Did Your Mom Tell You That You Were “Special”? There May Be a Job for You at Trader Joe's

By Stephen Viscusi

You know the friends you grew up with, but who have always been a little off? You would spend hours together in imaginary worlds, but they just never grew out of that phase. Long past elementary school they were stuck in their own heads or lost hopelessly in some crazy niche cultural phenomenon. They went on to audition for lead roles in school plays, only to end up happily painting the sets. They now go to Comic Con and if prompted can give you a rundown of every actor to ever time travel in a British phone booth. Some generations may have called them geeks, other generations refer to them as nerds, but whatever you may have called them, they just seem to be awkward personalities, people who most of us don't immediately understand—people who seem to just not fit. To most of us, these people are intriguing in a completely confusing way; we’ll often look at them, shake our heads, and ask ourselves what is wrong with them. Then, other times we can be charmed by their oddity much as we used to be when watching the late, great Robin Williams overwhelm us with his mania. These people seem to us to always be playing a character of some sort. And that is the problem. They are not improvising constructed roles. That is just who they are; it is how they act all the time!

Calling your friend a “reject” is just plain mean, and even if it isn't the truth, you know the thought has crossed your mind. You wonder how one of these overly quirky friends might do in your fancy office; you can see how uncomfortable all the other employees would be with their disregard for the dress code and their shunning of office decorum. They’re nice, capable, good hearted and sincere people. But they’re out there. They always laugh when no one else does. They get a little too enthusiastic about things that no one else finds interesting (again, the time traveling phone booth is not something many people at your 5 Avenue office care much about. These creative who spice up their resumes with doodles and ribbons and like to wear tiaras to cocktail parties and blow bubbles from plastic wands, because it’s more fun than schmoozing with a bunch of stuffed shirts, regardless of their intelligence, are entirely unsuitable for any profession or career you can imagine. So if these people don't fit in here, where do they end up finding jobs? I, too, often think about their professional travails. It’s part of my job.

I am a frequent workplace contributor on NBC/Universal’s Steve Harvey and the author of the HarperCollins book Bulletproof Your Job. As the CEO of The Viscusi Group, a global retainer based search practice in mid-town Manhattan; I interview people on a daily basis. Even more people—young and old—write me for advice; they call me America’s Workplace Guru.

Recently, I was grocery shopping, and, for a moment, I felt like I was transported into an audition with lines of actors signing up for a group call, except I was with the bunch who never get called back (and, you guessed it, end up painting the sets). Most were young, but some were quite old. It was not about their looks, although there was a common theme in appearances: they flaunted their piercings and tattoos like badges; most had not seen a comb for weeks at least and more likely years; women wore little to no makeup; their clothing drew inspiration from some form of circus most likely based in the Pacific Northwest. Where was I, you ask? I was shopping in a Trader Joe's! Whether they were unloading produce, sorting cheeses, or running the “Grand Finale” (yes they have their own language too, and Grand Finale is TJ for “Check Out”), these kindred spirits had found a home with each other.

Trader Joe’s is one of those remarkably successful, privately owned, grocery chains with a very specific formula of what they sell and to whom. However, if you ask me, somewhere between their frozen Tandoori dinners and TJ’s special Asian-Mediterranean-Latin-Infused Cobb Salad, the real secret behind Trader Joe’s brand is who they hire! Employees there are like Disneyland workers, except I suspect the Trader Josephs and Josephina’s walk in that way! The Hawaiian shirts aren’t costumes. They’re extensions of who they are. These workers are all too happy to describe to you the bland multi-grain bread and how they enjoyed it the night before with pumpkin cream cheese! They speak starry eyed about Joe’s Caramel Popcorn Crunch which, at any other store, would simply be called “Cracker Jacks.” The employees are the Platonic ideal of this geek-nerd and the clientele that Trader Joe's caters to—you and me—are both amused by their oddity and ultimately content to ignore them all together as we did in high school. It's the grocery store that Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka would open, and these workers are the all too happy Oompa Loompas even down to the songs. (Full disclosure: I have no reason to believe that Trader Joe’s engages in the mildly disturbing slave-master relationship that can be drawn from a particularly cynical reading of Dahl’s book.)

As a workplace expert, I never disparage where anyone works. Every company has its own culture. I grew up in Armonk NY where IBM’s Mad Men-esque headquarters is based, and I've visited the totally different Google Campus. Two powerful, unfathomably successful companies; two very different work cultures. You can be a hardline journalist and write for the Washington Post or you can have a little more fun and write here on Huffington Post. In other words, there’s a workplace for every personality. Yet, I spend half my time counseling people who simply can’t find a place where they belong. When I meet them, they all have one thing in common—they’re all whip-smart. I bet if I tested the Trader Joe workers, I’d find that they have exceptional IQ’s. It’s just that they don’t fit into the mold that makes most of us get jobs. Perhaps they just need a makeover and are, as yet, clueless that their peppy panash, as quirky and unique as the products they sell, is part of a formula! They want to be unique, free-spirited individuals, yet they are, in fact, conforming to an image. And yet, they have found themselves in that environment, and that is all many can ask for from a job—to work in a place where they feel like they belong, where they have friends. So don't worry about that friend; there’s a place for them to work. And even if our “special” friends are working at Trader Joe's, they're probably doing fine and may have something to teach us about what to look for in a job. Because after all, Mom was right, aren’t we all special?

Stephen Viscusi is the author of Bulletproof Your Job (Harper Collins). He can be reached at stephen@viscusi.com. Please visit his website at http://www.viscusigroup.com Follow Viscusi on Twitter at WorkplaceGuru, and on LINKED IN and Facebook at; Stephen Viscusi