Summer Jobs: The Advantage of Discomfort and Disruption

The most successful venture capitalist says he will not back anybody unless he sees at least one specific item on their resume – “a really shitty job at some point.”

A great professional of any kind, who has children, has a greater challenge. Comfort. Not one great story of achievement that I have ever been blessed to know has ever started from a place of too much comfort.

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When I interviewed a college kid for a summer job this year, one thing stood out among all his accolades. An academic standout and SEC football player takes more determination than most can imagine. Where does that come from? I have recommended and given as a gift the book "Grit" quite a bit, detailing a unique study’s answer to that question. My own favorite question is always away from the achievements and right at the worst job you ever had. He explained, “Well, I worked at a suit store. I showed up the first day in a full suit and was handed a bucket. I was on my hands and knees for weeks only cleaning bathrooms all day long.”

The story went on and got much worse. And we laughed. Then I hired him immediately. He had grown uncommonly comfortable with being uncomfortable. Of all my favorite movie quotes if you ask my five children the one they have heard me recite the most, they will channel Hal Holbrook in All the President’s Men. “The trick is not minding.

Most teenagers I know are polishing their college resumes with summer classes or year-round sports careers. So, they understandably will say they do not have time for an unrewarding low-level summer job. And more and more high achieving parents are agreeing. I have always believed you have exactly enough time to do what you really need to do, at any age. And I have come to believe the reward in whatever brings you to your hands and knees in hopes you never must do something like that again is worth a lot more than a few more hours doing what a kid is already good at. The misleading 10,000-hour rule that many parents and kids now use to justify a pursuit of mastery of a chosen “gift” leaves no time to waste on summer jobs.

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I know they are harder to find. Retail was always the perfect industry for teenage summer jobs and many of those jobs have disappeared. We are on pace this year for about 9,000 stores to close. How many clerks did you need to help you fill up your last Amazon shopping basket? With a hat tip to our good friends at Bespoke Research we created this slide in our last K&C Picture Book for our clients. This year the 36-page book was titled: "Kids, Please BE Disruptive."

I love reading his books and listening to Malcolm Gladwell. But I do think his 10,000-rule helped fuel more delusions than prodigies. Call this one the Krueger 300-hour rule: Doing something bad for a little while makes knowing what good is last a lifetime.

But, I have good news for the creatures of comfort too. My other hand in the air. While I think the advantage from discomfort is irreplaceable (I will post my worst summer job on the K&C Facebook Page this week, join me with yours!), there is one more path I know works for summer jobs because I took that one first. It has more risk but much more upside. Technology has only just started to change or destroy jobs so I think a completely different interview skill will be needed. None at all. No idea how I stumbled on this disruptive technique for my very first job at 12, but it began a streak unbroken to this day.

Below is a letter sent to clients eleven years ago before I had ever heard of the great quote “The best way to predict the future is invent it.” So true. Despite the mind-blowing technology developed since, there is one thing that has not changed one bit from my perch. Curiosity and passion are the most disruptive technologies. Then possessing the grit to keep going back and working on, and improving a craft, can make you undeniable.

From the 2006 K&C Archives….

The Secret to one ‘Weird’ Money Manager’s Career

Job Advice from a Guy Who Never Had One

Last week I was asked by a client’s grandchild how did I know what I wanted to do when I grew up. He also asked me for advice on job interviews. I told him I might be the worst guy to ask, because the two answers are: 1) I still don’t know, and 2) I have never been to one. But I gave it a shot, sensing a disappointed teenager and a confused grandfather sitting with him.

“Probably when I sold my first baseball card,” I told them. All my friends wanted to collect cards, I wanted to trade them for some reason. Some kids are weird I guess, my mom called it special. I had more fun making a profit than I did staring at a card. A profit allowed for a bigger collection anyhow I figured. In looking back, I learned a lot about what other people liked when I was a 12-year old kid, where my history of never having a job interview started.

I ask Ted if I could work in his baseball card shop which I could walk to, sorting tens of thousands of cards in the back room. He gladly gave me a position that did not exist because nobody would ever consider it. I sat there day after day learning math and geography, all on the backs of those cards. I also got to overhear every customer walking in asking about a local player they “knew” and wanted.

Decades later, those same collectors I knew are now parents and investors. They still like to buy what they (think they) know. Sitting in that backroom as a kid with nothing but my active mind day after day, I figured out that there was an advantage on the other side of that trade that still exists today.

I started wondering if Houston’s hometown heroes were ever asked for in places like New York or San Francisco or all those other big cities with little card shops like mine. There was a whole different world out there, peaking my interest for some reason. What if I could buy cards where they were not popular and sell them where they were? At this time, nobody had computers and the Net was only used to snag foul balls. So, varying prices for the same cards were not seen in different parts of the country. I had to find catalogs with phone numbers to hundreds of different stores I would never visit. I called and had cards shipped to me. I could find Houston Astros that nobody had heard of in Cleveland for 10 cents, which were selling for 25 cents in Houston. I could buy a 100-card block from one disinterested store far away and sell them one at a time to 100 very interested buyers who “knew” what they were getting back home.

I ran my trading business from that windowless storage room all summer long, finally requiring a brown plastic briefcase that I still laugh at thinking about. My mom had no idea what it was for. Moms today would worry about drugs I guess, but our only drug back then was Baskin Robbins ice cream, next door to Ted’s. I took all my profits that summer and saved them for next season and did what any conservative 13-year old would, I diversified. I bought a rotisserie baseball team. This is a game where grown men pretend to still be “in sports” by playing imaginary baseball games. Originally, a few guys gathered in the La Rotisserie restaurant in New York City (a day that lives in infamy for millions of wives) and built their own baseball teams by drafting real players and then using their actual stats to play theoretical games to determine which owner knew the most about baseball.

I heard about a league that was nationwide with a big (huge for a 13-year old) entrance fee, but with a huge payoff to the winner. Some of the grown-ups around the card shop said I could help them out with their teams, but I took my money and bought my own team wanting to compete instead. Around the country the league was formed and owners ran their teams with a phone, no e-mails and faxes in those days.

I remember vividly crafting my entire strategy (because I still use it today) based on three concepts:

1) Find players whose contracts ended that same year.

2) Find owners who liked to buy what they “knew” and sell what they didn’t.

3) My belief that almost every owner places too much emphasis on very recent success or failure (the “highlight show” premium).

After studying tens of thousands of stats on the backs of those cards, fluctuating each year, and looking for patterns, my theory was that I could find players with different motivation (contract years) than others. Then, find owners who looked at the name on the front of the card more than the numbers on the back. Finally, I decided to rely on a relentless devotion to statistics over sensational highlights. Simple pieces of data for me and gut instincts for them; a combination I thought created an edge in a game everybody else thought came down to good luck. My other advantage was that I could spend more time pouring over more statistics than anybody else had the desire to do. In part because I could not get a date with a girl and now looking back, I am starting to realize why.

Then I looked up at my client’s grandson and told him, “And, those are the same things I do now, every day in the stock market.” Maybe those guys were right about luck. How else could they possibly explain a 13-year old taking all their money after I won the entire league that first year? I will never forget their confused laughter. I will also never forget what I did with all the winnings. I bought my first stock that same year.

A decade later I was in (near) college where I spent more time in the library looking at stocks than in the classroom preparing for one of those real jobs. I spent my spare time working for free at a brokerage firm in Austin. After graduating I was ready to break my streak but could not. I wrote Smith Barney a letter asking for my first interview. They declined, explaining that under no circumstance did they interview young kids. I wrote them another letter with some of my ideas. I called them back and told them that I understood why they would not interview me, but that I was stopping by just to visit anyhow. They never ask me to leave over the next ten years.

Then it hit me, as I was staring at this young man in my office who had to be wondering why his grandfather thought I held some sort of secret. I guess I did, the secret was never getting a job, but always doing what interested me the most. His grandfather never knew my secret, only that he has been pleased with our “team” inside his portfolio ever since he hired us to manage his money. Now his only question was how I ever got married.

At some point, I am sure my own kids will ask me the same question. “What are you going to do WHEN you grow up?” I will tell them that answer is my other secret. Never.