The 5 Most Important Things I’ve Learned in 5 Years as a Business Owner

A little over five years ago, I left a comfortable job and life, in order to follow my heart. It was for a number of reasons, most importantly, because I needed to figure out what life meant for me, on my terms. Since then, I have built a life in restaurants and as an author and speaker. Yesterday marked the five year anniversary of my restaurant. It’s been a wild ride, and at times I wanted to give up, throw in the towel, take the easy road. I didn’t though. Along the way I’ve learned more than I ever could have imagined about life, about people and about being a better person. These are the things I’ve learned that have changed my life in ways I never could have imagined.

It Takes Everything You’ve Got: I’m often asked in interviews,

“What is it that drives you? What keeps you going?”

There are plenty of variables, but the simple answer is that I love what I do, and I believe in what I do — not just as a business, but in making a difference. These are my driving forces. If there is anything I regret most from the past five years of my career, it would be not going all in from the outset. Looking back, from where I am now, I see countless missed opportunities for learning, growth, and becoming better at the career I’ve chosen for myself. This isn’t from a lack of desire, but rather, at the time, I don’t think I realized the insane amount of work required to become successful. It took having my back up against the wall for my true colors to come out. I realized I wasn’t doing myself any favors by just showing up and going through the motions. Once it clicked, I committed myself to one simple thing:

Be better than you were yesterday.

Success doesn’t feel as though it’s coming any easier, especially at first, and life’s challenges certainly don’t back down, but it opens your eyes, allowing you to see that the struggle is there for a reason. I’ve fought my way through, seeing both sides of the success spectrum. Through it all, I’ve learned valuable lessons along the way, and wouldn’t trade them for the world. I’m able to show up every day with my best self, in order to do my best work, and can push through the self-talk and the limiting beliefs that hold so many of us back. Showing up everyday and fighting through the adversity is part of what makes the journey meaningful.

We get out of bed every morning, why not make the most out of the opportunity to live another day on this crazy planet?

Risk: Your comfort zone is an unsafe hiding place. It discourages growth, and it limits your ability to see the world from different perspectives. It might seem safe and realistic, but that changes every single day, as the world evolves in unforeseen ways. Will Smith, in an interview a few years back said,

“Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity. Why would you be realistic?”

I try to ask myself a variation of that question every day. In making the decision to “give it a try” — we leave our comfort zone, and find ourselves somewhere else, somewhere beautiful, it’s where the magic happens. I haven’t always been like this, not until the last five years. I couldn’t ask a girl out, until text messaging became popular. I literally broke into sweat and turned mute every time I approached a girl, hoping she’d say “yes”. But finally, when I realized it was riskier to live my entire life scared to try new things, I quit my job in corporate America. I left my comfort zone. I followed my heart and my passion, and everything changed. Since that day, I’ve continually tried things that “might not work”; the outcomes vary, but through each attempt, my view of the world expands, exponentially. By following my heart and having the willingness to “try”, I’ve discovered new possibilities, an endless curiosity, and new eyes through which to see the world.

The best part? Once you start down this path, stepping out there, challenging yourself, and putting it on the line becomes easier. Somewhere along the way, you realize regardless of the outcome, it’s worth it.

Every single time.

Expect it to be Hard: Things are going to happen, many of which we can’t control. Being at peace with these things that negatively affect us gives us an incredible advantage over the rest of the world. It’s incredibly hard, and in the last five years, I’ve had to work through my own set of challenges, but hell, we all have — that’s life, right? Murphy’s Law. In the midst of the struggle, it can certainly feel that way. But, actually, more often than not, things go right, and the world usually does work in our favor, but we have to let the game play out. There’s a million things that can go wrong in the middle of a busy shift at the restaurant, and there is, without fail, a wrench thrown into the mix, but I think we tend to exaggerate things. We aren’t expecting them — they blind side us. The other piece to the puzzle, is how we handle ourselves in the face of life’s obstacles. Every single day, for the first three years at my restaurant, we’d start getting busy, and as tickets started chirping through the printer, I turned into a miserable person. I was that diva chef that we’ve all seen on TV. Banging pans, cursing at complicated orders, and in the midst of it, I’d find every reason you can think of to complain. Finally, I turned a corner in my life and career. I was able to see a stressful work environment as a challenge, pushing me to do my best work. This realization has been the single most effective tool for me, as I weather the storms of my life. No matter how bad it gets, knowing that I have an opportunity to learn and grow gives me the peace of mind to embrace whatever it is I’m faced with.

Each of us has a choice — we can use challenges as seeds for growth, or as opportunities to make excuses and defer responsibility. Be okay with the struggle, find a reason to embrace it, and when you do, life starts working in weird ways — counter-intuitively, you’ll start to appreciate everything around you a lot more. It’s a great way to live.

Self-Awareness: It takes a lot of soul-searching and working through jobs that we don’t like, in order to find the ones that we do. Trial and error. When relationships don’t work, we breakup for whatever reason, but hopefully in doing so, we are able to learn a bit about who we are, what we are looking for and with whom we might be compatible. The same is true in life, business and in work. It takes bouncing around, putting feelers out there and really understanding oneself to take full advantage of this. Without question, this is one of the reasons why I’ve seen success this far in my life, and I see two parts to it.

  1. I know what I’m good at, and focus all of my effort into that. We live in a “self-help” society, constantly being told to fix the parts about us that need fixing. On the highest level, I agree with that. However, on a day to day level, I couldn’t disagree more. I suck at a lot of things. Instead of fixing where I’m broken, instead, I’d rather direct that same energy towards the things in which I already excel. Those are the things that are going to help me win. The people who we admire, the best of the best at whatever they do, they live this. This concept makes them who they are.
  2. I know who I am, what I stand for, and do my best to live within that framework. Its called being authentic and genuine. When you do this, people see who you are. At the same time, they can just as easily see who you are not.

It took a lot of working through things, figuring out who I truly am to be at peace with this idea of being self-aware. Business, relationships, whatever it is in life, it applies across the board. How we show up as people and businesses is directly correlated to who we are and what we believe.

Empathy: When I started consciously thinking about the people around me, my life and business changed. I started putting myself in the shoes of other people — my employees, customers, vendors; the people with whom I was interacting with on a regular basis. By doing this, when things didn’t go as planned — I was okay with it. I started realizing that there was another person on the other end, who I’d like to assume is doing their best. Our food truck at the restaurant got a late start, hit a bunch of traffic, and royally screwed up our lunch service. Maybe it’s a worker having a tough time dealing with her mom’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis and can’t come in. Or an overly analytical customer is having a bad morning, and starts to take it out on us. Part of life, is dealing with things, and to assume that everything will go as planned leads to an unhappy life. Someday you might be that driver, waitress or customer — we never know. Being grateful for the fact that we have a food truck coming, workers to depend on most of the time, and that our customers typically love our food is a much better and healthier way of looking at things. It doesn’t mean they are right, or even have permission, it just means they are human — just like you. I implore you, next time someone upsets you or doesn’t deliver on time, do yourself a favor — step into their shoes, for just a minute. You might not know much about them, but you do know that they are human. The bottom line is, you can’t change the problem, the past is the past. You can, however, change your reaction and perspective of it. It helps a whole hell of a lot. Give it a try.

Those are some of the important things I’ve learned in the last five years as a restaurant owner and chef. Of course there are more, and I’d love to hear thoughts, tweet them to me by clicking here.

I sit on the edge of the water, watching the sun go down. Sailboats come into and then out of view, as couples laugh while holding hands, walking slowly behind me. I think about these last five years, what they’ve meant, and how they have shaped me. The sun starts sliding into the horizon to my left, and I envision the next couple chapters of my life. New opportunities and new goals, they await me — it’s all on the way, and I’m excited. Over the next five years, I plan to watch plenty more sunsets from this very same bench. With a pen in hand I’ll take some time to think, learn a bit more about myself, and try to unravel the beautiful mystery of life.


(My Recent TEDx Talk, “Creating Fulfillment in Your Career + Life”)

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