Monday, May 17, 2010

Has worrying ever changed the future?

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.

--Charles Spurgeon


So, for the last few months I've been involved in a job search; a process that, as I'm sure you'll all agree, can be very frustrating. I was very fortunate that I was not job-hunting out of necessity - I've been gainfully employed the entire time and I can only imagine that the frustration of not finding the right situation would have been magnified a thousand-fold otherwise.

Still, sending out resume after resume and going on interview after interview has been a learning experience to say the least. It seemed that, much like that great line from Seinfeld, the ones I liked didn't like me, and the ones that liked me I didn't like. I began to despair that I would ever find the right job and find it in time. In the restaurant industry there's a definite hiring window (especially in the Midwest): the ideal time to come on is between March and May so you'll be there for the start of the busy summer season, then you'll be slightly established to carry you through the slower fall, you'll be busy again for the holidays, and then when the dead zone of January through March rolls around hopefully you won't be low man on the totem pole anymore and you'll have a decent enough schedule to make a living while it's lean. If you miss the summer and get hired for the holidays you'll make money for those two months but you'll be kind of screwed come the New Year.

The whole process taught me a lot about letting go of attachment to outcome. I'd go on interviews, think they went well, then sweat it out waiting to hear back. I had a lot of promising leads that looked like they were headed in a definite direction and then abruptly wouldn't pan out. A couple of times in particular were especially frustrating - on one occasion I made it through three interviews with a hotel restaurant and was sure, absolutely sure, that I had nailed them. It was the perfect situation: an ultra high-end luxury hotel that also got an extremely well to do clientele from the tony neigborhood it was located in. Expensive menu, nice wine list and, since it was a hotel gig, great benefits (unlike the rest of the service industry, hotel staff are unionized). When I didn't get the job I was crushed - mostly because I was so sure that I had it. In my mind I was already hired and writing my resignation letter (okay, I'm a waiter - we don't really do resignation letters. Still, you get the point).

It was becoming a seemingly endless chain of getting my hopes up only to see them dashed just as quickly. To add to the frustration I was getting job offers - but all from places that for one reason or another I didn't want to work at (on the other hand, I guess it was encouraging that I was getting any offers at all). I was beginning to understand very clearly the Buddhist axiom that desire and attachment are the causes of suffering. It's not because you might not get what you want (though that doesn't help): it's the desire and attachment themselves. It's the obsessing: wondering whether or not they'll call back; the constant replaying of the interview over and over again in your head - a question you mishandled, an opportunity you missed, that one key thing you forgot to say; the worry about what's going to happen if you get rejected again, the feeling that if you don't get this one you may never find anything.

And then, last week, it happened. I got the call back. This was, of course, after days of fretting and worrying and obsessing. So I got the job. I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. I felt amazing, like a thousand pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And then what happens? Almost immediately I start to worry again. What if I can't hack it? What if I f up in my first week and dump a plate on an important guest or drop a three hundred dollar bottle of wine? What if I have to come crawling back to my present job with my tail between my legs?

I saw that it is the nature of the mind (at least my mind) to be constantly worrying about something, it doesn't matter what. I worry and worry and worry, what I'm worrying about doesn't happen or ends up working out in my favor, I'm okay for an hour, then my mind moves right on to worrying about something else. And worry is hands down one of the most useless (if not harmful) thought processes. Think about it - have you ever successfully worried your way into a solution? You can sit down and map out your options - but worrying isn't ever going to change anything. But the mind sees worrying as somehow helpful, like it will help you prepare for or even affect the outcome.

Going back to my discussion last week on the power of choice, I understood that worry too is a choice. Buddhist philosophy states that upon seeing clearly the suffering caused by a thought or choice you will simply let it go, as naturally as you would drop a hot coal - but first you have to be absolutely clear in your head that the thought or action is not beneficial in any way shape or form. First is the understanding: This is not helpful at all. This is 100% harmful. Then you're free to make the choice: Breathing in I see clearly that worry is not helpful, breathing out I see clearly the suffering worry creates. Breathing in I know that worrying is a choice I make, breathing out I choose not to worry. The next time you find yourself obsessing about something, give that a try. The freedom is indescribable.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

...and then the Buddha said, "Put up or shut up."

Dealing with the guests is only half the matter; the other half is dealing with your restaurant. Maybe the problem is a particular jackass of a manager, maybe it is a bar that is constantly weeded, or hosts that routinely triple-seat you. Understand that the law of restaurants is that no restaurant is perfect (and the ones that actually are, are not actively hiring, since no one in their right mind would ever leave there). Know that the only choice you really have is which particular pain-in-the-ass you will have to deal with. It could be a large tip-out, ridiculously belabored side-work, an inflexible schedule, incompetent co-workers, a constant lack of plate and glassware, etc, etc. No one has put a gun to your head and demanded you wait tables for a living nor that you do it at your particular restaurant. You are free to leave at any time. The question you have to ask yourself is: do the pros of this job outweigh the cons? If the answer is no, seek other employment immediately. If the answer is yes, than cease your bitching – odds are it would be no better anywhere else. As the poet Maya Angelou has said, “If you do not like something, change it. If you can not change it, change your attitude. Do not complain.”


How many times have you found yourself stuck in a situation that you're continually not happy with - job, relationship, your own bad habits, whatever - but you haven't stopped it because it's not that bad? You just maintain a low level of discontent: you gripe about it, you complain to anyone who will listen, but you don't actually ever do anything about it - you just keep repeating the same patterns and the complaints day in and day out.

I think it's part of the human condition that one our biggest fears is change. We can be miserable all day long, but so long as that misery is tolerable we really won't do anything about it. Things usually have to be really awful to snap us out of our routine and force us to do something different - it's why recovering alcoholics talk about "hitting bottom." We usually don't change unless the situation gets so bad that we don't have any choice.

Why is this? Why when faced with a choice between the known and the unknown, we choose the known ninety-nine times out of a hundred, even when the known is awful? Maybe it's because even if we're unhappy now, we're afraid that if we change anything we risk becoming more unhappy. That even if we're in a bad situation, at least it's a situation we're familiar with - we're prepared for it. With the unknown we just kind of have to trust that we'll be able to deal with whatever happens when it comes. And I think a lot of us are afraid we won't be able to do that. But think about it - haven't you really dealt with everything that's happened to you in some form or another? You're still here, right? And even if you've made bad decisions - haven't you learned from them in one way or another?

But that's the thing - how much of our lives are the results of actual decisions, good or bad? Isn't most of our life the result of not really deciding anything - of just kind of going along without offering much resistance, until you find yourself where you are? How much of our life is a result of conscious choice, and how much is stuff that just happened to us?

We may not always have the power to change a bad situation, but we always have the power of choice. It's a power that we don't really believe we have, it's a power that we're often afraid to use, but it is our power. If we can't change something, we can choose to accept it, and upon accepting it life seems to open up different avenues. But a lot of times, those things we're complaining about are things we can change, we just don't. Zen is not about passively accepting everything that comes your way - if you can change something that needs to be changed, then do it quickly and without hesitation. It's usually the hemming and hawing that's more destructive than the decision itself. It's a lesson I'm very slowly learning: how to change without having to hit bottom first.