As people age, many tend to look back a lot more than they look forward, assessing the good, the bad, and the ugly of their lives. If you’re like me, you very nearly obsess over it: second-guessing the roads not taken; shaking your head over bad decisions; whistling in amazement at how much chance and dumb luck play a part in your cradle-to-grave journey.
I sometimes reflect back on all the jobs I’ve had, and specifically, what I learned from them. And from just about every angle, there was one job–the hardest, most stressful job I ever had–where I developed tools and skills that have served me well, even long after I left the job. Was it my fast-paced consulting gig after grad school? Nope. My stint at a software company where I covered Asia Pacific and Latin America? No. Was it my nearly two-decade career at a Fortune 100 technology company? Not that one, either.
The hardest job I ever had–and the one that taught me the most–was waiting tables in college.
While that may sound odd, for those of you who’ve spent any time slaving away in a restaurant, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.
Here’s what you learn when you work as a waiter, especially if you’re employed at a popular, busy restaurant:
- Dealing with pressure. One of the most intense, stressful, fast-moving environments is a busy restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night. If you can’t think on your feet and move your ass, you’ll get run over. Day traders, ER doctors, you think you have it tough? Puh-lease. Try dealing with getting triple-sat on a Saturday at 8PM.
- Making quick decisions. Get the salads out, take the appetizer order, open a bottle of wine, refill ice teas. A busy shift for a waiter involves hundreds, if not thousands, of on-the-spot decisions. You keep a running list in your head of a couple dozen tasks that need to get done NOW, and the list constantly changes and gets re-prioritized. New items hit the list (sugar packets just ran out on table seven!) as fast as you can check off the existing ones. It’s a torturous mind-fuck of a thing–many can’t take it and melt down or simply walk out. And after your shift ends, it takes hours for your mind to slow down enough for sleep.
- Engaging in the art of small talk. When you wait tables, you learn how to have efficient, meaningful, friendly conversations with total strangers. This is an underappreciated aspect of the job, and once you’ve mastered this skill, you’ll use it countless times over the course of your life. At cocktail parties, at conferences, at any place where you have to strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met.
- Dealing with assholes. Few jobs teach you how to handle the angry, rude, or just plain mean members of the general public like waiting tables. Your choices are to smile and take it or find a way to de-escalate the madness. Arguing and smart-assery will get you shown the door, so you learn to deal with the jerks if you want to stay employed. And (surprise!) once you’re finished waiting tables, you’re not done dealing with the ass-hats. They’ll follow you into the corporate world (usually in sales or finance), the PTA, the charitable organization, or wherever else you end up doing work. And the skills you learned the hard way–by getting bitched out by every fragile-ego jerkoff who needed a self-esteem boost–will come in handy for years to come.
The list of life lessons from waiting tables could go on and on. You learn about yourself, how much you can take before you break, how much bullshit you can deal with. You learn about the general public, much of it ugly and disappointing. Stereotypes get broken. The super-rich can be the nicest, most patient and polite people you’ve ever met. The dedicated churchgoers of the middle class can be the rudest, least tolerant, and ugliest humans on the planet.
For those of us who spent our college years waiting tables or bartending, you know what I’m talking about. We got a lifetime’s worth of lessons, good and bad, about ourselves and humanity.