When I was nine years old, I got my first job. My family lived then in what in eastern Massachusetts passed for “the boondocks” – a new development of 21 houses with no other homes within a one-mile radius. (I have since learned that in parts of western Virginia and central Florida, this would be called “the city”.) Many of the families there subscribed to the regional paper, The Patriot Ledger. Someone pointed me out to local distributor and suddenly I was a paperboy.
This was back in those wild, unregulated days of unfettered capitalism – I understand that child labor laws today don’t allow kids to take up the paperboy mantle until they turn 13 – so there had been absolutely no training offered. When the distributor dropped off his first of many daily stacks of newspapers in my driveway, I just did what I thought was right: I stuck the stack in my bag, stuck the bag in the basket of my bike, hopped on the bike, and rode off. At every house, I parked my bike, took a flat and uncreased paper from the basket, walked to the front door, rang the doorbell a couple times, and either handed the paper to whomever answered or left it safely trapped between the screen door and the unanswered front door. Naturally this meant that my entire 14-customer route took about an hour.
After I’d been doing this for some time, I read several books about kids like Henry Huggins who had paper routes, and I discovered that in every one, the paper boys had an entirely different routine. Once they got their stack of papers, they’d spend a few minutes folding each of them into thirds, with one end tucked into the other to keep it folded. They’d stuff the folded papers into their bags and throw the bag over their shoulders. Then they’d pedal down the street on their bicycles, never stopping, just tossing folded papers onto people’s lawns and driveways (and roofs, and birdbaths, and prized rose bushes) as they raced by.
The first time I read this kind of account, I thought it was a kind of joke. Throwing folded newspapers! That Henry Huggins – what a goofball! After my fourth encounter, I realized that this really was how all the other paperboys in the world worked. It sounded fun and so much easier than the way I was doing it – I could have covered my whole route in fifteen minutes! – but by then I felt I had created expectations. People paid (and, fortunately for me, tipped) for me to hand them their paper. So I felt I had to keep it up.
I don’t really regret the extra 936 hours I spent on my paper route over my four-year career. It’s not like I had anything better to do, living in the boondocks, and I probably got better tips and Christmas bonuses out of it. But I’m glad that I have since learned how to manage the expectations of the folks I work for – not just to minimize conflict, but also to provide some leeway to try new ideas. A change that might be disconcerting if implemented by surprise might be seen as reasonable and even clever if explained in advance. As I suspected even back in my childhood, how you deliver the news really does matter.