A Lesson in Humility at Trader Joe’s
A few months after graduating college, I was in a downward spiral. I had completed an incredible internship researching, writing, and editing speeches for the Vice President of the United States, but no other employers seemed to care. No matter how many jobs I applied to, I still only managed to graduate with another internship, and that fell through a few months later. I quickly realized I was going to have to do something to make rent. Since I had no way of knowing how long my job search would be, I bit the bullet and applied to work at my favorite grocery store, Trader Joe’s (TJ).
My first few days on the job were heartbreaking. I was so thoroughly convinced that one of the many jobs I had applied to would turn up out of the blue. I was on my phone during every break, desperately scrolling through my email to find the job offer that I just knew would be waiting in my inbox. But it didn’t come. And that meant I was going to have to make the best of where I was.
I threw myself into my training and made sure I was the one always offering to help, stocking dairy until my hands were red from the cold refrigerator, cleaning the bathroom without complaint, and surprisingly, making friends. What had originally felt like an isolating journey transformed into a beautiful opportunity to realize I was not alone. I was trained by a TJ employee by day and advisor to the DC City Council at night; I bagged groceries with furloughed State Department employees and learned how to order coffee and avoid overstock from former Pentagon officials.
I bagged groceries with furloughed State Department employees and learned how to order coffee and avoid overstock from former Pentagon officials.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though. People acted like I was invisible or stormed off when I asked for ID if they bought alcohol. One woman even yelled at me, personally affronted that I wouldn’t put her cart away for her while I was on a break, on the phone, finally being offered the shiny new job I had so longed for (side note: putting away carts is not grocery store employees’ jobs!! Please put your carts back!!).
When I took a step back to realize I wasn’t above grocery store work, I could see that this “in between” period of my life would prove far more useful than the experiences it was sandwiched in between. When I left Trader Joe’s, I left a family that had taught me a lot about humility, confidence, the value of good hard work, and that you cannot judge a book by its cover.
Everything I’ve been thinking here can be summed up in this one insightful quote from Maid in Manhattan. It applies to everything from those who work checking out people in a “bank line” at Trader Joe’s to those who spend their lives at the World Bank:
“To serve people takes dignity and intelligence. But remember, they are only people with money. And although we serve them, we are not their servants. What we do…does not define who we are. What defines us is how well we rise after falling.”
I thought Trader Joe’s was going to be my low point. But it turned out to be one of my most treasured experiences (it also made me despise shoppers that refused anything that wasn’t organic, but that’s a story for another time). In the end, I was most shocked by my fellow White House interns’ response when they
heard the news that I worked at a grocery store. I expected surprise, condescension, and pity, but I should have known better. No one blinked an eye. In fact, everyone agreed on one thing: “That’s going to be a great chapter of your book one day!”
Everyone has their own aspirations; everyone has a story. Life is your chance to learn their story and pass it on. Pass it forward, if you can. And never take any opportunity, no matter how small it may seem, for granted—sometimes they’re the jobs that change you the most.
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