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Life Lessons of a Newspaper Boy

Since 1897 the Long Beach Press Telegram has been an institution in Southern California. Even though the internet has, no doubt, driven a lot of news-papers out of business, this one has survived. In fact, the Press-Telegram added a web-publication in 1995 which makes the news available on-line. Today the paper still maintains a daily print edition to some forty thousand customers, and a Sunday edition of over sixty thousand. 

There is one thing, however, that is probably forever gone, and in my opinion a sad loss. Gone is the life of the newspaper boy. My oldest brother, Dan, began the tradition in our family.  Our middle brother, Tim, took over a few years later. Finally, when I reached that coveted age of eleven years old, I too stepped into what had become our rite of passage in the family. From out of her garage, on Howard Avenue in the city of Los Alamitos, Mrs. Owens had been a faithful business partner to all three of us, as well as many other boys for many years.

Having a paper route was actually an important job. To start with you had to have, and maintain in good condition, your own bicycle. Each of us became responsible to Mrs. Owens, who ran a tight ship. We were interviewed and informed that this was going to be a big responsibility and she was not going to allow any nonsense. We became answerable to our, on average, fifty customers. Every customer expected that their paper would be on time, in good shape, and most had a particular spot they wanted it dropped off.  

I know that kids today are not really allowed to have a job at such a young age anymore. But the real purpose of this article is to share why I feel that is to their own detriment. You see, I learned some of the best and most practical life-lessons I have ever had while serving as a newspaper boy. Consider the following life lessons that I have kept close to my heart in all of the ensuing years:

ONE: Be on time… As a newspaper boy, we were expected to pick up the newspapers for our route promptly at three o’clock in the afternoon every day, except Sunday. Every day at promptly three o’clock, Mrs. Owen’s front yard was full of boys folding the papers carefully. Of course, on a rainy day we also wrapped the paper in plastic. We would place rubber bands around the papers and then tuck them inside of our cloth delivery sacks. From there we headed to our various routes. We needed to be done delivering the paper and home before dark, so every minute counted. This was, of course, especially true in the fall and winter. With just about any job or other responsibility in life, being on time can often be critical. Being on time is also a common courtesy that all of us should extend to everyone else in every area and every day of our life. 

TWO: Be consistent… Customers prefer consistency and my customers looked forward to getting their paper. They were often staring out the window waiting. I learned to deliver my papers in the same order every day so that my customers consistently got their paper about the same time each day. I also learned from each customer where they wanted their paper placed. Caring about your customers can either build your business or kill your business. In fact, the difference between a successful enterprise and an unsuccessful enterprise is almost always based on customer satisfaction. I also discovered that many of my customers appreciated my efforts and I would get a generous tip from them from time to time.

THREE: Be responsible… There will always be fun things we learn about and decide we want to do. I needed to learn to get my work completed first. One day I stopped and played with some friends on the way to my newspaper route. Before I knew it, it was starting to get dark. This happened early on and I was a little immature. When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to deliver all my papers before dark, I threw about half of my papers in a ditch and rode home. You can imagine the many calls and complaints I had. I never did that again!

FOUR: Take responsibility… Every once in a while, I made a mistake. It could either be trying to cut a corner by throwing the paper from too far a distance or accidently riding my bike over someone’s flowers. Actually, my own personal list is too long to mention. Basically, people are not blind and ignorant. Often times it is apparent who made the mistake. But even when it is not apparent, the best response when you do fail to do something right is to own up to it. Unless you have robbed a bank or something like that, a sincere apology will almost always resolve any differences that might happen between two people. A couple of times I offered to pay for something, but my customers never took advantage of my sincerity.

FIVE: Improve yourself… Somehow, I grew up very bashful and shy around people. One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to knock on doors and try to get new customers. The problem is, if I didn’t, due to the fact that people often move, before long I would not have any customers. Many times, in life we just have to sort of swallow hard and make ourselves do what we don’t really want to do. When I asked for help, my Mom and my Dad helped me to practice my solicitation speech. I soon discovered that if I would simply give it my best attempt, I would be successful. There is an old saying, “To have friends you must show yourself to be friendly.” This is true in many other areas too. Another saying is, “Practice makes perfect.”

SIX: Develop people skills… Many of my customers were just easy-going people that I never had a problem with. A few of my customers, however, didn’t seem to be happy unless they found something to complain about. Confronting them and correcting them was probably not going to work out well. I discovered first of all, that if I did everything with excellence they had fewer opportunities to find a problem. My parents helped me to understand too, that sometimes people can be lonely, sick, or just are struggling in some area of their life. A little kindness and understanding in spite of how someone else treats you, can be a life changer for both you, and the person who for reasons you may not know is hurting inside.

SEVEN: Don’t spend all you have… Collecting from my customers could sometimes be a challenge. I don’t think anyone did it on purpose, but sometimes I had a hard time catching some customers at home. I however, was responsible once a month to turn in the payment for all of the newspapers I had received. My bill was due the first of the month whether I had collected the money from my customers or not. I always paid my bill first, and once I was enough ahead, then I could make plans to spend only what was still available.

EIGHT: Be faithful… The mailman’s creed is that the mail is to be delivered in the rain, snow, sleet, or hail. That is good advice for most things in this life. As a young boy the appeal of having my own paper route was no doubt based on the fact that you got paid to do it. This resulted in you having your own money. The problem with that is that doing the job of being a paper boy wasn’t always what I wanted to do on some particular days. Admittedly, Mom and Dad kept me on track at times, but I also eventually learned that the rewards for my faithfulness were always worth it in the end.

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