photo Let's face it, no one sails through their work life with grace and ease. We stumble, we fail, we struggle and we learn some pretty great lessons along the way.  For me, those lessons have come from 32 different, paying jobs in 21 years. You heard that right. 32. From orientation leader to cold caller, I wouldn't believe it myself if I hadn't written them all down.* Am I flighty? Do I lack work ethic? Am I a poor performer? Not a bit.

We've been chastising millenials for job hopping and holding too many jobs. We assume the worst--lack of promotions, laziness, perspective--but maybe there's more to it, especially early in your career. What if having a million jobs was a good thing?

For me it was. It deepened my skill sets and ability to understand how diverse groups of people work. I figured out what interested me and what didn't. I didn't understand it then but as an orientation leader at Virginia Tech, I first learned the art of HR and onboarding. I fell in love with the opportunity to welcome people to a new community and help them fit it in.

There were more practical lessons too. I quickly learned the very-valuable lesson of how much money mattered to me. I started working at 13 in hourly jobs. The more I worked, the more I made. But I had to balance the tradeoffs--did I want more cash or more time with my friends? Annoying decisions to make back then. Transformative lessons when I look back now.

But if I thought I worked many jobs, I don't hold a candle to Scott Crawford, the now Director of Career Services at Wabash College in Indiana. Scott's had double the amount of jobs I've had. 64 jobs to be exact from cloth cutter to human trash compactor. And he's nowhere near the end of his career.

You might think Scott the definition of job-hopper, but truth be told, he's been in the same field for over 20 years. And in his current job for eight. However, he's not shy about his job-hopping past. In fact, it might be the reason he's been successful in his field and happy in his job now.

"I think the main thing is that every [workplace] thinks they’re somehow unique or special but they’re usually more similar than they think. After awhile I could tell immediately if (a) I was going to like it/fit in, and (b) if the place was run well or not," says Scott. "I quit one place after 3 days.  I could tell it was going nowhere (really poor training/orientation), and it closed shortly thereafter."

The more experiences you have, the more sure you might be when you finally land. And the more obvious it will be when you don't. I wrote about the job hopping people do in The Right Job, Right Now (St. Martin's Press), and the idea that we overcompensate. We hate our boss in one job, so we look for a better boss. We find that better boss in our new job, but the growth potential we took for granted at the old job is now missing. Not the best strategy in our professional careers. But it is early on.

Having a million jobs early on helps you make key decisions. After working retail, I knew I didn't want a job in fashion. The perks of hospitality are great but the pay isn't. And multiple internships in public relations helped me codify specific skills and understand the reality of the corporate world before I fully committed.

As for Scott, he looked for leadership inspiration:

"One of the best run [places I have worked] was Wichita State University. The President there at the time really created a ‘we’re all in this together’ kind of atmosphere, and communication flowed freely. He moved his office to the bottom floor of the Admin Building from the previous President's suite at the top) right at the front door, with his doors open.  One thing the President said that made a big impression on me 'if you see a piece of trash on the sidewalk, pick it up and throw it away.  Don’t assume someone else will, or that it’s the groundskeeper’s job to do that.  We’re all responsible for how this school is perceived.'  I think about that a lot," he says.

The way we work, our successes now and our engagement in work are a result of where we've been. Forget conference best practices and what's worked for everyone else. Look back to your own experiences to remember what influenced you. What did you like the most and how can you find that and emulate that moving forward? A million jobs means a million lessons, leaders and projects to take the best from.

Just ask Scott: from a broom factory to wrapping gifts to stocking fine china, he's got a lesson from every single, solitary experience.

"My shortest job was one day. They'd fired the guy that hired me, and forgot he'd [just hired me]. Then, they had no position for me, so they gave me three months severance pay," says Scott.  "Management styles and bosses, however, varied wildly, and I most definitely enjoyed working in more collaborative and participatory atmospheres, with bosses who actually cared about the organization or product/service, not just their own careers."

As for me, I'm still learning, and still counting:

  1. Snack Bar Attendant (1988)
  2. Camp Counselor
  3. Customer Service Associate
  4. Cashier
  5. Head Cashier
  6. Customer Service Manager
  7. Lifeguard
  8. After School Program Leader
  9. Call Center Associate
  10. Public Relations Intern
  11. Public Relations Assistant
  12. Waitress
  13. Retail Salesperson
  14. College Orientation Leader
  15. College Orientation Assistant
  16. Graduate Student Affairs Assistant
  17. Training Coordinator
  18. HR Generalist
  19. Recruiter
  20. Recruiting Manager
  21. Sr. Manager, Member Services
  22. Program Director
  23. Career Coach
  24. Assistant Director, Career Services
  25. Author
  26. MBA Intern
  27. Director, Talent Management
  28. Director, Talent Acquisition
  29. Senior Director, Employer Brand
  30. Consultant
  31. Speaker
  32. Founder (2013)

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Susan LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps startups and high-growth companies build their cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn more about how we can help you build a workforce strategy that’s aligned with your company culture and develop an employer brand that will allow your business to scale the right way.

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