A great way to acquire unanticipated skills is through ‘odd jobs’, the short-term jobs we do (mostly for money) while we are growing up and sometimes as adults.
When we say ‘odd jobs’ in the English language we usually refer to occasional jobs, the kind you do ‘here and there’ or ‘now and then’.
But there is another kind of ODD jobs. The odd ones. The unexpected, unanticipated jobs, the ones that take you outside your comfort zone. Those are the ones that tend to teach you the skills you don’t anticipate learning.
This second category would include some of the rarer odd jobs I’ve had. They are the ones who have taught me unanticipated and sometimes even extraordinary things about life. I often had to leave my comfort zone and acknowledge my demons. And the oddest odd jobs are the ones that make for great storytelling.
In my life, I’ve had odd jobs of both kinds. Even the first variety (regular odd jobs) taught me a lot about life. Here are some examples and some of the lessons learned (there are probably many more, but these are the lessons that come to mind).
Artist (at the age of five)
Assistant kindergarten teacher
Fuller Brush Man
Synagogue junior congregation leader and choir singer
farmer on Urim
movie actor and producer
bad breath smeller
1973 jewish agency
Each of these jobs, whether they lasted for a day, a week, or a year, taught me invaluable lessons, perspectives that stay with me to this day.
So the next time someone offers you or one of your children an ‘odd job’, don’t say no without considering the proposition. Beyond the educational value of working hard for money, there lurks a more important goal. Learning new, unanticipated ways of looking at the world.
When I was about five years old, the Sagers would come to visit. Joel Sager and I would make drawings and would sell them to our parents for a couple of cents. This helped keep us out of their hair. This was my first experience as an entrepreneur. We had a captive audience, but no potential for scaling up.
The family used to pick delicious raspberries at an abandoned farm in Ottawa. Later I branched out and picked my own raspberries in the forest between our home and Hillcrest High School. I would jar them and sell them to neighbours. Once some kids held me up at gunpoint (ok, bb-guns but still mortifying) and took all my pickings from that day. Lesson: Distance yourself from unprincipled characters.
The Pacquets, our neighbours, gave me a babysitting job. They had a turntable, Simon and Garfunkel LP’s and they let me play them. I was in sixties heaven! And I got paid! Lesson: Work can be enjoyable!
Growing up, I had odd jobs at synagogue. Leading the Junior Congregation. Singing in the High Holy Day Choir (soprano). They would pay me an ‘honorarium’. Lesson: Worship can pay off in the present life as well.
I also sang in the Synagogue choir on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The cantor was a rabbi, Mr. Rabin. I lost my job when my soprano voice began to, well, you know what. It took me another forty years to get another singing job!
Kenny went on vacation and let me replace him as paper delivery boy for a few days. It was in the Canadian parliament. The tips were very satisfactory and Kenny did not ask for a cut. Lesson: Politics and money go hand in hand.
Tom Swadron hired me for his coin and stamp store one summer, down on the Ottawa Market. I thought I was going to be a salesman, but instead spent the week soaking stamps. He wanted to pay me in kind and I had to get Dad to go downtown to extract the $20 that he owed me for the week. Lesson: All that glitters is not gold.
One summer I was a secretary at a synagogue, with Maxine Robern. We helped ourselves (with permission) to left-overs from the bar mitzvahs and weddings. I gained weight. Lesson: Perks are pernicious, and can slow you down.
One summer Dad got me a job sorting mail at Canada Post. It was the night shift. I must have misplaced hundreds of letters and packages. Lesson: Keep your eye on the final destination.
I spent the first half of the summer of 1969 as a garage hand. I didn’t fit in. One of the Gentile employees choked me and said “Too bad Hitler didn’t kill all you Jews.” The irony of it all was that it was the Bessin’s Morton Motors Volkswagen garage. Lesson: Immigrate to Israel.
I was a door-to-door salesman for the Fuller Brush Company. A prospective client invited me to see her bedroom. I didn’t ‘get it’. Lessons: 1. Learn your customers. 2. Body language is important. 3. Be prepared for eventualities and expect the unexpected.
I swept concrete dust one summer for Moshe Feig’s construction company. The dust was heavy and horrific. But the pay of over $4 an hour (way back then) was persuasive. The guys I worked with (laying the floors after they were clean) are either dead of lung cancer, or still doing the same thing.
In the summer of 1969 I was a camp counselor at Camp Galil in Pennsylvania, replacing my friend Dan Kelman who had appendicitis. I got stopped at the Canada/US border at the airport in Montreal and they refused entry, since I told them I was getting paid ($50 for the summer) and they considered that employment (I didn’t have a work visa). I won’t tell you how I circumvented that, but I did.
Can you list the odd jobs you have had in your life (both kinds). Can you list at least one thing that you learned in each of them. And, if you have had more than thirty really-odd jobs in your career, you should be the one writing this book.
Why did I write “Nick’s New Job?” Is there a moral to the story?
During university, I worked for a while, playing piano accompaniments during ballet lessons. It was boring work (I was nineteen and the girls were six) so I started to throw a few syncopations into the classical music. The teacher said “I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that you’re fired. The good news is that you must have an ear for jazz. Go study jazz.” So I did.
Back in Canada, I spent a week or two working as kindergarten assistant for my Mom, who was a superb kindergarten teacher. The kids there are now well into their fifties. Benjy, what are you up to these days?