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At 16 years old, I got my first “real” job as a lifeguard. My Dad was a lifeguard as a teenager, so he encouraged me to do it to make some easy money. It was fairly simple, as many of you former lifeguards know. I sat by a pool, soaked up some sun, and watched the kiddos to make sure that nothing went awry. To me, it beat working at a fast-food joint.
I wasn’t just a lifeguard though; I was a Pool Operator. That meant I also checked pool filters and chlorine levels. I had to take two courses. The first course centered around pool maintenance, and the second course was a swimming test, verifying that I could swim 20 laps in a row. Safe to say, I passed each portion with flying colors.
Looking back, two things really struck me at the time.
Swimming 20 Laps
Who has to swim the length of 20 laps to save anyone? That seemed like an absurd number to me at the time. In fact, to this day, I still don’t completely understand it. I’d understand if I was lifeguarding at the beach, or somewhere substantial like that. But most of the pools in our area aren’t even Olympic-sized, let alone bigger than that.
For the record, I did have to save one kid, who was actually swimming right in front of my lifeguard chair. His leg cramped, but thankfully the water was shallow. Fortunately, I was paying full attention at the time. I jumped right in and rescued him quickly.
I’ll never forget the Pool Operator course instructor. He was a self-professed sun-worshipper with the dark tan lines and Ray-Bans around his neck, as he taught us indoors. It was clear that he had planned to rush through the material so that he could be back poolside to soak up some rays.
During one of the breaks, he started to tell us how we could one day become millionaires like him. At 16 years old, I was in awe. How did such a cool-looking, beach bum have a million dollars? I eagerly stuck around during the break to hear his advice. Up until that point, he had been lecturing us on how to backwash the filters and how to maintain proper pH balances. It was very dry content. But at the sound of “millionaire”, he had me hooked.
An Unexpected Investing Lesson
He started off by saying that we should convince our company to pay us a penny the first day and then ask the company to double the pay every day for the first month. As most of you can calculate, that first week, you would be receive a whopping $0.64 in pay. However, if you continue down this path, by day 28, you would be making over $1 million dollars. By day 30, you would be paid over $5 million dollars.
At the time, I remember being really underwhelmed and thought, “This is so stupid.” But now looking back, I realize his words were actually very powerful. While he didn’t call it “compound interest” at the time, this is exactly what he was describing. It’s what Albert Einstein called the 8th Wonder of the World.
Choosing the My Worksite
It’s funny what we remember over the years. Anyways, since I didn’t belong to a swim club, I wasn’t sure which swimming pool I should work at. So when I went for an interview with the local pool company, they gave me some options, and I selected the one next to my high school.
I ended up picking that one for convenience sake. In hindsight, that may have not been the best choice. At the time, I was playing AAU baseball, and since I played my baseball games at the high school, it made sense to work close by.
Naive and Unsafe
The reason why it may not have been the best choice was because my high school was in a fairly rough area back in the day. The neighborhood surrounding the school was slowly transitioning, but it was still far from safe. For reference, my high school had a shooting while I attended, and gang activity was rampant.
Within the first couple of weeks on the job, there was a murder in the pool’s apartment complex. I became very familiar with the reporting officers who regularly frequented that complex.
Boy, was I young and dumb. I was around such danger, yet I had no concept of how bad it actually was.
I share about my lifeguarding experience because I unknowingly learned some incredibly valuable financial lessons (in addition to Beach Bum’s compounding interest lesson).
This was the first time that I learned about leverage during negotiations. Another lifeguard that worked at a neighboring pool shared with me halfway through the summer that she asked for a raise of an additional $1.00 an hour.
I was shocked at the time because that was a 20% bump in her pay.
She asked for it, and she received that raise. They initially pushed back on her though. She responded threatening to quit. Since they were worried they wouldn’t be able to fill her position, the company acquiesced to her demands.
Unfortunately, even after knowing that I might be able to do the same thing, I still didn’t do it. I thought, “Maybe they’ll give me a raise because I am consistently doing a good job.”
I received nothing extra. That taught me to be more aggressive in the future. I stopped expecting that I would receive what was fair. After that lesson, I became more vocal in expressing myself to my bosses and the type of pay I believed I deserved. That has helped me over the years to get me where I am today.
The second thing that I learned that summer was that skill can be overrated. There were two little boys who frequented the pool regularly. One was nine, and his younger brother was five. In order to swim in the deep end of the pool and use the diving board, I required that all of the kids swim one lap the length of the pool.
I figured if they had the stamina to do that, I wouldn’t have to worry as much about them fatiguing in the deep end.
As you’d imagine, most younger siblings want to do everything their older siblings can do. The nine year old was able to swim the length of the pool, and therefore could dive and swim in the deep end. However, the five year old was not quite able to make that lap, so I wouldn’t let him pass.
Everyday, he would ask if he could take the swim test again, and he would get a little bit closer to achieving the goal. At first, he participated in the swimming test alone. Then his big brother eventually joined him to encourage him. Soon enough, other kids also joined him until he finally passed.
It wasn’t the prettiest stroke. For that matter, it was basically a dog paddle across the pool. Admittedly, it scared me half to death each time he dove into the deep end of the pool. But, I honestly will never forget the perseverance that he had. It was inspiring.
I take this perseverance to heart in regards to investing. When I first started investing, my slowly-growing retirement accounts discouraged me. It felt like they moved at a snail’s pace, as I checked their progress multiple times a day. Hitting the refresh button did not make the accounts suddenly add an extra zero to the figure’s end, as much as I wanted it to.
It seemed like everyone around me had accounts that were rising quickly as they were utilizing the latest investment strategies. Interestingly enough, a lot of those friend are still chasing returns while my account has slowly grown into something that I never thought it would. Being slow and consistent with a large amount of perseverance goes a long way.
Finally, the last lesson that I learned from the pool was the value of finding a job where you enjoy the people around you. I never complained or dreaded going to work that summer. The kids were enjoyable, and their parents were great too. I loved the autonomy that I had, and it didn’t feel like work. I had fun.
In my jobs since lifeguarding, I’ve only had one job that I loved going to. It lasted two years before people moved on and the environment changed. Yet, I still look back at that time fondly. If I’m being honest with myself, I probably won’t reach that happiness level at work again until I’m working for myself.
Entrepreneurship is slowly building in me. I am gaining the confidence to take on some of these endeavors. While I’m not quite there, I do feel like I am starting to find my footing on where I want my life to go.