How Your Worst Job Ever Can Help You Write Your Memoir

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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Worst job ever Smelling Armpits by

I stay motivated to take the steps needed to work on writing my memoir when I remember my worst job of all time. I was fresh out of college, working as a temp. I’d been placed at a manufacturing company where I did data entry.

The company manufactured items for public bathrooms: wall partitions, soap dispensers, hand-driers, and receptacles for used tampons.

It took all of my willpower to not laugh out loud during my job orientation, when I was shown a dramatic video featuring larger-than-life toilet-paper dispensers, soap dispensers and tampon receptacles rotating against a dark background, set to classical music.

Ah, the booming crescendos!

The job had a strict dress code —- including no bare legs —- and I was scolded for not wearing stockings in August. The hours were 8:30 to 5:00 and you were forced to punch in and out on a time-clock.

I once emerged from the ladies’ room at 5:05 to find that everyone had vanished in the ten minutes since I went in. All the lights were off.  I got fired after three weeks because I’d clocked in five minutes late a few times.

Now, I am grateful for that job that bored me silly. Because it helps me stay humble, while simultaneously reminding myself how far I’ve come, whenever I see my former employer’s logo in public bathroom stalls (which is often).

Things Could Be Worse!

Theoretically I could still be there now, doing work I found mind-numbing, living by the clock, getting hit on by my recently divorced boss. Or, I could be sniffing armpits like the ladies in the picture . . .

Instead, I’m a consultant and a freelance writer. I’m writing my first memoir, which is a lifelong dream.

Reaching for a dream can be hard sometimes, or scary. It’s important to find ways to keep the faith.

One Milestone At A Time

I do this in part by ticking off “milestones” along the way that help me track the progress I’m making.  I checked off a big one last week. I handed my first book chapter to my writing coach.

Soon, I’ll get it back, marked up with my coach’s comments. Exciting and scary. I’ll find out if she thinks I’m on track to achieve my vision for my book.

Am I off to a good start? Can I pull this off?

Small Bite-Sized Goals With Deadlines…

It helps me to set small goals along the way. For example, I aim to write 6 to 7 new pages a week to reach my target of 50 pages every two months.

This means writing regularly, whether I feel like it or not. Sometimes I’m inspired, sometimes not so much.

Some days I simply edit what I’ve written before. Other days I force myself to write something new, anything, even if it is dreck — knowing I can edit in the future.

Progress is incremental.  Setting milestone targets — and hitting them — can be very energizing.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

If you’re feeling discouraged about achieving any dream — even writing your memoir like me, why not think back to your own worst job to reflect on how far you’ve come (I’m sure there are many horror stories out there to eclipse mine).

And, set some manageable “milestone targets” to write that memoir you’ve always wanted to write.



  • I must comment and tell you that this site is fantastic! :-P

  • Jessica – “One of these risks was to leave this position and pursue a career I loved.” Sounds like it paid off big time… Congrats on making it through to the other side stronger! (And thanks for sharing your experiences…)

  • Jessica

    It’s been great reading about your experiences, Lisa! Two jobs come to mind when I think about my worst job, and for both I am grateful. My first job (other than babysitting) did a job (no pun intended) on my self-esteem temporarily, but I came out stronger for it. I was 15, working at the local golf driving range. My boss gave me the job as a favor to my father, since they were both town politicians. However, he was always too busy to train me, and so was everybody else, so I either did my tasks way too slow or messed them up (especially the cooking part when I had to work the concessions window – at 15, I had no idea how to cook and was told to cook a variety of things like hamburgers and fries with absolutely no training!). Plus, I was shy, so I was hesitant to ask for help. Being a perfectionist, it was very difficult for me to deal with doing a subpar job. Plus, I kept overhearing the boss either talking about me negatively to my coworkers or making fun of me behind my back, and this made me feel worse. At one point, I overheard him telling someone that this other girl, Kathy, was being promoted because she was blonde and beautiful and he wanted her working with customers. He then put me on toilet cleaning duty. Eventually, my hours dwindled, and he laid me off. I was left wondering what I had really done wrong.

    Where is the grateful part? Well, when I turned 16 and got my next job in a retail store, I was determined to be the best possible employee. I was going to prove to myself that I wasn’t a crappy worker. AND I DID. My customers and managers loved me, and my sales record kicked butt! My crappy experience at my last job inspired me to excel in my next one.

    I consider one other job to be one of the worst. And also one of the BEST. Being somewhat a perfectionist, I have been told that I am very thorough. Give me a job, and I will become obsessed with getting it done thoroughly and correctly. I give more than expected. This used to cause me to really push my luck with deadlines. Anyway, my boss at this nonprofit was ruled by her emotions and frankly, somewhat tyrannical. She was a visionary who would not stop at anything to reach her goals. And she expected her staff to be the same way. This literally meant my working EVERY minute, about 18 hours a day for months on end. Plus, the teamwork expectations in this position schooled me in how to be a team player. If at any time, I did not involve the team in my work, or I did not participate in a team activity, or I missed a teamwork social cue, I was given a talking to – by the whole team. Not meeting a deadline meant a ton of pressure by the team. My mantra became “just do it.” There was no time to pore over details again and again, or be unsure of my work. I just had to produce and hand it in. Basically, this cured me of my perfectionism at work and made me a more productive person in general. I really learned the meaning of hard work. And I began to take more career-related risks, which have definitely paid off. One of these risks was to leave this position and pursue a career I loved.

    For this, I am thankful and grateful. Even though I still cringe at the thought of these two bosses, I can recognize the benefits that came with the pain. There were a lot of tears, but after the tears, I came out stronger.

  • Kim, the traveler

    This is a great post! I’m not sure what I got out of my worst job except that it was horrible! Maybe it makes you appreciate your good ones. My worst job was when I was about 18 and I got hired for a video store. The manager was young and didn’t bother to train me. So the first night by myself, I didn’t realize that I had to set the alarm before I left so it went off. I can’t remember exactly how I messed it up, but the owners were mad and I got fired.

  • Carol

    ok, my job isn’t this bad, but I’m so ready to be a cubicle warrior!!

    Diane Garnick, lead me to a better way!!! 2010 here I come!

  • Hey Rachel, I thought this was beautiful and very “Zen” of you – especially in an economy like this where people are sometimes grateful simply to have a job at all, right? That you were able to “appreciate steady work that didn’t make my feet hurt, and occasionally engaged some brain cells, putting in my own best effort so I could be proud of what I was doing.”

    There is a lot to be said for making the best of the “worst” jobs – just giving our all to whatever we do. Not always easy. Admirable for sure! Thanks for the reminder that a “bad” job is a matter of perception – and that gratitude for any work at all, and a good attitude, goes a long way.

  • Rachel

    Eh, that job wasn’t a nightmare. It was a bad fit, and it didn’t last very long, but I actually felt empowered by yelling at my boss. (I guess he brought out the hot-headed Italian in my heritage.) He ticked me off so badly, I was able to do that without feeling guilty — clearly he was being unreasonable. It was a bit of a revelation when I yelled at an authority figure, and nothing terrible happened.

    I finally got the time to read through Alex’s long post, and I loved what he had to say, too. I read some of the jobs people thought were awful on the yehoodi thread, and thought gee, sounds a lot like jobs I’ve had that I didn’t even think were bad. There are some jobs that are just plain bad, and worth quitting, but often, a job is what we make of it. I’ve been content doing factory work, and had fun waiting tables (serving people can be satisfying.) I’ve been able to disagree with judgement calls of my superiors, and live with the fact that they didn’t care much about my opinion, but appreciate steady work that didn’t make my feet hurt, and occasionally engaged some brain cells, putting in my own best effort so I could be proud of what I was doing.

  • Ann, I’m so proud of you! Let’s definitely talk soon…. I will send you a note back with my number and times to call… Would love to help support you in living your dream. You go girl!

    Alex, Alex, Alex, you are awesome – I love what you had to say about creating our own living (those of us with the soul of an artist or a writer – so true!) – and that “life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.” Amen, Hallelujah to that! (That’s been a lesson I’ve had to repeat over the years, and I think I’ve finally learned!).

    You will definitely be one of the first to get the signed copy of my book, my friend… Thanks for your support!

    Rachel, I love the story of you yelling at your hot-headed Italian boss… Hilarious! You poor thing, that must’ve been a nightmare!

    And Cath, I’m so glad that you go to work with Heather every day – we all are – I think the changes you made are part of the reason we all get to be part of 8womendream, yes? We need our fabulous creator and founding genius to be happy! I’m glad you’re happy!

    Thanks for all the wonderful stories everyone… This is so much fun. :-)

  • Rachel

    “What does it say if I have had three awful jobs?”

    These days, I think it says you’re normal. I hope so, anyway. I certainly had more than 3 jobs that were awful in some way. Luckily, the current job is mostly wonderful.

  • Catherine, Site Admin

    Oh and congrats on that chapter!

  • Catherine, Site Admin

    OK, I started to post my response yesterday and my computer locked up. so here I go again …

    What does it say if I have had three awful jobs?

    (Love that photo by the way)

    The first was working in a bank’s computer center from 2am – 7:30 am. It was only me and the computer programmer – and he was locked in a room with only a slit to pass me the bank reports. I would separate the reports, do some hand calculations for the starting balances for each branch and then get into a courier vehicle and deliver all the reports to each bank.

    At 18 years old I had the keys to the inside of all their branch offices. I always think of it whenever I see the opening scenes with Tom Hanks at work in Joe Verses the Volcano.

    The 2nd was again working for another bank. They were so conservative that they would have found a Amish Minister to be too permissive. When I arrived no one told me that my staff served the board lunch each month.

    Say what?

    Instead of giving people raises they made them Vice Presidents. There were more Vice Presidents in that bank than in the US.

    They even told us exactly what were to wear. Prints were too bold.

    The third was working for the symphony and that was simply because of how mean the staff was to each-other and how resistant they were to anyone new or change. They had that but this is the way we’ve always done it mentality.

    My family was all over me to quit when they found out I was left in the box office alone at night.

    Luckily I fell down a flight of stairs and broke my ankle and they gave me such a hard time for having to stay home with my foot in the air that I up and quit. They never once asked if I needed anything – if I was OK – they just acted like I was faking it and if it was true could I just get back to work ASAP.

    (Heather then rescued me).

    They had the unmitigated gall to send me a certified letter two weeks after I quit threatening me because I was suppose to give them 30 days notice. But they could let you go without notice . . .

    I never responded.

    I thank the Gods that I drive to work with Heather every day.

    Great post.

  • Rachel

    I’ve had plenty of work experience that makes me grateful for the job I have now. I remember my first job out of college, I was so delighted that I got a phone! and office supplies! I felt like a princess :D

    My worst job was too sad for me to want to spend much time writing or thinking about. There’s nothing like having a job that matters (taking care of people), knowing how to do it well, and being required to do it poorly and incompletely, for very poor pay. That job was one of a couple reason why my parents will never be in a nursing home.

    I did have a terrible but funny job shortly after getting out of the army. A friend told me she could get me a job driving a catering truck. As a terrible driver with no sense of direction, and a short term memory disability ( I get lost easily), I told her there was no way I could do that. But she said it was easy; I would just have to drive around an industrial park near the restaurant.

    I thought I could handle that, but she turned out to be completely wrong. The real job was driving all over town, on a schedule that was absolutely impossible to make at anywhere near the speed limit. For 2 weeks, I drove like a maniac, cutting people off left and right, with at least one episode of the back door to the step van coming open as I careened around a corner, and stuff spilling out all over the road. I had at least 2 yelling, screaming arguments with my hot-headed Italian boss, ending with a “You can’t fire me, I quit!”

  • So if I can get up on my soap box for a minute … ah yes, a lot of us have the “worst job ever” stories. For me, a lot come to mind. One was a temp job for a cell phone retailer that had me call cold call folks whose last name started with the letter “Z.” It was completely pointless. Another job was kind of like yours Lisa where we made plastic bottles for mouthwash brands. Typical 60-hour week would have 12-day shifts and sometimes I honestly think the management was out of their mind half the time. I also worked for a Fortune 500 company in HR at one point and needless to say, I honestly felt like I was in the Dilbert cartoon strip — I’ll just leave it at that.

    I think what helped me the most is just as I got older was just realizing embracing the call we all get to either “define ourselves or be defined.” The truth is, if you’re a dreamer, it’s unlikely someone is going to come up to you with your “dream job” or opportunity. Sure, it can happen, sometimes. But consider that if you have the soul of an artist, or a writer, or are just the classic visionary with dreams of social justice, sustainability, and all things good, the truth is in the end you need to be the one to write your own job description that’s ideal for your personality, values, interests, skill set, and aptitudes if you want optimal fulfillment. Hopefully you can manifest it and have an employer employ you if that’s what you want. If not, you create the opportunity for yourself. Start off with a blog, start up a company, a non-profit, or whatever you need to make the vision happen, and just read, blog, read, network, read. Then, be patient. Allow your vision to change and grow. Sometimes what we think we want isn’t always what we need because we too are always evolving. And then, watch out, because as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, “be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” Before you know it, things will start to come together as long as you put a little bit of effort into that vision each day in a way that’s logical, based off of personal case studies, and it’s focused and in alignment with higher principles like “The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success,” by Deepak Chopra. (I bring this up because, for instance, the “Law of Attraction” has received WAY too much attention and some people don’t seem to understand that it’s a Law that needs to be followed with other Laws — one of the most important ones is the Law of Giving. In order to receive abundance from the universe, you need to find a way you can meet the needs of others in a way they recognize and provide a way they can demonstrate their gratitude.)

    In the meantime, if you have a less-than-ideal job, the trick is just to keep telling yourself “life doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be wonderful.” If you think it does, no matter how great your lifestyle or your job, you’re never going to be happy. Really, there’s nobleness in all types service and the only person who is going to judge you that you should care about regarding the socially constructed social status of your profession is you. So let that go and set yourself free on that one if you haven’t already. There are people in this world that love you because you’re you, not because of what you do.

    I’ve also found that it helps to simplify my life radically over the past few years. There’s a correlation between having few bills to worry about, and stuff to manage, and space to clean up — and having more time for personal development, spiritual fulfillment, and life design. The worst trap in the world is to be working a job you can’t stand in order to live a lifestyle where you buy things you don’t need so that you feel you can connect with a clic of people who you think will accept you for your image but in the end don’t really care because they’re too self-absorbed. (Trust me, I’ve been in that space too.) Bottom line is that the few obligations you agree to carry on in your life, the more freedom you have to do what you know is important and needs to be done.

    Ok, I’m off the soapbox now … and Lisa, thank you as always! You’re a brilliant writer and all I know is that I can’t wait to get the first copy of your book!

  • Ann

    That was beautiful! I felt that I committed overtime to an industry that was not the right fit for me from day one. Until one day, I was fired for job searching during office hours. My bosses managed the embarassing situation as best as they could and it was a great lesson for me.
    I think I found my sense of flow, I am now living in Los Angeles and the change was much needed. Though it took me a quite a few challenging turns with temporary work to find my way back to school. I am preparing and planning for my goal of becoming a Nurse Practictioner, something that I had been thinking about for some time. Thank you for being an inspiration to follow your bliss!
    Much love!

  • Hey Carrie, and Luna is so lucky to have you as a Mom… :-) So excited to see you both soon! I totally forgot about my days working in the college dining hall. I was serving food, not cleaning, so it wasn’t quite as bad as your experience… Most of the time I managed to get stints working in libraries and art galleries for “work study” and that wasn’t so bad…

    Julita, your girls are lucky to have you as a Mom too :-) and I’m proud of you for earning your RN degree so you can do more work that you love! (I know you’ll find a job you love at some point, and I’d bet you’re doing a great job where you work now…).

    Maybe I will post some excerpts here at some point too! Great idea!

    Love to you both,

  • Julita

    my worst job? I pretty much hated them all. I wish I was independently wealthy so that I could do whatever I wish.

    like Carrie above I loved taking care of my two babies. now they are grown, so I need to find something better to do with myself.

    Congratulations on finishing your first chapter! one step at a time. I wish you could post some excerpts here?

  • Carrie

    My worst job was working at the Dining Commons in college. I had to clear plates with a big industrial hose. The food and water mixed and sprayed all over the place and all over me. I left every night after dinner damp and smelling like stale food. My best job yet ….by far….is mothering my little girl, Luna. (I don’t might cleaning up after her dinner messes at all.)

  • Thanks Rachel!!! I am definitely excited… One important milestone reached! Now just have to keep on keeping on… 50 more pages due in February, and a one-page synopsis of my book plot. Looking forward to continuing the process…

    And thanks Remy – yes, the women of 8WD will definitely get a super-sneak preview advance read! ;) Thanks for wanting to be an early reader and for all your support… :) And that job does sound pretty horrific. My dad has horror stories to tell of factory jobs where he sustained a lot of bodily injuries… It’s incredible what people endure. I am so grateful to be where I am now.

    And my job described above maybe wasn’t even technically my “worst,” only my most comical… I did work as a nurses’ aide in a nursing home once summer where there were two of us on the 3 to 11 shift, no orderlies around, no one to help us move the heavy patients… It was exhausting and sometimes depressing work. Yes, we changed bedpans and wiped bottoms.

    Yet I enjoyed connecting with the residents and hearing their stories…

    Love to hear more “bad job stories” from others!

  • Remy G

    You are definitely on fire girl! Looking forward to an advanced reading of your book….maybe as a part of 8wd we have an in? lol My worst job was a temp job my senior HS year summer. I worked in a book binding plant from 430-12 noon every day (starting early cause we couldn’t open the doors or have AC cause we had pallets of loose – non binded books everywhere!) my specific project was to sort and cut and pack Trivial Pursuit Game cards – by hand. By the end of the summer, my hands were destroyed – they had cuts and glue all over them. Smelling the pits was probably worse, but I’ll just say, I’m glad I’m not doing that any more.

  • Rachel

    Lisa, congratulations on turning in your first chapter! And what a great opportunity to have such a coach providing comments. You’ve taken those most difficult first steps, and no matter what, when you get her feedback, you will have some great direction to continue with.