How working my way through college landed me a dream job

I do it every time I shop at Trader Joe’s.

As soon as the cashier starts ringing up my inexplicably low-priced, delicious, and worldly snacks, I walk around to their side of the counter, help myself to the neat pile of paper bags nestled in the cubby underneath, pull out the knee-height board, and start bagging my own groceries. I typically double-bag my stuff and know that in order to get one bag inside the other without looking like a damn fool, you’ve got to first open one bag fully, then tuck a still-folded bag within it and then spread its bottom out into the first bag. Doing this quickly is all in the wrist. And the cashier notices my skill every time.

“You look like you know what you’re doing!” they typically say, not sure if they should be glad I’m alleviating them of extra work, or annoyed that I’ve helped myself to their sacred quarters.

“Yeah, I used to work here,” I reply with a wink.

There was no ivy-league education on my resume, nor was there mention of any programming language in which I could code. And yet, here I am almost seven years later, a gainfully employed Googler. Google was a brand I held on a pedestal ever since “Search” became a thing, and a company for which I knew many young people aspired to one day work. I never imagined or even dreamed I could be a part of a place coveted by so many.

When I was bagging groceries, and later as I was pulling espresso shots, or serving over-priced quesadillas to the snot-nosed kids of desperate housewives who were in need of a play date that involved margaritas, the greatest aspiration I had for myself was to simply work in an office one day. To work in an office meant the merit of my work spoke for itself and I didn’t have to sell myself to strangers all day long.

The friendly “Hey there!” the spry, “How’s it going?” and the classic, “What can I help you with today?” might bring chills to your bones if you’ve ever worked in customer service. You know what it’s like to start a conversation with a total stranger dozens, if not hundreds of times a day, every single day. Small talk is just part of the gig; it’s an artform for career retail and hospitality employees. And if you haven’t worked a job like this, you probably just died a small death imagining it — especially if you’re an introvert like myself.

Yes, I said introvert. Most people I work with today, and probably even those back then, would peg me for an extrovert due in part to my big smile, hearty “hello” and propensity to engage in conversation. These features have been baked into me over the years and it’s these qualities that have allowed me to succeed in my current client-facing tech job. People tell me I’m an exceptional listener, that I’m empathetic, and when speaking to foreign clients they thank me profusely for over-enunciating for them. These traits they say, are invaluable and hard to find. “Not many people can do what you do,” they tell me.

In my college years, few of my peers had to work side jobs to support themselves and I always envied their social lives. I resented having to cram all of my classes into two days and having to leave parties early because I had work the next morning. But now I’ve come to appreciate the countless hours I spent serving the public while my friends attended sporting events or parties. I realise now that my sacrifice then may have led to my “invaluable people skills” today. For me, talking to people was not a “nice to have,” it was a “need to have.”

As a child I was painfully shy, and it wasn’t until I took my first after school job at a gift shop at 15 that things started changing for me. I had to look people in the eye, talk to them, interact. I wanted to be a good employee; it was my livelihood! Over the years, I became fond of the public and enjoyed the small talk, thinking of it as practice.

That practice evolved into marketing myself as a cheery and often eccentric character. Regular customers were my favorite and I could tell the feeling was mutual when they started lining up to wait in obviously longer check-out lines just to make small talk with me while I piled their frozen dinners neatly into paper bags. It was a positivity loop. When I thought someone enjoyed me, I became more enjoyable. I was happier, wittier, more efficient at my job…

When the time came to graduate from college and start applying for those “real jobs” I’d dreamed of… the ones with desks, awkward birthday celebrations, and personal space, my learned “people skills” helped me nail every interview I took.

I landed my first office job before I had even received my diploma, and from there I continued working hard and carving out opportunities for myself (such as convincing a publishing company they needed to be “doing social media” to taking a chance at a startup that was later acquired by Google). Despite a profound sense that I was an imposter (so many others have written about this), I received two promotions in three years, and I knew I had something many of my tech peers lacked: the ability to truly sell myself in any situation. I learned that sometimes getting hired at your dream job comes down to being the type of person other people want to work with.

It takes empathy and humility to understand what the person on the other side of the counter or the corporate conference table needs to hear that day. It takes active listening, positive body posture, and really strong facial expressions. Sound silly? It’s not. I consider the ability to communicate an inordinate number of things about myself in a short period of time my greatest skill, and anybody can do this! A smile, a bold greeting, a personal touch — say, remembering a child’s name or that a grandfather is ailing — all of these subtleties matter much more than how you packed their grocery bag, or how qualified you are for your next job. I mean, just look at our political climate.

Please don’t mistake any of this to mean I believe actual skill, talent, and experience are overrated. They’re not. But in a cluttered job market, where every young person is competing for the same entry-level position in Silicon Valley, it might just be your softer skills that differentiate you.

When it comes to choosing between two otherwise equally qualified individuals, the one who made the hiring manager feel good will probably win the role.

Thinking back to my younger self bagging groceries to pay my rent, I now feel fortunate. What was just a means to an end for me then, actually shaped my ability to market my future self. Had I known at twenty years old that putting on a name badge and standing on my feet every day would one day be an asset that set me apart from my peers, I would have kept doing it longer.

Some days I miss the high energy, always-on nature of a retail job. Some days I miss not having to check my email at night, or the feeling that there was always more work that I could be doing at off hours. Like most young people, I felt hurried to get to society’s definition of success: a salaried 9–5. I didn’t yet know careers (or life for that matter) are long roads and that patience is a virtue.

So when I strike up conversation with the Trader Joe’s clerk who is counting down the hours until his shift is over, and perhaps the months until his real life begins, I hope he finds encouragement in my telling him that I was once in his skid-resistant shoes (and Hawaiian print t-shirt). Hearing that “I work for Google now” might mean that he too can now imagine himself in an impossibly far away version of himself, wherever that may be. And if nothing else… I’ve challenged him to up-level his double-bagging skills to that of a seasoned pro.


Rachel Lightfoot is a Bay Area Brand Consultant and Millennial Life Coach
Want help building your personal brand, getting out of your comfort zone, or launching your own business?
Glad to hear it!