In my relatively short working life, I've done a lot of things. Beginning with my first job, at the age of 16, I've held the following positions (some simultaneously, and not all in this order):

  • Paperboy
  • Stockperson
  • Laundry assistant
  • Various positions in the construction field
  • Pizza-delivery driver
  • Dishwasher
  • Personal-care assistant
  • Administrative assistant
  • Draftsman
  • Assembly-line worker
  • Machine operator
  • Forklift driver
  • Security guard
  • Tour guide
  • Technical writer
  • Line supervisor
  • Manager
  • Film actor
  • English teacher
  • Public-speaking coach
  • Consultant
  • Executive coach
  • Business owner
  • Professional speaker
  • Author

I spent 13 years working for an organization that I loved, but I've also worked for companies that weren't so great. I've worked in three countries (on three different continents) as an employee, a volunteer, and most recently for myself. At times I was the leader, other times someone being led.

What did I learn from these experiences? A lot, as you can imagine. Here are some major lessons that stand out:

1. You can learn to do anything.

I had never done most of these jobs before starting. (OK, I had washed dishes.) I definitely had some good trainers through the years, but mostly I learned by doing.

Don't be intimidated by something new; observe others who are good at whatever you want to learn. Ask for tips. Find a mentor. Get feedback. Reflect on your work, and learn from your mistakes.

Remember, everybody was "the new guy" at some point. There's no teacher like experience.

2. Work is about attitude.

I've had jobs that I really loved, and I've had jobs that I hated. But you can make any work enjoyable--by focusing on the positive.

When I delivered pizza, my car smelled like food all the time. I knew a mountain of dishes would be waiting for me when I got back. And some people are really lousy tippers.

But, hey--I got paid pretty well (with a salary, gas reimbursement, and tips) to cruise around town listening to my favorite tunes. And I got all the pizza I could eat for free.

At 18, what more could you ask for?

3. Everyone needs to feel appreciated.

I had the privilege of learning from some really great leaders. They taught me how to look for the positive in others, commend good work, and see potential where others didn't.

As I in turn led various teams throughout the years, I saw firsthand the value of sincere and specific praise. (If you'd like to build a better praise culture at your work place, read this.) And the value of four small words in building relationships: "Thank you" and "I'm sorry."

These simple gestures cost you nothing, but the ROI is immeasurable.

4. But people also need (constructive) criticism.

Learning is a never-ending process. We all need feedback.

As a leader, don't be vague, but don't nitpick, either. Identify damaging behaviors, and then communicate specifics--like how to improve.

If you've done point three effectively, point four becomes much easier. You're not like the other, clueless bosses; you're the counselor, coach, and mentor who cares about making your people better.

5. You need time to reflect.

So many get caught up in the day-to-day, without ever making changes they should. Never asking the important questions. Committing the same mistakes over and over, causing pain to themselves or others.

Schedule time to stop and think. What have I learned recently? What am I doing well? What can I do better? Many try to combine this type of thinking with other activities, like their commute. That's OK sometimes. But don't underestimate the power of pure, concentrated reflection. I've found it invaluable for problem-solving and moving forward.

You might wonder why I've had so many jobs through the years. That's a long story; let's just say I took a different path. Maybe some of you have too.

Things haven't always been easy, but I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything. Because they also taught me the most important lesson of all:

There's no such thing as failure. Just another opportunity to learn.