1. You see that money has nothing to do with generosity. You’ll get rich people who leave the saddest, most insulting tip, all in crumpled up dollar bills (or occasionally pocket change). You’ll get tables of celebrating people, ordering champagne and lobster and steak, who suddenly become spendthrifts when the check comes. And then you get a table of really chill people — often industry people themselves — who make sure to compensate well for a job well done, even if they just ordered the lunch special. The intimate knowledge of what people earn, and what they actually give, is something that few other jobs can provide.
2. You know what it feels like to be treated like a servant. I once had someone snap at me while I was walking away from a table. Like, literally snap. Like I was a butler that they had hired to attend to their personal estate. And in order not to get in serious trouble, I had to smile and ask what I could do to help. People will treat you like you are working for them and them alone, and will withhold a decent tip if you don’t. And swallowing your pride to accommodate that does wonders for your humility and empathy.
3. It tests your limits, physically. You don’t know “tired” until you’ve been on your feet, running back and forth, carrying food and drinks and constantly getting yelled at from every direction — for fourteen straight hours. (With maybe a half hour to scarf down a plate of food while playing with your phone in the kitchen.) Once you can pull a double and then get up in time for brunch shift the next day, you know you’re capable of anything.
4. You become a salesperson. You learn to turn a steak sandwich into a filet mignon, convince cheapskates to go for the nice bottle of wine on a date, and make sure that there is not a negative thought on a client’s mind the entire night. Selling is an art form, and learning it in trial-by-fire like that is invaluable. Few other jobs provide such an instant assessment of your skill as a salesperson.
5. You learn to work as a team, in a really immediate way. While at office jobs you will often be in team-oriented situations, it’s not the same as at a restaurant where, in order to get through exactly one shift without anything catching fire depends on well-organized teamwork. People help each other, cover for each other, pay each other out, and can’t work unless everyone is putting in their share. If you all want to get out in time to go to an after-hours bar (and have the money to do it), everyone has to put aside their ego and do good work. If you slack, everyone will know, literally within a few minutes.
6. It teaches you to be patient with strangers. Being patient with aggravated, disrespectful strangers is maybe one of the most useful life skills anyone can learn. Being able to put aside personal preference for the greater good of getting the job done takes a lot of effort, but having someone who treats you like the source of all their problems, and having to pretend to love listening to them complain, pays off when you’re at, say, the DMV.
7. The friends you make there are unlike any others. When you meet someone in the context of working at a restaurant, you are a very open, unfiltered version of yourself. You walk back into the kitchen swearing about customers, eat an untouched plate of sent-back calamari with no shame, and do shots of Rumplemints on a Tuesday night after shift is over. You can be open, and kind of crude, and don’t have to worry about “professional decorum.” Often restaurant friends last for years after you leave the restaurant, just because you got to know them in such an intimate way.
8. You appreciate cleanliness in a way you never did before. Cleanliness, an organized work station, and — especially — a slip-free floor are of utmost importance. Not keeping your surroundings clean and fresh will always be a habit, long after you stop obsessively washing your hands during a shift.
9. You learn to accept completely dropping all your standards of cool, via having to wear an absurd uniform, being degraded by your boss, singing Happy Birthday to strangers in public places (or some other jingle that your work forces you to do, such as the humiliating Coldstone songs you have to sing upon receiving a tip). Also being forced to say shit that you think is terrible (“Hi, I’m Chelsea, welcome to Spaghetti Factory, where everything is fun all the time! Do you want to start off with some cheesebread?”) You might think you’re cool, but once you start your shift, you’re not cool anymore. And honestly, it’s good for the soul.