I was raised in a household where all three of us boys were taught: to serve others is to live a good life. Lucky for me, I have had numerous opportunities to get paid to serve others - in the glorious world of food service. Service work is where you really find yourself in the trenches. Here is where I have found myself taking care of people in their moments of relaxation, helping them enjoy a nice fish-and-chips dinner, dialing up some steamed milk for a cappuccino, or cooking them up a black bean burrito.
Waiting tables in the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Helping manage multiple cafes. Working as a line cook. Being a member of a catering crew a few dozen deep. These jobs require you to be part of a team. To ride the daily wave: the calm set-up, the intense rush, and the decrescendo clean-up. You are part of a system with many working parts. And each restaurant or café is unique, but over time, just like with people, you begin to see the universals, what is similar across café to restaurant to catering gig. You begin to see the culture of each workplace, how it works smoothly and where it falls apart.
In these service jobs, you have the opportunity to engage with and to observe people all day long. All types of people, and often an endless flow of people, thousands every week. I am not sure how many people I have served over the years – tens of thousands I imagine – and each day there are a handful of interesting conversations. Each day I observe small social groups: how couples relate, how parents treat their kids, how individuals interact with the café. From this vantage, one can observe nascent social trends, e.g. the use of computers as babysitting devices.
The other major benefit of my service jobs is that I use them as a venue to introduce people to my studies and my writing. No matter what the social setting, I have been telling people about my Urbanmonks projects for the past dozen years or so and this conversation functions as an invitation for people to open up. And what I have found is that people want to talk, people are hungry to reflect with others, people have solutions to brainstorm. And this is the idea for the Urbanmonks Thinktank, that we only know so much on our own, but if we can collect our little drops of wisdom, we can learn how to grow healthy: grow healthy individuals, grow healthy families, and grow healthy communities.