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the future of work

Whether it's J.K. Rowling, who started out as a single mum on welfare before hitting it big with the Harry Potter series, or Guy Laliberté, the billionaire co-founder of Cirque du Soleil who began his circus career busking as a fire eater, we love a good origin story. There is something in our psyche that yearns to hear that average folks, with modest means, somehow found a path to strike it big, suggesting it's possible for the rest of us.

How else do you explain the popularity of the hashtag #firstsevenjobs? That hashtag has been used more than 236,000 times in the past 30 days, according to Talkwalker, a platform for hashtag tracking.

The unconfirmed originator of the trend is Alaskan singer-songwriter Marian Call, who first tweeted her first seven jobs on Aug. 4. After that, the related hashtag, #firstsevenjobs, went viral. While the phenomenon seems to have died down, it's worth exploring why it has hit such a nerve. Even celebrities such as Buzz Aldrin and Stephen Colbert have weighed in on how they earned their earliest paycheques.

Angie Chang, vice-president at Hackbright Academy, a women's engineering school in San Francisco, feels that the trend caught on because many of us come to know high-profile executives, but we rarely hear about their career trajectory.

"By sharing their first few jobs, we are reminded that everyone has a chance to start from humble beginnings and work their way to greatness over years, maybe even decades, of hard work, determination and some good luck," Ms. Chang said.

Those seven job titles tell a story of perseverance, she added, which is especially important for entrepreneurs who may be misguided in thinking that they will be an overnight success. Even successful engineers are not born overnight, but rather develop from months and years of trial and error as they painfully debug code and learn the latest languages, Ms. Chang said.

For senior leaders, the #firstsevenjobs may seem like a walk down memory lane, but talking about their early work experience is a critical way to relate to more junior employees hoping to move up the ranks.

Laura Peck, a senior partner at and vice-president at McLoughlin Media, with offices in Ottawa and Washington, said that through her experience training executives in communication and leadership skills, they often reference their first summer jobs as a critical key to their success. For example, in the retail sector, she might see an executive who started out working as a cashier before moving up the ranks over the years. That grants the executive "street cred" with more junior workers in the company, she said.

While we may play down those cashier and babysitting jobs, looking back at her clients and her own early jobs, she sees how they wielded a major impact.

"I started off cleaning manure from barns, since my dad was in the horse business, and that made an impression on me my whole life. It makes you realize that you want to do a good job and you have a strong work ethic when you can see past the work and focus on making that horse comfortable. Even when it's done, you still have to get up and do it all over again," she recalled, adding: "It's not for everyone."

That experience, and an allergy to horses, led her down a more professional path, but she observed, as did others, that due to changes in the economy, many younger workers are not getting the opportunity to grow in those early, critical, minimum-wage jobs.

"Internships and volunteer experiences are great, but there is something about getting that paycheque and realizing what you did to deserve it that makes you more aware of the world," Ms. Peck said.

With or without that early minimum-wage opportunity, it's important to convey the message to recent graduates that we all need to start somewhere, said Joe Henry, dean of students at King's University College at the University of Western Ontario in London.

"It [the #firstsevenjobs phenomenon] dispels the myth about the overnight success or the linear path that many young people – or their parents – believe that a career looks like," Mr. Henry said.

"There is no easy way to the C-suite or that dream job. There is a lot of toil and sweat involved," he added.

Those first jobs, however menial, are important not only because they show perseverance, but they allow young professionals to develop new experiences and a wider network that they can draw from later in life. While the hashtag may have had its moment, Mr. Henry feels more needs to be done to convey the benefits of those "critical first job experiences" to younger workers.

"Your career is like your house. You don't often think about the foundation, you think about that perfect kitchen. Students need to pay attention to those foundational pieces and know that a great job will ultimately come their way," he said.

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.

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