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Life Lessons from my Uncle and Waiting Tables

In my late teens I worked my way through college by waiting tables. Part of that work was with my uncle. In the lulls between customers, we often got a chance to talk and catch up. He hated waiting tables, but helped me to learn the ropes.

Of all the things he said, two have always stuck out for me.

(1) If you’re carrying a tray and you feel something slipping off, let it go. It’s bad to crash a plate on the floor. But even worse to lose the whole tray in trying to catch it.

(2) As soon as you serve coffee and desert, present the customer with the check. This is not to rush them, but to make sure they don’t have to wait for the check. If they do, the experience could be sour regardless of how well everything else has gone. Make sure to ask them if there’s anything else they’d like and let them know you’ll be available if they need you. If they stay for a while, drop by and ask them if they’d card for a refill of coffee. But make sure they have the check to they can leave the moment they’re ready.

WaiterPlatesThinking of these two subjects over the years, I realized they were also great life lessons.

When I’m taking on too much, it’s hard for me to let anything “go”. I juggle and try to keep everything in motion. The frequent result is “losing the whole tray”. I screw up parts of everything I’m working on. Or finally become fatigued and lose interest in everything, not just an item or two. I have to consciously say to myself, “You know, I really want to do ‘x’, but fact is I just don’t have bandwidth for ‘x’ right now. I’d rather put ‘x’ on the back burner and make sure I can pull off ‘y’.”

And when I finish a project, I try to remind myself to really finish it. The length of the project, fairly or unfairly, will be determined by the last item delivered. If you finish everything but one key feature, the user will feel “it took months and months to get what we requested”. If you finish everything but the documentation the project manager will feel “it took months and months to finally close that project”. So I try to look for anything that might prevent the project from feeling “done”, to be able to “present the check”.


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