Lessons from a French chicken farm

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One summer, when I found myself with no job and no plan, I panicked and took a job on a chicken farm in the French countryside. I told myself the job would look good on my resume — showing I am adventurous and understand the agriculture business to boot. Neither is true, in fact, and I have never put this experience on my resume. But I did learn a lot on the farm about getting ahead at the office.

My deal with the family that employed me was that I would perform household chores in exchange for room and board. To me, “chores” meant sweeping and dusting. To them, it meant killing and plucking chickens. In my lame French, I said killing animals was not among my duties. The matron of the house said I’d be kicked out for breaking the agreement. So I learned to pluck. Lesson 1: Get everything in writing.

The farmer blocked off a small area of the coop where the wee chicks could live without getting lost. Every week, the chicks would double in size, as would the area. By the end of the summer, the coop was full. Lesson 2: Start small, but prepare for rapid growth.

It was important to move the chickens into the buyer’s truck before they realized what was happening. So in the middle of the night, while they were sleeping, we grabbed the chickens by the legs and held them upside down. The farmer couldn’t believe I did it without throwing up, and he gave me three days off. Lessons 3 and 4: Have a strategy, and learn skills outside your job description.

I once bit into an apple before noticing that everyone else had peeled theirs first. The 8-year-old daughter declared in French, “She eats apples like the pigs.” The mother responded, “Be careful, she is beginning to understand.” Lesson 5: Learn another language.

I picked cherries from the branches that were too high for the 8-year-old. Later she gathered the eggs out from under the hens so I wouldn’t get pecked. Lesson 6: Make friends in low places.

I fed the rabbits on the farm for five weeks. One evening, they were gone. “They are not pets like the dog,” the farmer said as we dined on my charges. Lesson 7: Never get too attached to anyone you work with.

Relatives of the host family came to visit from Lyon. I had more in common with the city French than the rural French did. They invited me to spend my last month with them, when I was supposed to be harvesting hay on the farm. I told the farmer I would stay only if I didn’t have to feed the pigs anymore. Lesson 8: Job offers give you more leverage.

Every day a few chickens would be trampled to death or die from heat exhaustion in the coop. I walked close behind the farmer, who would scoop up the dead birds before me. Lesson 9: When there’s crap everywhere, stick close to someone in the know.

I didn’t read any books, and I worried all summer that I wasn’t learning a thing. But really, I was learning solid fundamentals that would help me throughout my career. Lesson 10: Never assume that anything is a waste of your time.

38 replies
  1. Thinking Person
    Thinking Person says:

    This is the most idiotic advice I’ve ever read – second only to your piece encouraging people to lie and misspell words on their resume’s.

    You are a complete simpleton. Please go back to France.

  2. Another simpleton who lived and learned on a farm
    Another simpleton who lived and learned on a farm says:

    Thinking Person, you won’t have to make mistakes on your resume on purpose, it will be natural for you. (Just in case you have no idea why I say that, the plural of résumé is résumés, not resume’s.)

    Loved this blog entry, although I have to disagree with some of the Bad Job Hunting Advice, especially Bad Rule No. 5: Don’t have typos in your résumé that Thinking Person refers to. A resume is short and if a person can’t find the time to proofread it adequately before sending it out, how much care will they put into important documents and presentations for their job? I would never hire someone with a typo or grammatical error on their résumé.

  3. www.freeway2000.com
    www.freeway2000.com says:

    OOPS, my post was cut in half, I’ll repost

    You appear to be young. So, I’ll give you another perspective. I’m not French, but this is probably what your French employers learned about Americans from you.
    You say,
    Lesson 1: Get everything in writing.
    From their perspective, if it weren’t for plastic wrapped food, they’d starve.
    Lesson 2: Start small, but prepare for rapid growth.
    From their perspective, and this is how you raise chickens, French farmers have been doing it this way for generations. Poor Americans don’t even know the purpose of history!!!
    Lessons 3 and 4: Have a strategy, and learn skills outside your job description.
    From their perspective, we prefer to do things gracefully. That’s why we move chickens at night, when we can’t be seen (BTW, I have chickens so I know the real reason for moving them at night).
    Lesson 5: Learn another language.
    From their perspective, those Americans are babarians. Shhh, smile sweetly.
    Lesson 6: Make friends in low places
    From their perspective, they can’t even gather eggs, properly!!!
    Lesson 7: Never get too attached to anyone you work with.
    From their perspective, at least she didn’t let the rabbits loose.
    Lesson 8: Job offers give you more leverage.
    From their perspective, finally, she acts like a person, almost French.
    Lesson 9: When there's crap everywhere, stick close to someone in the know.
    From their perspective, the student is trying to learn.
    Lesson 10: Never assume that anything is a waste of your time
    From my perspective, try walking in their shoes, it’s quite interesting.

  4. Thomas S
    Thomas S says:

    I do not want to be mean spirited, but I also do not want to sugar coat my feelings after reading this article and your recently posted article regarding job hunting.

    It is hard for me to read your writings without feeling like I am reading a story that should be named ‘Penelope Trunk’s Wonderful Life’. As a 30-something who is young enough to relate to the 20-somethings, yet old enough to have observed and worked with 40, 50 and 60-somethings, I really must say that my experiences have brought me to a completely different understanding of “the working world” than your’s. You may see traits like loyalty and honesty as outdated and not worth offering, but that is a stark contrast to many of the people you will be working with and for. Shallow thinking like that may make you feel like you are ahead of the game, like you are trendy, like you are one-upping those who may show you these same traits, but you will only be left empty and unfulfilled down the road when you won’t even be able to feel good about the way you have approached your career and other folks.

    You seem more interested in sharing how hip and wonderful you think you are, and not as interested in sharing sound, proven methods for succeeding in the working world.

  5. Margaret McDowall
    Margaret McDowall says:

    Hi, I was even more intrigued by the comments to your advice than the advice itself. It occurs to me that there a whole lot of people out there who are so ready to critise that they are not willing to read over and see what use they can make of your advice. I am certainly past my job hunting days but I believe your advice is useful if only to give another perspective. – I don’t think you meant to encourage persons to leave typos – I got that you were urging them to concentrate on making the resume interesting and worth reading. – although I must say that I would not hire someone who could not get a one pager mistake free.
    I will certainly send both your tips and your story of your experience in France to my step son, so thank you, – Margaret

  6. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    You commenters might try being inspired by her experiences rather than just critical and embittered. Just because you think her job-hunting advice was no good doesn’t mean that the lessons she learned working on the French farm weren’t valid.

  7. Sally
    Sally says:

    While your story “Lessons From A French Chicken Farm” was mildly entertaing, it sounds more like it was “made up” by a teenager who was asked to write about how they spent their summer vacation. Your advice regarding job hunting, however, was unbelievably stupid!! LOL. I can’t believe you get paid to offer this kind of advice to people. When I look at a resume and see a guy who has had 8 jobs in the past 12 years, the first thing I think to myself is no way, he won’t last more than a year or so here, and it’s not worth all the effort of training him. As far as leaving the typos in the resume, you must have fallen and smacked your head hard on the concrete to offer such ridiculous advice. If a person can not take the time to do a simple spelling and grammar check on a one or two page resume, they are not qualified to even sit across the desk from me for an interview. I can’t help but seriously wonder how you managed to get your job and what kind of screwball you have for a boss, lol, seriously, I don’t mean to be mean, but WOW.

  8. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    I thought your advice was great! I’m still in college but I’m faving this page to remind myself to look at it once I start working overseas(hopefully!) or some job in a totally foreign environment.

  9. Sean
    Sean says:

    In response to Stephanie’s comments: Why would someone change jobs 8 times in 12 years? Because of the failure of the companies doing what it takes to retain their employees. People put their employees on bubbles all the time that seem to never happen, causing the employee to move on/look elsewhere. People need to remember that without the help of the little underpaid employee there would be little to no money made.

    As for the topic: I thought it was good advise for today’s job seeker in the current market.

  10. Smarter Than Thinking Person
    Smarter Than Thinking Person says:

    To Thinking Person: At least she knows when to use an apostrophe and when not to.

    People in glass houses should not throw stones.

  11. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    I very much enjoyed the piece on the lessons from a French farm, but I was surprised by the job advice. As someone who’s generally been the overworked and underpaid employee I can very much relate to the point someone made about employers not doing what is necessary to retain their workers, but I still think that in the long run it looks unstable to change jobs so often. Companies do not want to invest in workers who likely will not stay. Same thing with the typos – it’s one page, easy to proofread. Have a friend do it if you’re bad at it yourself.

    With gaps – it makes sense that they would be fine if you can explain them. And when it comes to online identities, some of your suggestions are good but not worrying about what’s posted already is definitely not good advice. When I apply for jobs in the legal field when my degree is finished and I pass the bar, I don’t want to take a single chance that I won’t get a job because of something written on myspace that I could remove while someone else has nothing written at all.

  12. Thomas S
    Thomas S says:

    For those posters who are complaining about someone with typos in their post being critical of Ms Trunk’s advice on typos, that is just plain foolish! Learn to differentiate between a resume (extremely important) and a post on a message board (not important). The grammatical accuracy of a post here will not make or break someones attempt to receive a job interview – mistakes on a resume very well could.

    And while some of you may find the article about the French farm beneficial, there are many of us who see it as little more than a “look at me and how wonderful I am” piece. I respect the fact that you may have gotten something else out of it, so please respect the fact that I and others may see it as useless self promotion by the author. To call my point of view on the article “missing the point” is your opinion, you are welcome to it, but realize that there are many of us who believe that we see the point very clearly, and it is in stark contrast to the way you see it.

  13. Jennifer R
    Jennifer R says:

    It appears that most of you missed the point of this post – Tha you should be able to look at your own life experiences and apply what you learned to other parts of your life.
    I have read many of Penelope’s posts, and find them very refreshing.

  14. dsrtwnd
    dsrtwnd says:

    check the URL thomas,in light of the fact it IS ms trunk’s site, i damn well feel she is entitled to go on about how wonderful she is. now, i’m sure thats a point even you will get.

  15. Thomas S
    Thomas S says:

    Wow, you told me! Does it really matter what the URL is? If I use MY website to post things for public consumption, AND THEN ESTABLISH A MESSAGE BOARD FOR VISITORS TO LEAVE COMMENTS, does it not follow that those folks reading my site, who are allowed to post THEIR feelings, that may differ from YOURS, might leave posts that are unfavorable of me?

    You want to talk about missing the point? Let’s see, I believe that YOU have COMPLETELY missed the point regarding the purpose of a message board allowing EVERYONE/ANYONE to post their feelings.

    I am allowed to state MY (as in, mine, NOT your’s)
    opinion on Ms Trunk’s writings. If you do not like my opinions, well…ummm….I guess, too bad!

    Now, to quote you, “i'm sure thats a point even you will get”.

    * * * * * *
    Hello, Everyone: I just want to say that I do not think this is a nice comment. And I don’t think it’s particularly productive in terms of contributing to the community. I am not deleting the comment, but I would like to ask that people not scream at each other.


  16. dan
    dan says:

    Im not gonna be a prick and say your advice is wrong, it’s not really advice, its more personal preference and to you travelling is a waste of time. Imo, its the best thing you can ever do :D

  17. Lisa Earle McLeod
    Lisa Earle McLeod says:

    I beg to differ with the person who said this was lame advice. Have you ever had a job or been a manager?

    This is GREAT advice!

    I’ve been a corporate coach, consultant, trainer and speaker for over 20 years, and if everyone in corporate America followed this advice, I wouldn’t have a job! These are exactly the issues people struggle with,.

    Give me someone who can make the most of a summer on a French chicken farm, and I’ll show you a future CEO!

  18. Livvy
    Livvy says:

    Though I love any and all of your blog entries – even when I disagree – this post is the most useful of them all.

  19. jim
    jim says:

    Your article here is right on. I grew up on a dairy farm. I had to milk and care for cattle twice daily – often taking 8 hours per day. I thought it was bad for me at the time, but, in reality, it was the best training for life possible.

  20. Eric
    Eric says:

    Hello! I’d just like to say this was a great blog post. I laughed my whole way through it. It was so funny! I wasn’t going to comment until I read other mean comments on this post. I’ve really, really enjoyed your self-help blog thus far. I’ve read a lot of them and yours is very fresh. You have a great sense of humor, which is not common in self-help blogs. Normally, the tone is: do this or you suck.

    • OnBoarding
      OnBoarding says:

      I’m with you, Eric. I chuckled or laughed out loud at each lesson point.
      I didn’t understand why there were so many mean-spirited comments after this blog post. Sure . . . it was self-promoting; that’s what a humorous piece can do quite well. I hope Penelope shook it all off and keeps on blogging.

  21. alex
    alex says:

    standard broiler chickens in France are less regulated category. By far the use of white feathers and chicken fast-maturing hybrids, standard broilers are raised in confinement operations dense high protein feed. Are killed in about six weeks old, becoming the most economical chicken farmers to produce. Due to the relatively poor quality of the final product, but also command lower prices per pound in the market orkut.

  22. New Reader
    New Reader says:

    Wow, Penelope, I just found your blog today and am reading through old entries. I can’t believe you get so much criticism! (Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion). I think you rock! The fact that after college you realized that graduate jobs suck, and you went to play volleyball, then learned coding from a boyfriend, and then went on to numerous successes as an entrepreneur is inspiring. I think you are inspiring because you made up your mind about how you feel the world works, and you decided to do something else. And you have been *very* successful. Brilliant! I really love your blog.

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    mohammad javad vaziri tabar says:

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