Why Service Is Difficult & How To Thrive In The Face of Its Challenges (Part I)

Years ago, I retired from the bar/restaurant industry to take my meditation knowledge further and become trained as a teacher.  Last year, I returned. For love, fascination…and, yeah…for money. I was excited to be back in my element. And dreading it a bit since I know the industry can take its toll on ones health and well-being.  However, my return led me to be in an interesting place, as I happened upon a venue that is not populated with the usual things that really wear down its employees:

  1. Overbearing Management: there are no managers, it is a non-hierarchical front of house team (this brings its own issues for some of the staff but for my purposes, leaving someone as experienced as myself alone to make my own professional journey does have its benefits)
  2. Hostile Kitchen: the cooks are reasonable, good-natured people.
  3. High Expectations: things like price point, accolades, stuffy of environment, etc. tend to lead to constant guest complaints when the slightest detail is out of place (or often if there is no problem at all); micro-managing of staff often results; Here, the casual environment and low price point gets way exceeded by the awesomeness of the food experience so guests are less motivated to complain.
  4. Majorly Dysfunctional Coworkers: emotions fly around, infighting occurs.


Reasons Any Other Service Job I had Was Mainly Serving My Own Self-Destruction

Now I am older and more mature and it seems my priorities are moving towards the well-being of myself and those around me.  I have less of the reckless self-neglecting behavior of my twenties, which includes (but is not excluded to):

  1. Alcohol or drug consumption: my desire for it is all but gone thanks to years of meditation; it’s been replaced by a life-changing (but often expensive) tea habit (more on that later).
  2. Irregular sleep and diet patterns: my diet now largely excludes sugar, wheat, refined starchy things, processed food, and consists of more organic produce, super foods, carefully sourced supplements, etc.
  3. Need for validation from women: again, years of meditation -plus being happily married
  4. Deranged aspirational behavior: my need for glory as rockstar server/bartender is long over; no need to measure myself against my peers, resenting a strength someone has that I don’t.
  5. Lack of exercise: I exercise a little more now (made the least progress in this area).

For probably the first time ever, I’m just serving to have fun, connect with people and make a bit of extra cash.  And throughout this I maintain the understanding that although success in this field no longer defines me, the work done in every moment of service is a practice of self-mastery that can be applied to all truly important facets of being alive.

So…I’m all good right?

Not exactly.  Service is still challenging.  Even with the absence of so many obstacles (in both the work environment and in my own head), service demands a lot of oneself.  And with the absence of these bigger obstacles, I can explore the little glitches within me that disrupt my ability to do my job to its highest potential.

But, at the end of the day, the goal of restaurant service is almost comically simple: provide people with food and drink that satisfies their hunger in a pleasurable way.  How do we get in the way of something so simple. And how is it such a labor of misery for so many, when there are so many aspects of the job that make it more fun, invigorating and inspiring than others?  It’s the kind of work that seems to wear people down more than anything – driving them to self-hatred and self-destruction. Why?


Reasons This Doesn’t Really Make Sense

  1. We often make more money than the average North American.
  2. We facilitate the good time of others and deal with mostly happy people.
  3. We are often complimented on the spot when we do well.

When I was young I was too dysfunctional and immature to clearly see what disrupted the enjoyment of the simple task of making others happy and making good money in the process.  Now I have the tools and the inclination to look within (I actually find it fun). But I have found that simply exploring what is “in my way” to giving good service is not effective.  I must explore what “my way” is, period. And in what way I am in my own way. What’s really driving me to be of service, and what other priorities are competing with my ability to do so?  This is a good question to always to asking yourself with anything you do. It’s too much to fully talk about here, so I will start with 4 reasons that service drains us. Even if we love it.  Even if we fancy ourselves a fully pre-configured people pleaser – you probably are, but the execution is challenging…below are some examples of how.

Reasons Service Drains Us


Falters Cut Deep:

Any error we make is potentially going to be taken very badly by our guests (and possibly even throw a wrench in the entire flow of our evening – efficiency is everything and any disruptions to it can be catastrophic).  Basically, it’s easy to look and feel like a failure. Doing right by those we serve often goes unnoticed and mistakes are often all that is visible (to guests and management).

Adaptation Energy:

Meeting our objective of providing service means rapidly adapting to various needs, temperaments, communication barriers, etc.  This is something we often don’t have the bandwidth for (energy, mental stamina, emotional stability, etc.)

Abuse Magnets:

Servers tend to be treated as punching bags – both guests and managers choose the person serving as their target to externalize their own issues (none of which have to do with the server).  This makes us feel lowly, satisfying all the stereotypes of the role we built for ourselves (servant at the whim of a privileged tyrant – no one wants to be in that potsition).

Need For Acceptance:

We want people to be happy with what we offer them and it hurts when they are even less than enthusiastic.  Even if we think we don’t care…we care. When something we offer is rejected, it feels like we are personally being rejected.  Our need for acceptance hasn’t gone anywhere since high school.  It might not be enslaving our every decision as it did in high school.  We’re adults now, we know who we are a little more.

These are some of the circumstances that, even in subtle ways, block my ability to enjoy what I do, and fully show up for my colleagues and guests.  If you’ve served before, this might sound familiar. There are tougher, more high-pressure environments out there, but until a new World War breaks out, the restaurant/bar industry seems to be one of the most readily available sources of trauma available in the Western world (due to the very minimal barriers to entry).  And hopefully the tools I’m about to lay out will help ease the difficulties and magnify its boundless possible rewards.

How To Overcome The Aspects of Service That Drain Us


Falters Cut Deep:

Maybe you aren’t one of those people that aren’t bothered by their own mistakes.  Maybe you’re a superhero. Or maybe you’re just a bit more together than I am: I can’t stand making mistakes.  It takes me a lot of work to not needlessly kick my own ass because of a little slip-up.  I’m constantly exploring tools to help curb my self-combusting tendencies.

Picking your battles is crucial to intelligently and successfully applying your energy to anything you do.  That especially includes yourself. Fighting with yourself over small slip-ups is going to give those glitches greater power.  They will ransack your mental energy and health way more than they need to. Just observe and move on. Easier said than done right?  This requires an attitudinal shift into a state of mindful carelessness. The nuances of a careless attitude need to be understood, since carelessness sounds like it can lead to a life of general, unconditional carelessness.  This is not what I’m talking about – commitment to such carelessness will result in a life empty of agency, meaning and commune with others.

I’m talking about applying careless to your reactions to outcomes, not your application of action.  Your action is always caring, but your response to the results is cool (this is also an ancient practice of self-mastery called Karma Yoga – which will be elaborated on more shortly – it’s principles are essential to being of service to anything we do).  Coolness is only applied to your own self-perception, not the well-being of others – and it will set you free, able to be of service without the self-consuming neurosis that comes with it. This takes practice and positive self-talk. You need an arsenal of statements to make to yourself every time something goes wrong.  For example, “I have more important things to worry about. Like being masterfully compassionate.” Move your attention outward, beyond yourself, into your higher aspirations.

At work, I make little errors all the time.  Most of the time, my guests don’t seem to notice or care because I have their well-being in mind.  And they are less likely to notice when I don’t let the errors emotionally burden me (which, as you may have gathered,  is not always). I displace all of my self-concern onto them, making sure they are fine. I keep the gates of criticism closed.  By keeping all pathways to my ego closed, they are less likely to storm the castle gates. Plus, if people are the contentious types, they may pick up on any self-deprecation and seek to join you in giving yourself a hard time.  Predators seek weaker prey and the strength you need to counter this is stoked by your own positive self-perception.

Remember, this doesn’t mean not noticing the little ways you can improve.  Always notice. This is just a matter of removing the charge of your reaction to circumstances.  And this actually makes you more attuned to the little ways you can improve since you will be less afraid of self-observation if you are not scared of how it will make you feel.

I’ll discuss how to overcome other service challenges in part II.  Stay tuned!

  • […] There is an art to it.  A maturity of perception is required.  You need to observe the context of the situation and see what role you are being called to.  When are battles worth fighting and when are people worth upsetting? These are challenging roads to navigate.  It gets even more complicated when you bring in the factor of time. What will benefit them most now, in this moment vs. years into the future?  And then there’s the question of the radiating effect to people all around that person. You can’t know or predict these things. All you can do is observe the moment and what it asks of you.  Then act, observe the results, learn what you can, and move on. Doing this smoothly, without the unnecessary inner turmoil we experience when we want something to turn out a certain way, but does not, is a spiritual practice known as Karma Yoga (which is discussed more here and here). […]

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