The problem with having a job is becoming an expert in all kinds of oddball things. Or least thinking that you are an expert. Or that anyone cares.

It was 40 years ago this month that I started my first paid job, $2.20 an hour at the McDonald’s in Susquehanna. This was of zero cosmic or eternal importance, but it made me a lifetime critic of McDonald’s and, naturally, the entire food service industry. A couple years in retail made me a critic of that, too.

To be clear, I’m not claiming to have been the employee of the year, but I do remember being taught that there are certain ways to do things, things that boil down to common sense and common courtesy but nonetheless have to be codified and drilled into the heads of teenagers.

McDonald’s, for instance, used to use what it called the six-step process: Greet the customer, take the order, assemble the order, present the order, receive payment and – crucially – thank the customer and ask for repeat business. Yes, it was that literal.

You might think those are all entirely intuitive, but the company felt compelled to have them written down. Just as there’s an exact amount of mustard on a hamburger and an exact time for the French fries to fry.

Of course it’s not just the Golden Arches. These companies have formulas for everything, with little or no room for deviation, creativity or self-expression. It’s an assembly line with as few human moving parts as possible, so what could go wrong?

We know that answer. The simplest order can still spin out of control in any of a hundred random directions. Even though we have been trained to pour our own drinks and bus our own tables, even though the meal combos make ordering rigidly simple and theoretically easy to execute, the service in our service economy isn’t always up to snuff.

As I say, I spent enough time on the sales floor to appreciate its challenges -- retail isn’t for everyone – but also to know that it requires a set of defined, learnable skills. Somewhere in there, I also discovered something else: the reward of hard work, that is, the satisfaction apart from the $2.20 an hour, the satisfaction of having done a job well and just feeling good at the end of the day.

The formulas have no use for that. You have to find it on your own.

Jeff Fox can be reached at 816-350-6313 or He’s on Twitter: @Jeff_Fox and @FoxEJC