The foreman called me up to the control room one morning. It was my second week working at the lumber mill and already I hated it. After marching up the grated metal staircase and into his office, I removed the earplugs we wore to protect against the mill’s loud machines. “Yes?” I asked curiously. He pointed down at my workstation through his office window. “What you’re doing down there… it isn’t making it.” I was a bit dumbfounded. “Not making it?” I asked. He nodded.
It sunk in that he was disappointed with my performance. “Am I going too slow?” I probed. “Yeah.” he responded emphatically, raising his eyebrows as if I’d asked a stupid question. “If you don’t pick it up down there, I don’t think you’re going to make it here.” That’s all he said. Not sure what to say, I let him know that I understood and marched back down to the plant work floor. But I didn’t really understand.
Before my junior year of college I needed to find a summer job. I spent the previous summers working outdoors in the carrot fields, but that comparatively pleasant job was no longer available. I looked around in Madras, my rural hometown in central Oregon, to see if I could find a tech job. I contacted a small tech company in the area which supported mainframe systems. After verifying I didn’t have any experience, they told me they didn’t need my help. With few options left, I signed up at the town’s lumber mill, as it paid a few dollars above minimum wage.
I soon discovered why the lumber mill paid more than other jobs in town. The work was damn hard. My job involved waiting at the bottom of a conveyor belt while a team of skilled saw operators on the floor above me cut wood slabs into long boards that were several inches thick. All day long, a never-ending pile of boards would lurch toward me. I would inspect them, judge the quality of each board, and place them into stacks according to their quality grade. These boards were heavy. At the end of my eight-hour shift my arms and back were very sore. Every night I’d eat a huge dinner and fall asleep early, exhausted.
The work was mind-numbing. To defend against boredom I’d play out elaborate fantasies in my imagination. Most of them involved performing at a school talent show which resulted in my becoming popular and well-liked, something I yearned for after struggling to fit in during my first two years of college. I also tried to devise an algorithm that would allow me to sort and organize the boards with minimal effort. The job could be much easier, I thought, if I could just figure out a better system. I put in just enough physical effort to keep up with the conveyor belt’s relentless supply of new lumber.
After my chat with the foreman, I felt ashamed. I was failing at this simple job that didn’t even require a high school degree. My shame quickly transitioned to anger. How dare he say I was inadequate at this stupid job? Determined to prove him wrong, I directed my anger into the work. No longer would I carefully inspect each board. Speed was now my goal as I yanked the boards off the line and threw them into roughly sorted stacks. I remember sweating heavily as my blood boiled. The work started to feel more like the conditioning workouts I’d done on the high school wrestling team. I went home that day fuming, more exhausted than ever, wondering how many days I could keep this up.
A funny thing happened over the next few days. Each day I’d come in fuming and slam the boards around, almost theatrically. My coworkers, noticing my exertion, started smiling at me. “You’re working hard down there!” they’d say. After an athletic performance over several days, I managed to keep well ahead of the boards stacking up at my workstation. I was often standing around, breathless, waiting on the senior coworkers above me to cut more boards for me to stack. I was no longer able to distract myself with mental fantasies. It was too hard to think about anything but the task at hand when I operated at full speed.
The dynamic in the break room started to shift. My coworkers started chatting with me more. Many of them were Hispanic and decades older than me. They called me “gringo” and shared stories about their weekends and families. They asked me about my situation, and I asked them about the delicious smelling home-cooked lunches they brought in to microwave. The group seemed to look up to a guy named Juan. He had a very serious demeanor but liked to tell deadpan jokes and tease people in a friendly way. I liked Juan.
Even my boss seemed to warm up to me, throwing me occasional looks of approval. He conducted weekly safety meetings by telling stories of his relatives and coworkers that experienced serious workplace accidents. His sister forgot to use a hair tie. Her long hair was caught in a gear, ripping part of her scalp. Like others in town, one of his fingers had been cut short at the joint, a visible reminder to be careful around mill machinery. He advised us to stay focused and pay attention.
As I worked hard to keep ahead at my station, I frequently stood around panting, waiting for more boards. My boss noticed and started giving me special assignments. One afternoon I was sent to another plant to clean up an outside area, a sunny reprieve from musty, sawdust-filled mill. Another day a nearby building had employees out sick, so they sent me over to help. A mom of one of my school friends worked there, and I kept thinking about all my classmates whose parents worked at the mill, and how hard it must’ve been to drive home and take care of their kids after a long shift. My favorite special assignment was helping an old timer inspect some giant trees that came in on a truck from Idaho. As I lifted huge 50-foot slabs for him to look under, he told me about the history of the lumber industry. He said trees like these were very rare because decades of logging had depleted the old forests.
Midway through the summer, Jacoby Ellsbury joined the team. He went to my high school and would later go on to play baseball for the Red Sox and Yankees. When we were both caught up at our stations, we’d be sent to cut boards together at a two-person saw table. Jacoby was fast with this hands and I had a great time trying to match his pace. Looking back, it was such a risky job for him. Sawing a few fingers off could have prematurely ended his career, costing him millions in major league earnings!
Near the end of the summer, I was in the best shape of my life and actually enjoyed the work. One day at lunch Juan asked me about my plans. I told him I had a few years of college left and was studying computers. “Don’t come back here. We don’t want to see you here anymore.” Juan said coldly. Taken aback, I looked at him. He had the serious expression of an adult trying to deliver important advice to a youth. He explained that working years at the lumber mill took a physical tole. His body was sore. The crew had to worry about getting injured and not being able to work and support their families. He wanted me to stay in school and get an office job. I smiled, nodded, and said “That’s the plan.” I thought about Juan when I was back at school, struggling with difficult classes.
Working at the lumber mill taught me that resenting a job and trying to do the bare minimum is not fun. It’s a lot more entertaining and fulfilling to challenge yourself and see just how much you can get done. Your coworkers appreciate your effort and determination. Your manager will take notice and start assigning you new, interesting challenges. I’ve seen this dynamic play out in several jobs, both as an individual contributor and as a manager. Often when I think my current job is stressful and hard, I remember back to lifting boards all summer. My white collar jobs have all been much easier in comparison.