of People, those managers, most of them anyway, were not actually self-destructing at all. In fact, they were navigating the retail world much more effectively than I was. It occurred to me that maybe there was a middle ground here that I did not yet understand, and that maybe these folks had some useful perspectives that I would benefit from acquiring. To use another descriptive analogy, because us artistic types love those, it was kind of like I had moved from France to Italy and then spent the next five months feeling aggravated by the fact that everyone around me was speaking Italian instead of French. While making no effort to learn Italian myself, because that would be the first step down the path of corrupt self-destruction.
Yeah, no. As soon I started really watching the other managers, without the judgy filter in place, I gained a new appreciation for each of their leadership styles. I realized that in a way, it’s a form of respect to let a person sink or swim on their own merits. And it’s way less exhausting than constantly trying to carry someone who doesn’t really want to be in the pool in the first place. Most of my job-related frustrations evaporated almost overnight when I stopped trying hold the retail system to the standards of the artistic community. I started choosing the traits I wanted to incorporate into my own management style. I was finally able to pick up the reins and start being a more effective Lead without feeling like the corporate villain in all of those Occupy political cartoons. I still freely share all of my wheels with anyone who needs them though, because I like working with knowledgeable, competent people. I never fix an associate’s problem without explaining to them how they can fix it for themselves next time.
My second epihany was more recent. Like, last week. Suddenly and with perfect clarity, I understood the fundamental underlying Truth of retail that had been eluding me since I hired on. The First Rule, the one that retail people instinctively follow but no one will tell you about or even admit to. It applies to every aspect of the business, from everyday job performance to the presentation of merchandise and everything in between.
I’m not going to reveal the First Rule of Retail here, because when you come right out and say it, it sounds kind of terrible, and I’m not looking to lose my job. But the nice part is that now that I’m aware of this rule, I can follow it perfectly without sacrificing any of my personal integrity. I have finally figured out the trick to thriving in retail without selling my soul.
And that’s just the big stuff. I’ve also learned a million and one smaller lessons in the past nine months, and gained some insights into human nature that throw my past experiences into a clearer light. I have a way to go yet and lots more to learn, but I’m incredibly thankful to be where I am. As another of my bosses said a few weeks ago, “Isn’t it funny how life puts you right where you need to be?”
Happy Thanksgiving to all, and may the path always take you where you need to be.