Lessons I learned from Dropping Trays, Breaking Dishes, and Spilling Sodas on the Customers at My First Restaurant Job

My first job in college was as a server at the Olive Garden. I had never worked in a restaurant before. Unfortunately for me, Olive Garden required everything to be carried on a tray. On my first day, I dropped an entire tray of soda glasses on a customer’s lap. It was not a fun experience nor was it the last time that it occurred.

I spent my first few weeks in “new employee hell.” My tray dropping experiences were so embarrassing that I went to work feeling terrified on a daily basis. I vividly recall saying prayers before I walked into work, asking God to help me get through the day, as tears swelled up in my eyes. A little dramatic, I know. But I’d be lying if I denied it. I literally cried in my car before going into work.

The day I took control

At some point, I had enough. I walked into my GM’s office and requested to take a tray home. I spent my entire Saturday night walking around in my apartment practicing my tray balancing act. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. That wasn’t my idea of a great way to spend the weekend. Nevertheless, I did it because I was put off by the thought of being terrified every time I went to work. I was determined to walk into my job with confidence and, from that point onward, I did.

That one Saturday night changed my life. This is what I learned:

1) You will continue to wrestle with the same problems over and over again, until you take the time to get better. Inconveniences won’t go away just because you pray about them or dislike them. Problems are there to be outgrown and no one can grow up for us. We have to choose. As my AA friends say “You have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

2) If you don’t take the time to get better, your problems will consume more and more of your time until they eventually take control over your entire life. I considered the possibility of taking a tray home for two weeks before I actually did it. Why did it take me so long? Because I kept telling myself that I didn’t want to spend my free time thinking about work. As a result, I perpetuated my stress and spent ALL of my free time thinking about work. In other words, my “free time” didn’t feel very free. I couldn’t enjoy the simple pleasures of life because I was too anxious about the next inevitable bad work day. When I finally invested my free time towards getting better, things became easier and I didn’t have to think about work so much. As a result, I not only got my free time back, but I also didn’t have to spend my work time dreaming of free time. By using my free time to improve my work performance, I was able to experience more fulfillment and less stress during work time *and* free time.

3) Getting better requires perseverance. Everybody experiences the sensation of not knowing what to do, but the people who progress in life are the ones who don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. I didn’t know what to do, so I had to spend some time thinking about it. I also didn’t have the luxury of thinking about it for ten minutes and then saying “well, I tried!” I had to think about it UNTIL I found something that could work.

4) There’s no help like self-help. Most of my coworkers were annoyed by me, but none of them made any helpful suggestions for how I could improve. They just resented me for not being good at something that was obvious and simple to them. Had I waited on them to take care of me, my road would have been much less pleasant and productive.

It doesn’t have to be this difficult

You do NOT have to live your life in anxiety and fear.

You do NOT have to keep getting defeated, discouraged, and dragged down by the same recurring themes.

Take initiative, ask for help, and exercise creativity even if that means forgoing the luxury of waiting until someone else notices that something is wrong.

Take the time to develop your strengths, even if that means doing something unconventional or inconvenient.

Take time to honestly address your issues, even if that means digging into your free time or your weekends.

You CAN get better. You CAN be happier.

It’s time to find a way.

It’s time to learn how to carry the tray.


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T.K. Coleman is the co-founder and education director for Praxis, a 12-month apprenticeship program that combines a traditional liberal arts education with practical skills training, one-on-one coaching, academic mentoring, group discussions, professional development workshops, and real-world business experience. T.K. is an avid lover of ideas and blogs regularly on personal development, education, and philosophy.