Career Work

Life Lessons I Learned While Working Manual Labor


I lead a sedentary lifestyle. I work in an office and I read and write in my spare time. The most non-sitting that occurs in my day is my nightly routine of doing the dishes, where my six-foot-three frame has to stoop just to reach the bottom of the sink.

This general lack of movement and exertion is the only thing I miss about working manual labor.

I’m still paying off college and business school — and will be for the next several hundred years — but I helped myself a little bit every summer and winter by working as much as I could. In high school, I had two jobs. One was at a mini golf/driving range center and the other was as a bank teller. In addition, I would sometimes spend a Saturday or off day with a friend doing landscaping and other various jobs.

I also grew up in an area that was somewhere between rural and suburban. Our neighbor had a barn, a dilapidated and empty chicken coop, a horse for a pet, and an outhouse. My parents owned four acres and the upkeep was substantial. My father was a poor city kid growing up, but he became the suburban white American male poster child, living an hour outside of the city and taking the train to an office downtown. Yet on weekends, he was almost a farmer. Helping him, I did nearly every type of yard work imaginable. We stacked rocks, pulled stumps, cut down trees, planted trees, dug holes, weed-whacked, rototilled, cultivated flowers, shoveled and spread dirt, shoveled and spread mulch, picked vegetables, and manually split wood (by far my least favorite). I suspect that my love of cities and urban living is directly related to some sort of PTSD I associate with this time. It kept my father (and I) in shape, though.

When I came home for the summer after my freshman year, a friend from high school told me that he had managed to get me a job at a local cold storage plant. The money was far better than any other job I had ever had — they paid you as much overtime as you could handle. Plus, in the mid-summer heat, I would be wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt rather than a shirt and tie.

My friend worked in the plant, mindlessly stacking bags of ice on pallets all day long, but I spent my days — and a few nights — out in the truck, delivering to convenience stores, beer distributors, bars, country clubs, even carnivals and festivals. If you purchased a bag of ice within a 50-mile radius of Philadelphia between 1999 and 2003, there’s a decent chance I provided it.

You’re welcome.

That job taught me more about myself and the concept of work than any occupation I’ve had before or since and it certainly taught me more than anything I learned in about two decades of school. Here are just a few things that I gleaned from that time:

Work Ethic

The delivery trucks had a two-man system: the older, more experienced guy drives the truck, plans the routes, and handles all of the interactions with customers and the dispatcher while the younger guy, the helper, rides shotgun and handles the more mundane aspects of clean up and prep for the next stop.

When you’re new, the dispatcher rotates you through so that each driver can work with you and decide if they want to work with you on a regular basis. It’s like speed dating, only that you’re stuck in the cab of a truck with someone for eight or ten or twelve hours. With the actual delivering, the helper climbs in the back of the truck, lays down cardboard on the floor, and begins dropping bags of ice on it, letting the ice break up so that it makes it easier to stack. The driver grabs each bag and drops it on a hand truck. When two hand trucks are full, the helper jumps down off the truck and the two of them wheel the product it into the store and fill the ice box.

I had a good rapport with Rick, the guy that was considered the most efficient driver and, before long, we were together almost every day. I was still young and immature, but I had a better work ethic and could carry a conversation better than the other helpers, so he chose me.

Rick was a nice, easygoing guy, but he was tenacious when it came to work. He often drove the biggest truck (this held twelve pallets, the rest held ten) and took on the hardest routes, constantly pushing himself to be better. We never stopped to eat a meal and the longest break he ever took was the amount of time it took him to use the bathroom. I had always prided myself on my work ethic, but Rick often made me feel as if I were loafing.

His determination was contagious. He never took a break, so why should I? He worked six days a week, so I saw no reason why I couldn’t work seven. It was only for three months. After that, I’d be back in my dream world that was college. So I did it. I was up at five every morning, in the truck by six, and often on the road for twelve hours. Sometimes my shift would end and I’d hop in the small truck and go back out to make deliveries on my own. Second shifts, third shifts, overtime, time-and-a-half, double time, holiday pay, whatever. I did it all. I never took a day off unless my overtime had become so substantial that I was forced to stay home for a day. I was much younger then and I no longer work those types of hours, but that experience never left me. Working full-time in an office and attending business school at night was tough, but it didn’t feel impossible. Those hours on the truck made me a much more successful employee, as well as a much more prolific writer.

Planning for the Future

That tenacity ultimately took its toll, however. By my last summer there, Rick was beginning to physically break down, complaining about aches and pains and wondering aloud how much longer he could continue working that job. I had always figured that my career would be in an office — I am not very skillful with my hands — but now I was finally seeing the effects of working today while giving little thought to tomorrow. Whenever I’m bored or frustrated with my cushy office job, I often think of Rick wincing in pain and sighing as he reached for another bag.

Being an ice deliveryman can feel like a never-ending punishment, like a modern, colder version of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill, especially on hot weekends when people stand outside the back of the truck, pulling bags straight out of your hands, and I wonder if Rick ever felt trapped, driving the same routes, filling the same ice boxes, speaking to the same people, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Both because I worked there and because I no longer work there, that job forever made me grateful for the career I have now (and keeps me contributing to my retirement accounts).

Class Distinction

The delivery gig put me next to the type of person with whom I didn’t normally associate in school, not out of any sort of malice or even snobbery, but rather divergent interests. For the first time, I was working with guys that never even thought about school beyond twelfth grade and even a couple that really had trouble reading, but could build something substantial out of nothing with their own two hands. They made wisecracks about the books I would bring into the truck, but some admitted that they wished they had been pushed harder towards college.

Regardless of how much we read or how skillful we were, we all looked the same to the public. When a truck pulls up, people generally don’t take the time to consider the backstory of the driver or if the kid in the passenger seat with his arm hanging out the window is saving every dime he makes over the summer to get through another semester at a private university. I have vivid memories of pulling into the parking lot of large beer distributors in wealthy towns, seeing the lot full of Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, and Range Rovers and seeing a look of pity and disdain from men in affluent casual attire — polo shirts, sweaters draped over their shoulders, creased khaki shorts, loafers. We were viewed as the help, nothing more. These guys wouldn’t believe that I had just put down a Vonnegut paperback or, more likely, they wouldn’t care. Every week, I saw these guys — never the same, but they’re all the same — picking up kegs of beer and mounds of ice for their barbecues and bar mitzvahs. These were lawyers and doctors and other suburban heroes from wealthy towns like Doylestown, Buckingham, and Newtown. I had played against their sons in basketball and had walked by their daughters in the mall. But I was just another delivery guy that was obviously dumb and hadn’t worked hard enough to get where they were in life. They would make the same three jokes — “The Iceman Cometh!,” “Wow, that’s a cool job,” and, “Boy, it’s hot out. I wish I had your job!” — and howl with laughter every time.

Perspective is everything and the delineation between white-collar and blue-collar can be an invisible one.

Kindness and Generosity Have Far-Reaching Effects

I will always hold the door for a deliveryman (or woman). I don’t care if it makes me late or if I have to change where I’m walking. I always did, but now it has a different meaning. When you’ve struggled to push a hand truck up a steep ramp in mud or pull it up several concrete steps to a store in the city, you don’t mind waiting a few extra seconds to help someone in the same circumstance. Holding the door requires virtually no effort on my part, but could make a big difference in another’s day. Similarly, I’m more inclined to acquiesce and allow a truck to merge in front of me because I know how frustrating it can be to try to switch lanes on a busy highway when cars keep zooming past you, not even considering to slow down to let you in.

I also learned that the difference between frugality and cheapness is generosity. Most successful business owners did not become successful by giving their product away, but, at some point, basic human decency plays a role. When you’re sitting in a truck all day, climbing in and out of a moving freezer and throwing around 20 and 40 pound bags of ice, a complimentary Gatorade on a stifling hot day is like a gift from the heavens. On our biggest route (the one that we did on Saturdays and holidays), we knew the stores that were friendly and the ones that were not. Some guys understood the demands of the job and offered us any drink of our choosing, even offering food if it were readily available. They would chat with us and offer us seats. Others were more aloof, treating us like their own employees, watching every dollar and even haggling over the price of each bag (something we obviously had no control over). That’s fine, every person runs his or her business their own way, but when you take care of someone, they’re more apt to take care of you. That’s just basic human nature. Oftentimes, Rick would plan our routes based on the friendliness and generosity of the proprietor. For our favorite, a guy that would even give us a six pack of our choice of beer on holidays, we made sure he was always stocked, making three or four trips on certain days. For the grumpy ones? We’d get there…eventually. If they ran out, well, what can you do?

An incentive shouldn’t be the reason for kindness, but kindness should be rewarded. My parents always overtipped, so it was always present in my world, but it really solidified when I was on the other end. An extra few percentage of a tip means far more to the other person than it does to me and since I was the beneficiary of some very generous people, it’s only right that I pay it forward. Like Steve Martin’s characters says in My Blue Heaven, “It’s not tipping I believe in. It’s overtipping!”

Style is Overrated

If you’ve read The Millionaire Next Door (and if you haven’t, you should), you already know that the guy that looks rich is probably deep in debt and the guy that looks like a schlub could very well be living comfortably. As a consumer of ’80s movies and ’90s hip-hop, I was constantly inundated with the idea that those with wealth flaunt it. That type of thinking changes when you meet actual self-made millionaires. Yes, there are thousands of Junior Gordon Gekkos on Wall Street, but, in the real world, most people with money work jobs that don’t require a suit. Two of my first three jobs were at businesses that originated from a family farm. In both of those cases, the patriarch for whom the farm — and company — was named was an older gentleman that still dressed like he had spent all day milking cows and cleaning up horseshit because, in fact, he had. They were well past retirement age and had more than enough money to quit, but they still woke up at dawn every day and went to work. They looked like something out of a Steinbeck novel, but they could buy and sell the guy in the Benz with gaudy cuff links multiple times over.

The Value of Money

In movies, there’s always a teaching moment when the light bulb goes pops on in someone’s head and the character changes — the teacher gets through to the uninterested student; the best friend makes the lead realize which girl he’s really in love with; the father having a talk with his son. In reality, those epiphanies usually happen more gradually. We learn little by little, slowly piecing things together like a puzzle that doesn’t resemble anything until it’s almost complete. For me, this is how I came to value money and what things cost. I knew that earning money was hard and spending it was easy. I didn’t become stingy or even frugal — I still spent the majority of my twenties enjoying myself too much — but I was never blindsided by my financial situation and I made a conscious decision to spend money on experiences rather than items. I look homeless on weekends and my car is almost old enough to drive itself, but I have some wonderful stories and memories of places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, and meals I’ve consumed. That’s where I chose to splurge. When you need to spend 14 hard hours to make $100, you begin to question the need for a $275 pair of sneakers. In the years since that job, I didn’t always hoard my money, but I always valued it.

I went back to that job during every break from college and even worked Saturdays for a summer after I graduated. I suspect that I could go back right now if I had to, provided there is an open spot. Every time I worry about my future and providing for my family, I always say to myself, “I could always go back to slinging ice.”

It’s comforting to know that it’s there. It’s also motivating because I never want to do it again.

Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at MediumHis work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


By Christopher Pierznik

Christopher Pierznik is the author of 9 books and has contributed to numerous websites on a variety of topics including music, sports, movies, TV, personal finance, and life. He works in corporate finance and lives in northern New Jersey with his family. His dream is to one day be a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.

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