5 Life Lessons I Learned the Hard Way (So You Won’t Have To)

I began my post-collegiate working career back in 1971. Does that seem like a century ago to you? Well it may be in many ways! It was a time when the computer was something rare unlike it is today. There were no cell phones around for 24/7 availability. There weren’t 400 TV channels on cable and the internet just didn’t exist for regular folks. Even the word blog wasn’t in our vocabulary. But there was something that hasn’t really changed over the years and probably never will. It’s the desire to be a success at whatever you do for a living and the search for financial wellness that comes in finding the job you really want that will earn you the kind of income you desire. And the drive to get it no matter what!

5 Life Lessons I Learned the Hard Way (So You Won't Have To)

Back in the day, when I graduated college, I have to admit I wasn’t certain about what I really wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t a great student for most of my time in school, but I did do well in my junior and senior years at college. I was all over the place when it came to fields of study however, majoring in Secondary Education and History and minoring in Philosophy. As I look back at that, I realize that if I truly wanted to be a Philosopher, I’d probably have to dead before I could reach the level that would earn me a good living!

And so my first life lesson was this:

You really need to have some idea what you want to do with your life when you go to college. By the end of year four, if you don’t have any idea, you really are at what is known as “square one”.

So there I was, looking for a job in teaching back in the summer of 1971. And guess what. There were no jobs to be found! It was a time where if you wanted a teaching job you had to be related to someone or know the Board of Ed president to even get a chance at a job and I didn’t know anyone. I’m pretty sure that teaching jobs are still like that (feel free to correct me if I am wrong) but back then I just wasn’t aware of it.

I decided that I had to find something and eventually I had to settle for a job that I was clearly overqualified to obtain. I had to hide that I was a college grad or I wouldn’t have ever gotten this job. So I presented myself as a young man who was pursuing his degree but still had credits to get before graduation. I got the job as an inventory clerk in an auto parts company office in Philadelphia that September.

I decided right there and then that I was going to be the best inventory clerk that the company had ever seen. I worked with 2 other office personnel, 2 warehouse employees and an office manager who was well beyond his time as a productive branch office manager.

And be the best inventory clerk was exactly what I did over the next 11 months. I was so good at what I did that every other regional inventory person would call me each week to ask what I did about this or that or what they could do that would make their systems be as accurate as mine. In fact, the president of the company sent this 22-year-old a letter of commendation about the controls I had set up that were so accurate and cost saving. I was on a roll. And then something great happened. My boss, the branch manager, was moved to the main office and the job as manager opened in my office. I thought, damn, I’m deserving of that job and I have proven my worth! After all, I got a letter from the company president to prove it!

Well a funny thing happened on my way to the executive washroom. I found out the hard way about life lesson number two:

Never falsify anything about your résumé at work no matter how harmless you think it may be.

I assumed based on my work record and the mere fact that I was already in our office and wanting the job that I would be the one tapped on the shoulder and get it, Right?  Wrong! I got a call from the personnel office in St. Louis telling me that only a college graduate would be considered. Since I hadn’t completed my degree as of yet, they couldn’t consider me for the job. What was I to say? I lied on my résumé? I was completely humiliated and totally miserable. After 3 weeks a new manager arrived on the scene, new to the company and guess who had to show him the ropes and get him up to speed? You guessed it, yours truly.

The truth will set you free and a lie will make you very miserable!

I immediately began searching for another job and this time I lucked out. I was introduced to an executive in the management program at R. H. Macy by a friend and got an interview for what they called the Executive Training Program. I got accepted right away (the qualification, uh you guessed it…a college degree), and that January (1973) I began as a fast track hire to the corporate buying offices. My first venture in retailing and I didn’t know a thing. But I learned life lesson number three:

It is perfectly alright to use your connections and network to get a chance you want and need for a better job.

I used to think that using connections was being really unfair. But I learned quickly that everyone tries to do it and it’s a great way to open a door. You still have to earn it by working hard and impressing someone or it won’t stick. That’s a fact, no matter who you know. Even if it’s your father, he won’t reward you if you can’t do the work.

And so life lesson number four:

Work smart and hard, and be the best at what you do. Good things will happen if that person is you!

Throughout my career and ever since I learned those very simple 4 life lessons, I have always surprised my employers and my fellow employees with successful results. I was never the best looking or best dressed person. I was never a goody two shoes, brown nosing type to get all the plum assignments. Hell, I wasn’t even the brightest guy in the firm. But I was the guy always willing to go that extra mile, never quit, and finish solving the big problems.

I did have help along the way. In fact, I had a line of mentors with me who wanted to work with me and make my career feel like something even bigger then it was. Mentors can help you grow and prosper and I had a good share of them.

And that’s when I learned my fifth lesson:

When someone gives you help, advice, and mentoring, you must return the compliment by paying it forward!

As I worked my way up through the ranks to store manager and beyond, I took under my wing many junior executives. I taught them my own life lessons so that they would have the advantage of my experiences. I owed it to them, and now I’m passing it on to you.

Have you achieved your goals when it comes to your job and salary career track? What life lessons have you learned along the way?


  1. That’s quite the progression!

    I think going the extra mile really is key — as long as you don’t have a manager taking all the credit for it. People appreciate a thorough job. Someone who is willing to go even a little further than that is really special.

    My boss is amazing, and I thought I’d never find a job working from home. So I’m always glad to go the extra mile. Really, it’s more like the extra 100 feet, but they *act* as though it’s the extra mile. I think it’s just compared to the other gal. She’s pretty middling.

    Either way, they continue to show their appreciation. And that’s what keeps me wanting to earn it.

    I think the other big lesson is this: Your job should be important to you, but it shouldn’t be your whole life. Work hard, but save room in your life for, well, your life.

  2. Oh man, you must have been dying to whip out that college diploma for the promotion. Talk about humble pie.

    I agree with you about needing to have an idea of what you want to do when you go to college. For some, a certificate program, self-learning, or just getting out into the “real world” is a better choice. Even delaying college until you know what you want can be better than going straight out of high school IMO.

    1. I was so #$*#!% angry that I couldn’t tell them about my degree without revealing my deception. And who’s to blame for that?

      The one thing that college did give me, despite my not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, was the experience of being out on my own, living away from home. That was a worthwhile lesson.

  3. I love getting advice like this Gary. It’s always helpful for others when you can share things that can help people along faster. I could have used the “It’s ok to use your connections” when I was starting out. I did it on my own and it took a lot more time. Thankfully I’m wiser now.

  4. I must confess I did tell a lie on my resume once – I fudged my high school exam results to be a grade higher here and there. I now know that these things can be checked out! Hopefully, my experience will count for a lot more than my exam results these days, if I ever need to get a corporate job again (which I hope I don’t as I love being self-employed)! Thanks for sharing these great tips Gary!

    1. You’re so right about the ability to check on anything that you write on your résumé, moreso now than ever. They say honesty is the best policy and it certainly applies when it comes to job applications. I’m glad you’re enjoying your independence though. Thanks, Hayley, for your comments.

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