Any job can be a good job if you’re learning

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A few months after I graduated from college, I got a job at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I thought it was the perfect job for me because I was very focused on playing professional beach volleyball, and I needed to earn money to get myself to Los Angeles, but I couldn’t work 9-5 because then I wouldn’t have enough time on the beach.

My job at the Mercantile Exchange was 7am to 2pm. I got the job from a trader who wanted a volleyball partner. I worked for Prudential Bache running orders from the guys who took the orders on the phone, to the guys in the trading pit who held stacks of paper orders. These guys holding the stack kept track of orders (like, buy 30 lots of cattle when the price hits 15) and gave them to the traders when the price hit. Then the trader executed the trade.

I tell you all this to tell you why I was so bad at the job. But first, here’s why I was so good: Because I had no work clothes. I graduated from college and had a job as a bike messenger and played volleyball. So I had no money to buy a new wardrobe for the trading floor. I thought this was okay because the men (it’s almost all men) didn’t even change their ties each day – they left a tie hanging in their office and wore the same one every day.

So I wore what can only be called beach cover-ups. And I thought the men thought they were dresses. Really, though, what the men thought is that I was available for sex. So, no surprise, I got a very good job in the trading pit almost immediately even though most people (read: men) had to work years before getting a job like that. My job was to keep track of what price people were paying for the British Pound.

The problem is that I’m dyslexic. I was never really sure about this, until I had this job. I was supposed to hold a bunch of orders to buy and sell British Pounds, and tell a broker when it was time to fill an order. But I could never figure out if the price was moving up or down. The numbers were just a big mess in my head. I know, you are thinking that this is very easy to figure out: Three comes after two, one comes before two. But you are probably not dyslexic. You, for example, know your right and left every time, which I cannot say for myself.

So I wasn’t very good at my job that summer, but you have to do something absolutely terrible to be a young twentysomething girl at the Mercantile Exchange and lose your job.

When things got really bad, I’d take a break and read Jane Eyre in the bathroom. The great thing about having so few female co-workers is no one noticed the long hours I spent in the largest stall. When the markets were slow, I’d read a whole chapter.

I just sort of continued this way, being such a wreck at work that I was taking longer and longer breaks with longer Victorian novels.

But then the Berlin Wall fell. It is an understatement to say that this moment caused complete mayhem in the European currency markets. I was so checked out, from trying to keep track of the orders, and Jane Eyre, and my escape to Los Angeles, that I did not even know what happened. And I was screaming, What’s happening?!?!, but trading at the Mercantile Exchange is open outcry, and at that point, if you stopped to say anything you’d miss a trade.

I don’t have a very clear memory of what happened. I remember my pile of orders falling on the floor. I remember the clerk next to me picking the orders off the floor and illegally making trades and no one seemed to care that he was filling orders he did not have the authority to fill. I remember that we had to estimate how many trades we missed and the trader I worked for started buying and selling generally – hoping he would have the right number of buys and sells at the end of the day to be legal.

I worry a little about writing about how much illegal activity was going on in the British Pound pit that day, but let me tell you something: That was a very tame pit. I am sure that people trading the German mark had it a lot worse.

A lot of people lost all their money that day. A lot of people made so much that day the never had to work another day in their lives. I made so many errors that I lost my job. Which was everything I had.

But you know what? It was a great job because I learned so much. I learned how sex appeal works at the office, I learned how people judge you by how you dress, I learned the importance of taking a break at work, and I learned that I was really, truly dyslexic. This is not even counting all the stuff I learned about commodities trading: I can use one hand to signal that the day traders are will screw you on price if you place an order now.

So here’s some advice for all you June grads who are worried about taking a job that is terrible: In almost any job you’ll learn a lot at the beginning if you keep your eyes open. Sometimes what we learn is not what we expect to learn, but all information about the world and ourselves is useful, if you put it to work when you make your next decision.

So go out into the world with your eyes wide open. And this applies to everyone. You don’t have to be young to demand personal growth from your job every day, and get it.

13 replies
  1. Greg
    Greg says:

    My first job out of college, a call center. My second, selling cars Not only did I learn a lot, I had a lot of fun too!

  2. Akira F
    Akira F says:

    Poor work ethic. Fake til you break it attitude. Using sexual objectification to get and keep a job you were obviously not qualified for. I don’t see the positive message from the title or the wrap up explained within the body of the post. Frankly, I think you should have left this one on the cutting room floor. I’m sure you must have had a better anecdote to use for this post.

  3. Ben
    Ben says:

    As a good looking young man, what industries can I hope to gain quick promotions despite being under qualified?

    Oh right. I guess I’ll just stick to lying on my resume.

    While I agree with the lesson, this story doesn’t serve you very well.

  4. Eric
    Eric says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I think this post is original and realistic in nature. We were all young once and may not have had the experience to conduct ourselves properly. But the essence of the story remains, no matter where you start from, you will definitely learn a lot because we all start from a low baseline and it is our attitude towards learning and how we appy what we have learned that will serve us well in the future.

    Do continue to use original ideas/experiences that you have, rather than thinking up of hypoethical situations which are not realistic at all to bring about your points.

  5. sfordinarygirl
    sfordinarygirl says:

    Your posts provide a lot of fresh insight!

    I’m in a job where there’s no room for advancement (boss made it clear). So while I look for another job, I’m still asking questions of my coworkers and trying to put together some context of what I do and the impact it has on businesses. While the job is mundane I supplement it with my own research, reading and ask follow-up questions so I’m not just sitting there and wasting time.

  6. Janet Meiners
    Janet Meiners says:

    You are courageous. Most people wouldn’t have the guts to be so open about their lives and especially what other may see as failure.
    It constantly amazes me how straight you are about your life. It gives me a sense of hope whenever I read it. Plus you’re so optimistic but not in a sugary way. I can tell you still bleed blood.

  7. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    I’m dyslexic too (with letters and numbers), not necessarily with the reading, but with the writing, and often with the speaking. This is one of the beauties of the keyboard == you can always press ‘back space’ and fix the errors.

    I found out about my dys. at a job or school, but through a boyfriend. I suspect we were born in an age when only the very crippling cases of dyslexia were acknowledged, and it was very embarrassing. In grad school, I remember project partners shouting out ideas and me having to write them down, and often ‘5’ would be written as ‘3’ and my partners would give me a strange look…well, stranger than usual.

    But I do think dyslexia at our level speaks of a different way of looking at things — if not genius, at least oodles of creativity. I start my new researching position at Harvard in a week or so, not too shabby.

    BTW, the mixing up the left from the right (I have to physically tap the hand of the desired direction to get it right ) is allegedly the result of some crossed wires in the brain. My sister and I both have it. We are very, very fun to drive with.

    * * * * * *

    Love this comment, Margaret. I have never actually met anyone who didn’t know left and right, even though I have read that I am not alone. Your comment at the end, about driving, makes me laugh out loud: Me too.


  8. Maya
    Maya says:

    Wow – such meanies!

    I enjoyed this post. Just thought I’d say that (because of all the meanies).

  9. Dale
    Dale says:

    Even though I’m old, ugly, and full of insecurities I realize the truth of your post. To not acknowledge it would put anyone at a disadvantage in the (working) world. True stereotyping; nepotism; age, sex, and physical discrimination are wrong, they still exist!!! Having an understanding of how the world works makes us better prepared for its unpleasant surprises and realities. Knowledge is power if it is applied to solve problems, but not if the messenger is viewed as the creator/cause of the good or ill tidings.

    Keep doing what you are doing Penny, I’ll keep reading and learning.

  10. Nelson Nkavandu
    Nelson Nkavandu says:

    It is amazing the way you connect your ideas and turn them into practical life pocket book. I like the way you write and what’s on it.


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