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10 life lessons that working at McDonald’s taught me

Catherine Russell

It’s a rite of passage for many teenagers: the first job. Mine was McDonald’s, more than 20 years ago.

The lessons I learnt in my first job have a deeper meaning today, which is scary given my role was basically to cook or serve people burgers and fries and then clean up. Here are 10 I’ll never forget.

1. Sometimes you will smell like a fry vat

Work is hard. There is no getting around it. There will be moments that are uncomfortable, where all you can do is every little task to get the job done. And at the end of your shift, your feet will stick to the floor, you’ll have a free exfoliation from the salt on your skin, everything will smell like French Fries (for days) and you will know you have more than earned your coin. Working hard is good for the soul it makes you feel purposeful regardless of what you do. Even those pursuing their passions still work hard.

Lesson 1: Work is hard but rewarding.

2. Mistakes make the Big Mac

No one ever perfected the Big Mac the first time. It is a bit of a modern art form. My first tray of Big Mac’s looked more like a play dough experiment. There are steps, there are skills to flipping the patties, to placing it on the bun ‘just so’, to making it present like the Big Mac everyone has in their minds eye when they order it.

Thousands of employees go through the same process, learning to make an icon and they are allowed to. Seems silly but that’s the thing. Unless you have made a few mistakes in the making you’ll never know how to make the Big Mac, how to get the ingredients just right so that everything comes together.

Have a vision of what the end product looks like, let yourself learn and then really want to get it right. Success means embracing mistakes along the way but knowing that you are working towards getting it right.

Lesson 2: Embrace mistakes to work towards getting it right.

3. The O ring is important

Late at night, those machines that deliver the shakes and sundaes would be cleaned – full of parts and ‘O’ rings. Miss one of the details or lose an ‘O’ ring and the machine grinds to a halt. Details are important.

Once you have the skills, know the fine print, know the detail of your work and if you are a leader know the detail of how to do each task. Missing an ‘O’ ring when you are trying to do something important or reach a goal as a team can be the difference between fully functioning success and making it through the shift constantly apologising.

Lesson 3: Know the details — they make all the difference.

4. The right Happy Meal toy isn’t always available

Things are going to go wrong and people won’t be happy. It’s best to be upfront as early as possible and manage expectations from the get go. For a mother of five on a busy Friday night drive-thru, when it’s cold and raining and this is their one treat for the month, it isn’t going to fly if you tell that mummy at the last window when she collects her order that you ran out of toys.

When you know something is going to go wrong and it will have a knock on impact to others in your team or to whom you serve, be upfront as early as possible.

Lesson 4: Manage expectations early. 

5. Friday night drive thru is intense, but there is always tomorrow

It is a certain kind of hell to be fielding orders for hours upon hours, as a traffic jam of cars weaves out of the car park and onto a highway. Screaming kids, cranky mothers, drunken (very) young adults yelling obscene things through your tiny window, orders so large you wonder how they will fit them in the car, people dropping drinks, running out of fries, wrong orders; you name it – a Friday night drive thru has the works.

It’s 10 000 things happening at once, it’s the time when you’re glad you have a manager or a leader or that you had training. There are small insignificant moments where you avert disasters and a general sense of determination to make it through. Every shift ends and there will always be a tomorrow – sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it – but learning how to get through it is key.

Lesson 5: Determination & persistence are always needed, just keep going.  

6. Sometimes you’ll be asked to cook

I was customer service. That was what I did, but one day I was asked to cook. It meant going back to basics. I wasn’t skilled in this area, I had to be trained, learn the culture, and get the timing, pick up the skills. I sucked at first (not really sure I ever got it, I was afraid of the 160 degree vats), and I wanted to go back to my comfort zone. Eventually I got it, but not without the support of managers and people who gave me a chance to learn. It made me appreciate what went on behind the scenes and that made me better at teamwork whether on the counter or cooking.

Stretching yourself gives you untold benefits like knowing how to support someone to stretch him or herself.

Lesson 6: Stretch yourself then help others stretch.

  7. People get crazy when they are hungry

Its called ‘stocking up’; anticipating a peak and being as prepared as possible for it with everything at the ready: cups, drinks, cup trays, bags. You want to get people fed as quickly as possible without delay.

When I had my daughter, this was one of the best skills when nursing a little baby. I worked out her cycle, knew when to have everything ready, and watched the stock levels of nappies etc. and it made the demands of a hungry child manageable.

Thinking and planning ahead creates the pathway and makes sure there are supplies for the journey wherever that is taking you.

Lesson 7: Be prepared for a journey. 

8. Don’t get stuck on repeat

I would often do a shift cleaning the Dining Room. I really quite liked this gig. I would talk to the customers, help them out…I liked keeping the restaurant clean; but this one day, the music got stuck on Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl for eight hours straight. Classic song totally ruined for me. I can’t even hear the first few bars now without wanting to pick up a mop.

Change and variety are important; they keep us interested in what we are doing. They make some of the tedious or boring things in our life or our work bearable. Just a little bit of change or variety can keep you motivated, fresh and engaged. Repetition can sometimes be a comfort but boredom can breed complacency, detachment and put your life in cruise control.

Lesson 8: Change and variety keep you motivated, fresh and engaged in life/work.

9. Bullying and harassment is not ok

There was a bit of a hazing ritual in the store I worked in: new recruits would be asked to skull pickle juice, or water the plants in dining room (the plants were fake). Jokes can be fine, they can breed a healthy camaraderie; but there is a line between the odd joke and orchestrated condoned harassment.

At the same time, the customer – I believe – is not always right. If they are behaving in a way that is harassing or degrading, if you have the opportunity to safely call the behaviour, then do it, or find a way to stand up to it.

Lesson 9: Stand up when things aren’t right

10. The people around you are your most important asset

I made some great friends at my first workplace. There was, at times, a lot of laughter about silly things. There were ‘in’ jokes that I can’t even remember. But when things got busy and we all needed to pull together, you knew you could rely on the team around you. You also knew that when you lost the ‘O’ ring; were yelled at by a mother for not having the right happy meal toy; were harassed by a drunken bloke in need of a Big Mac and a lie down; ran out of cups; or just smelt like a French Fries – you knew that your team was right there beside you and that makes all the difference.

Lesson 10: Be thankful for the team for you don’t have to face things alone   

What was your first job and what did it teach you?

Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell is enthralled by public affairs in Canberra and the world at large; the issues that impact people from all walks of life; start memorable dinner party debates; fuel politics; create our advocates; and drive social media commentary. Consultant, mother and partner Catherine presents the HerCanberra perspective on the headlines. More about the Author

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