« The Secret: 20 Ways To Attract More Comments On Your Blog | Main | A Little Bit Of Forward Planning »

April 12, 2008

What I Learned From Working In A Sweet Shop

When I was a teenager I had a Saturday job in a sweet shop / newsagents for about 5 years.  (I'm not sure this really counts as an 'odd job' although there were elements of the job that were distinctly odd.)

It was a small, slightly scruffy but very friendly shop round the corner from a suburban railway station on the edge of London.  It looked absolutely  nothing like this gorgeous sweet shop pictured here, though we did have a good array of penny sweets that I dipped into when no-one was looking.

The latest writing challenge at the Middle Zone threw me back to what I'd learned from this job and though there were lots of lessons it was what I learned on my first day that has stuck with me.

What I Learned From My First Day Working In A Sweet Shop

I turned up as a raw, inexperienced 13 year old expecting to be shown the ropes, to be taught what to do, to have instructions in newspaper ordering, chocolate box selling and till-button pressing.  I wasn't remotely prepared for the owners to head off to the cash and carry an hour after I'd arrived, leaving me on my own with the shop, the stock, the keys, the cash and the customers.

Left entirely to my own devices I learned (quickly!) to rely on:

My own resources: including the ability to do basic mental arithmetic, a friendly smile, and a belief in the power of just making it up and hoping for the best!

Honesty: when I didn't know something (a price, where a magazine on order might be hiding and so on) I just said so.  I didn't feel the need for bluff with an hour's training.

Flexibility: this short experience (and the rest of my career in that shop) changed my attitude to pricing structures.  The owners were kind of casual when it came to marking up prices.  Some things were shockingly over-priced and some customers told me so.  We negotiated what seemed 'fair'.  Other goods had no price information so I'd make a price up and see if the customer was still interested.  It taught me that price is not an absolute but what someone is willing to pay.

Asking other people:  I got help from neighbouring shop-keepers when I needed change, but also and foremost from the customers.  Regular customers were brilliant at helping me out and showing me what to do.

Doing my best: after the initial burst of anxiety I relaxed and started to enjoy myself.  I couldn't possibly do any more than my ordinary best because I didn't have the skills, training or experience.  This meant I had a lot more confidence my best would be enough. (We often lose sight of this when we're deeply immersed in training and induction at work.)

Initiative: I worked hard to find solutions because I didn't know the 'right' way of doing something.  (Again, contrast with the way we're normally taught to work.)

When I look back on this introduction to my odd job I realize that not knowing the rules was liberating.  It forced me to rely a lot less on 'the way things are done' and a lot more on my own initiative and resources.

I set off with this post because I enjoy the WILF project so much and I've contributed each month since I met Robert (plus he's a pal).  I couldn't see any way of making a link back to my own blogging purpose which I try to do when I can.   But now it's done I can see the writing lessons (not to mention the wider applications in business and in life...) 

It's easy to get too hung up on the rules.  To wait for others to tell us what to do.  To give us permission.  To show us the way.

Sometimes we're better not knowing how things are supposed to be done.  Trusting instead in our own resources.  Just getting on with it, adapting and improving as we go along. 

Trusting that our best is good enough.

This post is a contribution to a joint writing project: What I Learned From Odd Jobs (run by Middle Zone Musings) and Lessons From Odd Jobs (run by High Callings)  Follow the links if you want to take part, but hurry! The What I Learned From project closes tomorrow (13th)

Photo Credit: juicyrai on Flickr


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference What I Learned From Working In A Sweet Shop:



What a great blog you have. Excellent article as well. I am a hotelier so obviously, flexibility is an interesting perspective. As you know, hotels have regular rate but our goals is to sell rooms and for that, we have to learn art of negotiation. I tell my employees to be creative as they are the front line sales people I have. I'd love to have you visit my blog and give me comments on this article. I also would like to know if I have good writing skills or not. I just subscribed to your blog because it is one of the best I've seen.


Many thanks

There is the old story about the guy's son was suffering from water on the brain and the doctors have no idea what to do with him until the guy, a plumber to trade, suggested installing a tap something the doctors hadn't thought of despite it being so obvious. The point to the story is that doctors think like doctors and plumbers like plumbers. As soon as you take them out of their comfort zone then interesting things can happen. Learning from the masters is all well and good but there's more ways to paint a naked lady than in the style of Titian.

When I sat down to write what ended up as my first novel I'd never written anything bar poetry for twenty years. I'd never even written a short story after I left school. I didn't buy a book telling me how to write a novel, I didn’t enrol in a novel-writing course or book a creative writing weekend someplace. I took what I knew about writing already and what I'd gleaned from reading and did what felt natural. Seeing it work made the next one easier.

The thing about writing is that it's that bit more involved than fitting a tap. A tap has to fit. That's it, there's not a lot of scope for creativity in the plumbing industry. You learn from a time-served plumber how to fit one and that's you for as long as people need taps or until some clever clogs (probably not a plumber) dreams up something better than a tap.

Hi Shilpan

I'm glad you enjoyed the article and the blog in general.

Thanks for sending me the article and link to your post. I'm afraid I'm not able to provide informal feedback for people - I'd soon be out of work if I did! Hope you understand

Best wishes


Jim, thanks for sharing your experience.

As a natural resister I don't like 'how to' guides either. Yes there are some ways we can learn to improve our writing but I'd much rather coach people to trust their own resources than follow a guide written by someone else.

I liked this line of yours in particular

"I took what I knew about writing already and what I'd gleaned from reading and did what felt natural"

That's often the best thing we can do.


Joanna, even now as you blog, one of your strengths is asking other people. I bet you struck up a great conversation with customers, too.

I like what you say about how writing this particular blog took you back to writing purpose. When I wrote a post to meet Robert's challenge, I also kept in mind what you said about writing purpose - to keep it simple. That's a lesson you shared that I wanted to really target. That gave me opportunity to go back to the "is" and "was" verbs and to choose more vibrant words for the story. I know these are two areas I need to target more as I write. :-)

Robyn, not only was this my 2,000th comment (congratulations!) it includes specific feedback on how you're putting writing ideas into practice! Good for you.

Really, I just couldn't ask for more.


Oh wow. Joanna, this is a great story as well as lesson for us all.

But I have questions. Did you eat many of the lollies? If I know 13 year olds (and I think I am a little bit of an expert... having had two living in my house in recent years) they looooove lollies! Did you try to resist? Or was it just expected you'd eat them? Did you get sick of all the sweet stuff?

I know there was a shop I used to visit with my Grandfather when I was growing up in Canberra, and they had those 'penny sweets' - only of course, they weren't pennies, they were about 5 cents I think.. Australia went metric when I was little.

(Hmm, that was totally off topic, wasn't it?)

Your first day, and all the lessons you have learned, have made me think about how I train/induct new staff. I used to laughingly say I was 'throwing them in the deep end' and it was 'sink or swim' (they all swam!)- I can see now that it was similar to your experience. We all learn best by doing. And sometimes someone standing over your shoulder isn't the best way to learn.

Maybe your employers were pretty wise people?

Lots of food for thought (or is that sugar?) in this post - thank you Joanna!

Joanna, it is unbelievable to think I am your 2,000th commenter on Confident Writing!

As I commented, I actually wondered if I might possibly be the one. I said, "Nah! Can't happen! I was just the 1,000th commenter on Brad Shorr's blog and the odds of it happening again are far beyond numbers I might measure. So I dismissed it and never thought about it again.

Amazingly, it did happen, and I need to pinch myself. It'll be fun to look over your recommendations and select a book. ;-)

After looking over your list, I choose "On Writing Well." One of the reasons I want to start here is that too many folks influenced my thought processes by pointing out what I did wrong in my writing. When I think about what I can do, my writing soars instead of diving. I sense this book will help it to soar more often as I try out the tips it contains!

Thanks again for all the insights you bring! A book recommended by you is sure to be a winner.

Karen, I didn't eat lollies but lots of small penny sweets that could be eaten quickly. Fizzy cola bottles being my all time favourites! (I still have to watch out for them. Eat one, want the whole packet.)

I was wondering as I wrote this if my employers had done it on purpose to help me find my feet. Knowing them, I doubt it... but maybe I'm doing them a disservice. It certainly worked, and all the time I was with them they demonstrated total trust and confidence in me, which was a great first working experience.


Numbers are strange aren't they? I smiled when I saw it was you as I remembered it was just a week or so since you hit the 1,000 at Brad's blog.

Actually I'd been wondering if Robert Hruzek would hit the jackpot twice by coming to comment on the WILF post (he was my 1,000th). Which would have been ultra strange as he's also been a milestone commenter at Dawud Miracle's blog, possibly more than once. I must check that with him.

Your choice is a good one. It's a great book with a mixture of practical advice and underlying encouragement to find your own voice and write with humanity and positive intention. All of which will suit you down to the ground.

It saddens me greatly to think of you (and many others) being criticised for your writing when you have so many great and powerful ideas to contribute. I'm also very glad that you've found your voice and that through blogging you are finding the confidence to soar. It's a pleasure to watch.


Darn! Just missed it again! Congrats to Robyn - and very good lessons, Joanna. I'd hate to think you nearly chose NOT to post because you were busy. We would have missed a great set of lessons.


Hi Joanna
I envy you this kind of opportunity. Having grown up in a world full of rules and anxiety about them, I still don't have the self-confidence to just believe I can and that there is more than just one way to solve a problem.

Interestingly though, the one area where I have developed some confidence (after many years) is writing. I have reached a point of trusting that just starting to write(type) words will bring to the surface what needs to be said. Despite all the advice I see you share, planning what I'm going to write doesn't do a lot to help and in fact often hinders!

I guess you could say writing is my one place of spontaneity, liberation and freedom!

Thanks for getting me thinking about this!

Hi Robert, you know I was so sure it was going to be you again, which would have been pretty wild seeing as you were # 1,000.

I'm glad I did this one - I found it interesting as the lessons emerged the more I stood back from it and tried to draw out the most general points, which of course are those that then have wider applicability.

Blogging is a good medium for that kind of stepping back and reflecting (not least as it's a good idea to boil down with bullet points and headers etc) but the WILF project is reflection par excellence!


Chris, what a delight when your writing is free flowing like that!

And you never know, your words, those whispers from your beautiful unconscious mind, might just give you the clues as to how to live more freely in other parts of your life too...


I believe that one of the benefits of working with young people is that they don't come with the "one way to do it" baggage which you clearly demonstrated in that sweet shop. And who's to say that older people have all the good ideas too.
Loved the story. My first Saturday job was in a baker's shop - so I had some similar challenges in avoiding the produce ( or not - as the case may be)Jackie

Joanna, Robyn is your 2000th commenter? Unbelievable! What are the odds? Robyn gets around. I enjoyed your post. Pricing structures are indeed fascinating. The more you understand how markets work, the more you appreciate their efficiency. I spent most of my career in an industry where every price was negotiated, and significant opportunities to succeed (and fail) occurred scores of times every day.

Joanna, great post! Me--I want to know what penny candies you were sneaking. Chocolate? Taffy? Sours?

And what you say about the rules of writing is so true. Sometimes I lose heart in the middle of a long project because I know I'm breaking lots of rules--grammar, audience, plot, whatever. Those are the times when I have to take a deep breath and just keep writing the draft. I can always fix it later...


I loved this post, both for the lessons and hearing about your experiences in the sweet shop. I really savoured the flavours.

Hi Jackie, good point about young people being less encumbered by baggage about the 'right' way to do things. Amazing how much we tie ourselves down with unhelpful rules and expectations isn't it? Working in a baker's shop... now I think that would have been an ever bigger challenge for me - though I suppose less easy just to pop something in your mouth when customers aren't looking...

Brad, I know, quite a co-incidence isn't it? But I'm glad someone who puts so much effort into intelligent supportive commenting should be the one to win the double-prize :-)

Mark, I loved the small tangy sweets - like cola bottles, slightly sour, with a bit of a kick. I feel my mouth watering just as I think about them. Oh and flying saucers - do they exist in the US? Sherbet in melt-in-the-mouth sugar paper the shape of a flying saucer. Why don't adults eat sherbet I wonder? I used to love it as a child.

Back to the writing - yes indeed, much better to go with it when you're in the flow and then come back if you need to and tidy things up later. And who knows, those 'rules' you're breaking might just be the start of a new genre...

Emma, I'm glad you enjoyed the post :-)



The writing challenge from Middle Zone Musings reminds me of a stack of books I ordered on this trip - all to do with journaling.

One of the best (so far) is 'How to Write Your Own Life Story'. And the best way to do that? A story at a time. Just like with the writing challenge.

For me, working at Marie Callendars pie shop while going through college wasn't the most unusual job I've ever had. But, like your sweet shop, it taught me lessons for life.

It was a waitress job so I had to learn how to cut down on the time it took to satisfy the customers, the manager, AND my work mates.

To this day, I don't leave one room for another without glancing around to see which item(s) should to go with me.

And to this day, I'm surprised (constantly) that the person behind the till cannot add my bill in their head. I'm sure you've noticed the same. They can't manage a simple short list, forget including the ever-changing tax on top.

Hi Cat,

Thanks for sharing the mini-story!

The book sounds fascinating - keep me posted on how it unfolds, and where you go with it...


Joanna, ah, yes, you are sure to be hearing more about the journal (wink)

Post a comment

  • Welcome to Confident Writing, a blog site full of writing tips and virtual coaching from me, Joanna Young.

    It's a site not just for writers but for anyone who wants or needs to write with confidence - because our words count.

    Joannas Welcome

    Click the play button for my welcome message

Books for writers and writing<-->

You'll also find me at...

  • Twitter
    Bloglines - my blogroll Facebook
    Gcast - podcasting

    And writing at:

    Joyful Jubilant Learning
    Business Blog Angel
    The Calm Space

Keep In Touch

Bits 'n' bobs

  • We are proud to support Scotland's Voluntary Sector at Workwithus.org

    Creative Commons License

    Blogging policies

    web metrics
Home | About | Writing Tips | Podcasts | Work With Me | © Copyright 2007 Confident Writing