Jay Sprogell/Thrillist
Jay Sprogell/Thrillist

How I Learned More Delivering Pizza Than I Did in College

It was the summer of 2012, and I was wafting through that awkward period every post-college grad lacking direction faces after getting their diploma. It was professional life purgatory. I had a degree, but I didn't have a plan. Classic millennial bullshit.

So, I (somewhat) reluctantly claimed a job delivering pizza on the New Jersey shore to make my newly acquired ends meet.

While I had some experience in the service industry previously, nothing could have fully prepared me for the gauntlet that was being a delivery boy, slinging pizzas in suburbia.

And after a few short months on the job -- right about when my student loan payments began kicking in, naturally -- I realized something that would haunt me for the remainder of my six month stint as a delivery boy: I actually think I might have learned more delivering pizza, than I did toiling through four years of classes, papers, and lectures. Yes, seriously.

You may think being a delivery boy consists of nothing more than getting stoned and driving around (which I mean, yes it does), but the skill, effort, and knowledge required to deliver any food -- especially pizza -- is vastly underrated by society as a whole. It's an education unto itself. And an experience stuffed with more life lessons than you'd probably find on your average campus.

Still skeptical? Let's look at the facts, jack.

You need to master money management, and mental math

I usually treat math problems like I treat raccoons: while they're kind of fun to look at from afar, I try to steer clear and definitely avoid any skin to skin contact. While I did earn a degree in business, the kind of math classes I learned dealt more with memorizing equations and spitting them back out in a test setting than teaching any real world significance.

The biggest initial hurdle in my delivery days involved copious amounts of money handling, mental math, and overall organization. At the end of the night, I'd be packing more bills than a combination congressman/stripper. And if you didn't realize, college teaches you absolutely nothing about managing money. Admittedly, my mental math skills were probably closer to a first grader's than someone who had dropped tens of thousands of dollars on a "proper" education. But, it was simply a rusty knife that needed to be sharpened.

And there is no better professor than pressure. Counting bills in front of a side-eyeing Dad blocking his doorway, or quickly running through the day's earnings with my manager -- this was the fire upon which my trial was held. Factor in a tumbleweed of receipts that needed to be filed by the end of my shift, and I was dealing with a clerical nightmare.

It made fine-tuning my organization and money skills absolutely necessary -- like nothing had before. If I didn't keep my shit together, I didn't get my tips. It was that simple.

You quickly learn that pressure is a privilege

Our shop got busy. Like, 10 orders at once, 30-minutes-or-less, sweat staining my brow, running out of gas, managers and customers calling my cell phone every other minute type of busy. Though the pizza delivery game may appear seemingly low stakes (after all, no one is going to die if your buffalo chicken pie gets cold), at the time, it was the most important facet revolving around my main source of income -- so you better believe I gave a shit. And you definitely better believe my bosses gave at least two shits.

But, as my Dad always told me, pressure makes diamonds. If I folded under the demands of the job, I didn't deserve to keep it.

And aside from learning how to deal with pressure I -- more importantly -- learned to embrace it. If we weren't busy (and inherently, things were more relaxed) I wasn't making any money. I thrived on tips and tips alone (little known fact: pizza delivery boys generally don't make a big-ass salary).

This is something I've taken with me: pressure is a privilege. It means things are happening. And it means someone is depending on you. When there's zero pressure on you, something is wrong. You want to be a diamond, after all.

You have to deal with the weird

Navigating Gary from accounting's odd office quirks seems inconsequential when your previous work experience involved exchanging a pepperoni pizza for cash from a guy in a bathrobe with two ferrets on his shoulders (yes, that actually happened to me, repeatedly).

In all seriousness, being exposed to the type of shit you see as a delivery boy is like taking a crash course in becoming an unflappable slab of granite. The real world naturally throws some curveballs your way -- if you let the weird, the strange, and the uncomfortable chew you up and spit you out, you will never be able to function as an adult.

Remember: Just maintain eye contact, and try not to look at the ferrets. Or the spaces where the robe opens…. especially if the ferrets go in there.

You have to make sure people notice you working hard

One of the harsh (but true!) lessons one will learn when one enters the workforce, is that it often doesn't matter if you work your ass off, if no one notices. You can toil away all day at your desk, but if your work isn't recognized, then your ability will go unnoticed… and unrewarded.

When you are living off tips, the most important thing in the the world is to openly demonstrate to customers that you are in fact doing everything you can to appease them. This means going above and beyond the required duty. It means throwing in extras. It means running back to the store to grab extra napkins. It means going to the back door if they request it, dodging wayward sprinklers, bringing an extra garlic knot for the customer's dog, or writing a joke on the pizza box if they request it. (What's the difference between a delivery driver and the pizza they deliver? The pizza actually can feed a family of four).

These little flourishes make all the difference. It shined through monetarily then, and it still does now.

You realize that people skills mean everything

Like being a server, being a delivery boy means dealing face-to-face with people. It's basically the most important part of the job that doesn't involve a steering wheel. But in this case, it's a little different. In a restaurant, the customer may always be right, but they are still on your turf. When you are delivering, you are quite literally at their doorstep. This changes the power dynamic even further: in some ways, you are a guest in (or at least, at the precipice of) their home.

Developing a politician's smile -- and honing at least 120 seconds of concentrated charm -- can mean the difference between getting two dollars and seven dollars. For better or worse, office politics are part of nearly every job that doesn't directly involve offsite oil drilling. And you need to smile through the horror.

Which brings me to my next point.

You need to learn when to shut the hell up…

Unfortunately, learning to deal with people in a professional setting often means learning to suck it up and deal with an immense mountain of bullshit being thrown in your general direction. As a disproportionately entitled 21-year-old with a penchant for smart-assery, remaining docile in the face of an awful customer was the professional equivalent of an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course. There's a time and place for expertly executed sarcasm. Work is generally not this place.

And unfortunately, I let the white-hot annoyance get the best of me at times. There was one specific instance where I almost lost my job, because I wrote a (highly) passive aggressive note inside a tin of mozzarella sticks questioning both the customer's sense of direction, overall intelligence, and (for some reason) hygiene. I learned soon after that these little sparks of rebellion -- though admittedly fun -- accomplished nothing but making my life harder.  

But of course, there are exceptions.

… but, you also need to learn to stand your ground

Just as important as eating shit, is knowing when you are right to push back. The customer is not always right. And, it's important to stand up for yourself and hold steady in the face of outright abuse. For someone just entering the workforce, this can be a nerve wracking situation. Getting through this scenario in a lower stakes situation can be the ideal way to learn how to navigate confrontation later in your life.

As detailed above, I grew adept at smiling through the pain, and sucking it up in the face of annoyance. But when a customer grew abusive about the lateness of a delivery -- and quite literally, calling me a little piece of dogshit (which I might be, but he didn't even know me!) -- I refused to deliver his pizza. I told my manager my choice. And he fully supported me.

Pick your battles. And make sure you never let anyone outright disrespect you. No one wants to promote a doormat.

If nothing else, you gain a sense of perspective

I fully believe every human being should have to work at least one year in the service industry. There is hardly any other substitute for learning the lessons I outlined above -- and also, a healthy sense of perspective and empathy for the lifers who do these jobs every day.

Often, it's easy to become annoyed at the delivery boy who is 10 minutes late, or the driver who forgot the extra marinara sauce with your calzone. Once you are on the other side, you can understand that every job -- large and small -- has its merits. And delivering pizza is no cake walk. It's tough. It's mentally demanding. It takes a physical toll. And in no way, should the experience be underestimated.

The six months I spent delivering pizza might not have helped me get my current career on paper.

But it has definitely helped me keep it, in practice.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer at Thrillist and a passionate doer of other stuff. For more info, you'll have to do a free background check.