10/24/15

He was graceful, whisking around the crowded room with a fluid ease. Italian man, older, a wild shock of James May hair. I couldn’t decide if he was a waiter or the owner but by the end I suspect he was both; a man who had guests not because he was in the business of running a restaurant but because he was in the business of making good food and serving it to people.

I feel a certain kinship with these types.

It might be a cultural thing — an American thing — to be on top, to get ahead. “Ahead of who?” I always asked, but no one ever had a good answer. “Them.”

Growing up next to young and occasionally ambitious guys there was a through line of vindictive determination. “I’ll get to the top, you’ll see!” they’d say between proverbial clenched teeth, as if they so desperately needed to prove something, that just being whatever they already were wasn’t good enough. Someday they’d be on top. Then we’d see. Then we’d know they were… something after all.

Business is a typically hierarchical process. There’s a pecking order to who’s in command and who’s a grunt labourer — ideally you’d be the former, according to everyone. Wouldn’t that be nice? To be at the top?

Then they’d see.

But the thing is, in modern life the “grunt” labour is often very pleasant and rewarding. Sometimes you just want to do good work for the rest of your life and not move up the ladder. Up the ladder is paperwork and management politics and stress. Down here is creation and iteration and satisfaction.

Imagine a rock band. Imagine that as the rock band gains success you had to hire more and more guitar players to scale in the same way a company does. As the original guitar player, soon you’d be senior guitar manager overlooking ten other guitarists. You don’t play your guitar any more, of course, you’re much too busy! You’ve got to make sure they clock in and out and do what they’re told, you have to oversee them practicing their scales and making it to concerts. You look into the corner, you see your old telecaster worn with love and world tour wear. You smile a little to yourself and you wish you could be back on the road, playing shows and making music. But you can’t. You’re here. Working your way up the ladder.

I’m not a manager. I’ve never wanted to be a manager.

Some people will, and that’s rad too — I’m not disparaging the corporate ranking some people do genuinely like. Some folks are great at managing other folks.

They say only 19% of people are engaged with their jobs. Not sure how true that is, but if it’s accurate, that’s 1 in 5. That means 4 in 5 are disengaged. That’s a brutal number. That’s a brutal society. 80% of the people are just going through the motions every day and we expect to all come together and be happy in the end?

Some of us just want to get back to playing our guitar. That’s all we’ve ever wanted.

It’s hot and crowded in this little Italian joint in a strip mall in a quiet semi-industrial area. I didn’t even realize this place existed until my friend suggested they had good calamari. He was right.

We installed a new exhaust system on a third friend’s car just before we left in search of food. It’s funny, I just showed up to the shop to drop some stuff off from my move and here’s a Golf on jackstands, legs poking out from underneath. Inevitably my legs join them and we cover our hands in grease and pride and dirty our jackets on the concrete floor. That’s all I could ask for on a saturday night, honestly. We finished the exhaust and it sounds really good. This trumpet of achievement and comradery. The smile on our friend’s face. That’s all we’ve ever wanted.

He’s still swerving between tables. He refills our glasses with sparkling water from a bottle left on the table. We could have done that, but he did. He cared about us. I look up and I see the smile on his face and in his eyes. He’s here and now. He enjoys customers and food and the kitchen that heats the tiny venue. His restaurant a pocket of warmth keeping the cold and dark outside the glass away. This is his guitar solo, on stage every night to a cheering crowd. This is what he loves and wants to do.

Maybe he’s also a manager. I really do think he owns the place. He’s probably good at it too. I just like that he’s found something he’s into. The 19% engaged with what they do. There’s a growing respect for that in me lately, like watching an artisan hand carve a wooden chair or someone folding the perfect origami. He’s an artisan of wait staff. No one will ever know his name. No one will remember him. A good waiter is invisible and this one was. But he’s a rockstar.

I started off with a vague point about the future of work and smaller groups taking the place of large companies like bands that break away and maintain their lead guitar as a guitarist instead of a manager of guitars, about scalability and love for the front lines of creativity. About how I see it in people who want to climb ladders because I suspect they don’t have any internal goal or fundamental drive and will just blindly follow the goals other people set for them, to climb a ladder other people made for them. I wanted to tie those metaphors up, but I think this is more fundamental: I’m just trying to find the thing I want to do.

I don’t play guitar and don’t serve delicious Italian food but there’s something out there and I’m going to find it.

It’s not about the top. There’s nothing in me that says “then they’ll see” and strives to find the nearest ladder. I just wanna make enough money to not die and in the meantime maybe create some things that are meaningful to someone. Is that too much to ask?

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