How Mario Batali’s First Job Changed His Life

 Lou Rocco / ABC via Getty Images

Do you remember your first job? Chances are good that it was probably some gig you spent precious summer days as a teenager doing and hating, or a position that you felt was beneath your newly earned college degree. Whatever it was, after reading Chef Mario Batali's story of his first job washing dishes at a restaurant, you'll probably want to take a little time out of your day to think about how much of an impact your first job had on your life. 

Batali got his inspiration to write the piece from a recently launched LinkedIn campaign “You're closer than you think." Did you know that only 6% of Americans work in their dream job? Maybe, with a little push, if you're part of the other 94%, you can start doing the thing you've always wanted to do. 

It’s not a job, it’s a window as told by Mario Batali

In 2005, my Alma Mater, Rutgers University, asked me to make a commencement speech to their new graduates. Writing this speech was an exercise in self-reflection and forced me to think about my career path and what I would do over if I had the chance. The short answer: nothing. And this should be everyone’s answer. I truly believe there’s an important lesson to be learned from every opportunity you receive, including a first job, however horrible (or wonderful) it may be.

A first job shouldn’t just be a role to slap on a resume or a position you signed up for because you needed to make some money because your parents finally cut you off financially. It should be all those things but also an opportunity to learn more about yourself, discover what you love and what you hate, and figure out how to balance it all with the struggles of everyday life.

When I sat down at my desk to write this piece it occurred to me to look back on the commencement I delivered 11 years ago. Re-reading it, I decided I couldn’t really say it any better than I did back then. So with no shame in quoting myself, here goes:

What you’re going to discover sooner or later is that a job is just like a term paper. You have to evaluate what you’ve got, see the big picture, get clear on the facts, decide where you stand, and come up with a point of view and a thoughtful strategy. Except one thing. If your strategy sucks, you don’t get an F and a chance to make it up next semester. You get fired. Which, by the way, is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The worst thing would be working in a job you hated for 40 years, and then getting fired. Or even worse, just waking up and realizing you’re trapped doing something you can’t stand because you’re up to your eyebrows in mortgages and car payments, and you’re too old to start a new career. There. Did I depress you? Good. Because I’m going somewhere with this: Life lesson number one: a job is not a wall. It’s a window.

Let me explain that. My first job objective after college was to hold on to the job I already had while I was in college. It was at Stuff Yer Face. It was my first restaurant job, and I liked it. I started out washing dishes, and eventually became the fastest line cook in the place. On second thought, Mitchell Ostrander was faster. But he had no flair.

Anyway, what I got out of that first job — besides a serious addiction to the adrenaline rush of working at full tilt in a restaurant kitchen that I never recovered from — was a sense of confidence about who I was. I learned that I liked working extremely hard. I learned that I could handle stress by kidding around and keeping it real. And I learned what may just have been the most useful piece of knowledge of my entire career to date. How to clean a blisteringly hot deep-fat fryer filled with stinking grease and detritus — and why you have to do it, disgusting as it may be.

I’m not kidding. It turns out to be a metaphor. Cleanliness is next to tastiness. Cook with a dirty fryer, and you cook garbage. Start with a clean fryer, and you get something perfect, simple and poetic. Just like all of cooking, and all of life. Garbage in, garbage out. Truth in, truth out. That’s the big thing I learned at Stuff Yer Face, after a thousand zen-like repetitions of that dreaded fryer-cleaning duty. And believe me, that turned out to be more useful in running a business than anything I got out of all those 300-level Econ classes.

So, that’s what I mean by “a job is not a wall, it’s a window.” It’s not a place to get to and then stop, it’s a thing to learn from — a place to peer out at the real world from and find yourself. I’m begging you. Please don’t think about your career as an end-zone that you’re running toward as fast as you can. At least not yet.”

Is that “window” streaky or dirty? Then get to work! First jobs can often be tough, interesting, boring, redundant, or unglamorous. But what does that window, once it’s cleaned off, allow you to see?