Learning to Learn and Confronting the Uncomfortable

When I graduated college, I got promoted from my job waiting tables to being a manager for a new restaurant the company was opening.

At 22, I was beyond excited to get an opportunity to be in a leadership position. Like most young folks getting promoted, I had a lot of confidence in myself.

At 22, I knew I had a lot to learn, but I assumed I would be great right off the bat.

“It doesn’t look so hard,” I thought.

As many of us are at 22, I was very wrong.

I remember my first dinner shift like it was yesterday. I was wearing a brand new suit and was projecting a lot of confidence. In reality, I had a solid stream of sweat dripping down my back. Brand new restaurant, brand new employees, brand new everything, and the staff was looking to me for help and guidance. If a customer asked to speak to a manager, they were getting a baby face 22-year-old trying to get his sea legs in a new position.

As we picked up steam in the middle of the shift, I remember the kitchen not getting orders out on time, I remember servers not being able to get drinks from the bar fast enough, I remember the brand new computer system not working smoothly. In the world of restaurants, it was a nightmare.

Every server needed help, every host needed help, everyone seemed to need help. So, I helped. I started helping servers take orders, bring drinks to tables, refill waters, run food from the kitchen. I was grooving, my confidence was on the rise. I thought I was really making a positive impact.

In the middle of this mayhem, I remember one of the members of the corporate team, Shane, asked me how many tables I had visited. I started listing all the things I was doing to support the staff. He was not impressed with my list of accomplishments. He told me I needed to go to every table in the dining room and make sure they were happy.

I went to a couple of tables as instructed. My goodness it was awkward. I had gotten used to chatting with guests as a server, but walking up to a table cold scared the ever-living shit out of me, even when things were running smoothly. Anyone who has opened a restaurant or started a  business knows that things do not run smoothly on opening night. After a few visits, and more sweat, I fell back into helping all the servers and busboys running around the dining room.

Shane came back a little later and asked how all the tables were that I went to. I told him I was so backed up helping everyone and that I had only gotten to a couple of tables. He reminded me – in no uncertain terms – that my job was not to be an extra set of hands, but to make sure the guests are happy and the only way to be sure is to talk to every table.

At 22, I took the critique and carried on. I went to more tables, but I was annoyed. I remember thinking that I had been working my ass off, but that clearly that was not enough. I was helping get all these guests fed, and if I weren’t there, it would have gone slower! How did he not realize how much I was doing?

I still remember this first shift vividly, not because it was a messy opening night. Not because I had my confidence knocked down a peg by a superior. Not even because I had a harsh realization that I knew far less than I thought. I remember that night because Shane was 100% correct. My job was to support the staff, but that was only one part. As a manager, I needed to see the big picture, not get bogged down in the weeds, and get comfortable dealing with customers who are having less than a stellar experience.

When I was overwhelmed, I fell back on what was comfortable for me. In an effort to look like I knew what I was doing, I focused on the easier tasks I knew I could handle. Shane helped push me out of my comfort zone and I have learned that what makes you the least comfortable is probably where you need to focus your energy the most.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” – George R.R. Martin

This lesson plays out in business and in life, far beyond the restaurant industry. It took a lot of awkward table visits before I felt any type of confidence in a crucial part of my new job.

We all fall victim to reverting back into comfortable habits when things get tough. We might even have the attitude I had to start. We think we know everything, we think it’s easy. The reality is, sticking to tasks that seem easy to us doesn’t promote learning and it doesn’t encourage growth. Often we don’t surround ourselves with people who will give us blunt feedback the way Shane gave it to me.

We also fall into the habit of feeling accomplished because we feel busy. I was pissed that Shane seemed to be busting my balls while I was busting my ass trying to please guests.

The reality was that I did not know how to best serve the guest and fell back on what I was comfortable with instead of developing new skills.

These are not easy lessons to learn, 22-year-old Jeff certainly did not internalize this lesson for some time.

Maybe you are very well tuned to your own strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you know which areas in your life need some attention and improvement. However, I personally, had no idea how much I didn’t know and was patting myself on the back for a job well done in my state of oblivion.

So, what can we do about this?

It is good to have confidence in our abilities, trust that we will do the right thing. But, it is just as important to recognize where we can make strides to become well-rounded in the work place and outside of it.

If I could go back in time, I wish I had sought out someone like Shane to ask for advice about the components of what makes a good manager. It’s not easy to ask for someone to critique you, but if we leave it up to ourselves, that lack of constructive criticism can lead to staying busy with menial tasks and patting ourselves on the back (like I did) for not pushing ourselves to be the best we can be.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, I learned a lot from that early professional experience. It was humbling.

I learned I needed to seek out feedback and mentors since they are fewer and further between when we leave the safe confines of college.

“True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes” – Daniel Kahneman

And, just like how you have to lift weights that are a little heavier than you are used to to get stronger, I learned that I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone and tackle situations with challenging customers to get better at it.

These are lessons that can be applied right away and that I wanted to share with you.

When was the last time you asked a supervisor, friend or colleague to give you some honest feedback about your performance?

When was the last time you pushed yourself to do something that caused the sweat to run down your back the way it did for me during the restaurant’s opening night?

Drop a line in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.

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