When I was in high school, there was nothing I wanted more than to work part-time at a Subway or Chipotle — somewhere with one of those cool bars where the customer moved down the line and picked out what they wanted. My mom thought I should maximize my profits by charging a competitive wage for private tutoring (“Fifty an hour!”), but I wanted something completely removed from academics, something I could do to forget about school and get some real world experience. I remember thinking it would be so relaxing and fun, like playing a restaurant or chef game.
During my second semester of senior year, opportunity came knocking, and I started working as a waitress at a neighborhood sushi restaurant. I showed up on the first day with wide eyes, excited to fulfill a long-held dream. As my boss, “Auntie,” walked me through the basic steps of setting up for my shift, I quickly realized this was a lot more complicated than I had originally thought. There was an entire ritual of cleaning, restocking and preparation that I had known nothing of — I found out very quickly that while I enjoyed wiping windows, sweeping was far from my strongest suit.
As tedious as I found the routine sometimes, working the floor was insanely fun — immersive, exhausting and exhilarating. I memorized the menu and learned how to balance a tray and use a POS system. I could listen to a customer’s preferences and recommend specific sushi rolls or entrees, and I loved to take orders on the phone, my finger tapping expertly between the options on the register screen. I would pick up receipts after the customers had left and sneak a peek at the tip to see how well I had done. Sometimes, when I wasn’t at work, I would pick up a call on my cell and automatically answer, “Hello, [restaurant].” Some days I would arrive at work feeling down, but somehow, somewhere in between carrying dishes across the floor and chatting up the customers with the chirpy customer service smile, I would realize that I felt much better. As I moved my body almost mindlessly, I could forget everything outside the restaurant and focus only on my work.
“Watch the customers,” Auntie told me as we stood in front of the sushi bar one night, looking out to the floor. “Look at whose glasses are empty, whose tables have finished dishes. What do they need? By the time they raise their hand, you should already be there.”
The restaurant was small enough for one waitress to cover on a relaxed day, and the task of collecting orders and overseeing the tables was like juggling; once I fell into a comfortable rhythm, patrolling the shiny wooden floor as conversation and chopsticks clinked and hummed gently in my ears, I felt like I had found some sort of dynamic peace in that small, quiet, sun-filled restaurant.
Over the next few months, I came to realize what I was learning from this job. Waiting on the tables and keeping an eye on people’s body language and tabletops to see what they might need, communicating with the customers when there was a problem, setting up and cleaning the restaurant, even just the simple customer service smile when dealing politely but firmly with irate customers — all of these are crucial skills for anyone to have, all the more so for those in leadership positions.
It’s commonly believed that leaders stand above those they lead, by nature of their position in command, and it’s easy to think that when you lead, those who “follow” will serve you. However, I have found that it is the opposite: the most trusted and wisest leaders that I have met have been those who put others before themselves and served the people in their charge with compassion and selflessness. In the clubs that I have been a part of, or just listening to friends talk about their activities, I always admired it the most when the students in charge put themselves on the same level as everyone else and worked to understand what everyone else needed, instead of trying to forcefully carry out their own vision or thinking they knew better. Those leaders were the most successful in gathering other people around them, precisely because they understood that to lead is to serve.
Working in the service industry and all it entails — getting ignored or shouted at by customers as if you aren’t human — is nothing to look at lightly, or even glorify. Depending on the employer, the job can be miserable and exploitative, and it is always exhausting work. However, I think taking a job as a cashier, waiter or other service industry worker is an important experience that anyone can take away so much from, especially students at prestigious colleges such as ours. It’s easy to get carried away in lofty visions of ourselves as the leaders of the future, but I argue that it’s equally, if not more, important to take a couple steps back and learn how to serve others from a basic, square-one perspective.
Hyerim Bianca Nam is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column ‘Moment’s Notice’ runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.