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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Waiting Tables as Soul Craft

August 2nd, 2022 | 4 min read

By Ben Christenson

During college, I became convinced I would become a consultant. I wasn’t pre-Med and didn’t want to join the Peace Corps, so this seemed to be the best (and only other respectable) option. I listened with childlike wonder as consulting recruiters told of their “cool” projects and agile workplace. I smiled through the seemingly requisite Q&A exchange, “Describe a typical day as a consultant.” “I wouldn’t know! It changes every day!” The work was opaque but official-sounding, precisely how I saw adult jobs as a kid.

I was encouraged by the job posting as it didn’t explicitly screen by major or work experience, and the traits they desired were me to a T: “team player, problem solver, and critical thinker.” Naively, I thought, “I guess internships and majors don’t matter much!” Consulting applications smoothed potential discomforts by recapitulating the college admissions process: another round of résumé boosting (and fluffing), aggressive networking, and heated competition for limited slots. Get hired by Deloitte, and I’d go for a week of orientation and fun bonding activities at, no joke, Deloitte University.

In 2012 David Brooks wrote about how young people have a blinkered sense of career paths. There’s either high-powered private sector work like consulting or low-pay, meaningful charity work. This approach ignores the breadth of career opportunities, Brooks argues, but more importantly, it reduces life to utilitarian terms.

Instead of also considering if a job – whether in finance or nonprofit – will make you a better person, more able to take on the responsibilities and challenges of adult life, the sole criterion is resource allocation: “How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world?” Thus, many recruiting pitches appeal to childish desires for fun, familiarity, and stability. The moral dimension of a job is reduced to community service, with the unspoken assumption being, “If you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates, then you must be a good person.”

Looking back, I see how I’d internalized the utilitarian paradigm Brooks describes, and consulting, with its training, salary, and exit opportunities, seemed like the perfect job. And, I, a critical thinker, team player, and problem solver, seemed like a perfect fit. However, due to a combination of Covid and misplaced confidence, the bidding war for my services never materialized. After a few months of remote work, I took a job as a server. For me, serving’s appeal was almost the inverse of consulting: personal over professional development, eulogy over résumé virtues, hospitality over deliverables.

To my surprise, I loved the work, not just the salutary effect on my character. Although customer service is notoriously aggravating (“anyone who says the customer’s always right has never met the customer” and so on), the working environment among co-workers is a different, potentially very humane ecosystem. My co-workers know me by name, and every shift, we smile, laugh, and make eye contact in the same physical space as each other. That would’ve sounded like a minor thing a few years ago, but after two years of Zooming, I’m grateful to be around people regularly.

So much of our contemporary society hacks our primitive human intuitions: notifications trigger our sense of obligation to tribe members, pulling down to refresh triggers our variable reward impulse, and social networks present the facsimile of community minus the burdens (and blessings) of true intimacy. Mindless swiping and scanning and consumption tap into our base desires for novelty, entertainment, arousal.

By contrast, serving calls forth your humanity. You’re facilitating one of the simplest forms of community: sharing a meal. And, you form a little society with your fellow servers. Mutual reciprocity and the problem of free riders are everyday realities. Throughout the shift, you’re asking other servers to greet a table or run food out with the expectation that you will help them later on. The society has the full assortment of characters: heroes, slackers, and occasional villains. To do the job well requires a blend of empathy, patience, and perseverance and the suppression of ego for the good of the group.

On a busy night, there’s almost a “thrill of the hunt.” We prepare as best we can, but once the rush is on, we’re engrossed, and plans may change on the fly. The danger may be different ─ disappointing guests or breaking dishes ─ but there’s still a sense of potential failure and the need to rely on those around you to get through it. When things slow down, I look around and feel a little sense of camaraderie; we’ve forged a bond in the fire of a busy Saturday night. On good shifts, we celebrate the spoils; on slow days, we lament as one. The physical synergy of team service ─ making each other’s drinks, saying “Thank you” face-to-face ─ is a stark and satisfying contrast to digital collaboration tools like Slack that are convenient but impersonal.

Andrew Sullivan’s famous essay on disenchantment with digital addiction is provocatively titled, “I Used To Be a Human Being.” Working a job that requires me to not use my phone so that I can focus on the people around me is a nice step towards feeling more human. And after two years of reducing people to potential virus carriers and social life to video calls, it’s refreshing to experience the full range of human interaction up close, in person. It’s more than a robotic pleasantry when I say, “Thank you, have a great day.”

At one recruiting event, I remember a consultant explaining what he asked for in his interview: “I want to learn two programming languages and work abroad within my first two years.” He proudly told us he’d done both of those. I thought to myself, “Now that sounds impressive. I better come up with my list of demands before my first interview.” Needless to say, my eventual list was neither impressive nor ultimately needed.

By contrast, when I interviewed to work as a server, they asked what I hoped to learn in my job. Without thinking, I blurted, “I think it will help me love people better.” I immediately knew that my answer was sappy and naive but also true. Though my “demand list” for serving was simple, I can say that I’m more grateful, conscientious, and gracious because of my job. My résumé may be modest, but my eulogy shows lots of promise.