I know when business leaders dispense the best advice they ever got, it's supposed to come from other titans of industry. But mine came from a food-splattered, sex-crazed short-order cook at a Bellevue Red Robin.
I worked there as a dishwasher before college, in a space barely largely enough to turn around in, called The Pit. It had a hose dangling above a sink. To the left was a steam-sanitizer that heated dishes to 300 degrees in 30 seconds, and to the right a 20-foot steel table that wave after wave of busboys loaded with dirty dishes.
The garbage disposal button below the table occasionally electrocuted people; this once included Dan, our skeptical kitchen manager. When Dan could stand again, he didn’t promise to fix the disposal; he just told me to “wear rubber boots and go f*** yourself.”
The other dishwasher also went to my high school. It was a relief to see him there because he was cooler than I was. When the dishes piled up, he’d vomit into the sink from the stress, sigh, then hit the garbage disposal button to suck it down. He quit a month after I started.
I was to be the restaurant’s only dishwasher until we found someone new. That whole summer, we never did. Some of the prep cooks took a turn in the mornings before I got there, but mostly let the cookware pile up.
While asleep, I dreamed about those dishes. And all my other time that summer was spent cleaning them. I liked it when Dan told me, “Without you, this whole place goes down.” It was the first time a job had consumed me, and I found I didn't mind being consumed.
But I didn't have a natural dish-washing gift. I was dainty and uncertain, hosing off a few plates before pausing to contemplate a blackened fajita skillet. Every night, I got “into the weeds.” In business, this means you've strayed into unnecessary detail. But I heard it first in restaurants, where it means you've fallen terribly, terribly behind. It also means despair.
When I got into the weeds, no one would save me. I'd just have to work later, until 3 or 4 a.m. It was hard to feel that everyone else closing the restaurant was waiting for me without helping me. It was hard to stand for so long. When I crept into the house, the family dogs rushed me because I didn't even smell like a person anymore; I’d become a hamburger.
It was the first problem I’d faced that wasn't defined like a homework assignment, measured out by a teacher or manager to the exact degree that I could manage. Instead, what I could manage just had to be re-defined to be whatever it took to conquer the problem. The next time this happened was a decade later, when I began a startup.
I’d have never made it if a line cook named Steven Livestead hadn't taken pity on me. He worked to the accelerated rhythms of our Saturday-night soundtrack, which got diners to eat faster. When dropped patties and melted ice cream piled up at his feet, Steven would call out, “I NEED A LINE SWEEP, I NEED A LINE SWEEP!” And then before anyone could possibly respond, he’d wield two brooms as if they were lashed together, bumping into people and yelling like a kamikaze in a movie, distraught and doomed, but kind of happy too.
Steven was the one who brought out a box of Dove Bars, telling each of us to eat two so that Dan never knew the box existed. He sexually harassed waitresses using a long pair of tongs to increase his range. After drinks in the parking lot, he drove them around on his Ninja 1000.
My first night alone on the job, I got so far in the weeds that the line cooks ran out of dishes. While the tickets piled up, Steven came back to the dishpit to find out “what the f*** is wrong with you?”
It was a question I had already begun, with genuine curiosity, to ask myself. To Steven, the answer was obvious after a second. He watched how I reacted to a particularly intractable blob of mystery shit -- a frozen pond of hamburger grease, a frieze of gristle -- and screamed, “ATTACK, ATTACK.”
He told me the dish sanitizer had to be running continuously, which meant I had to clean a tray of dishes every thirty seconds. He made me take the time to organize The Pit -- shoving aside all those intractable fajita pans so we could bang out 100 plates fast. And when he saw that I scoured the bottom of each plate, he said:
“WHEN IN THE HISTORY OF THIS RESTAURANT HAS ANYONE EATEN FROM THE BOTTOM OF THESE PLATES?"
I was an eager pupil. The only thing that made me sufficient for the job was that I felt insufficient: it had never occurred to me that the problem was we needed a second dishwasher, or to accept the conclusion that I was a bad dishwasher, saying with a shrug that I was cut out for better things.
I learned instead to hit the dishes as if my life depended on it, blasting the ladles and ashtrays until my face was covered in teriyaki and drenched ashes. Seeing that, Steven would yell out his highest praise,
"YOU’RE AN ANIMAL! YOU’RE AN ANIMAL!”
And that was it, the best advice I ever got, repeated every night for 70 nights. As a former chess-team captain and late-adolescent D&D player, I desperately needed to hear it. It wasn't nuanced or intellectual in the way I would have preferred; it was reptilian. But from that moment on, my whole professional future became the slow process of not being such a weenie.
I still haven’t forgotten what I learned that summer. I learned the best way to sort silverware, dumping it out on the counter with each hand independently grabbing for knives, then forks, then spoons. I learned that I could work my way out of despair.
I learned to value speed in everything I do. I learned how other people lived; I learned how to be alone. I learned, even when all hell is breaking loose, first to take time to make my environment productive. I learned that people love to be good at things, even the silliest things.
But mostly I learned how to be hard on myself, which let me mow down the other students when I went off to college at the end of that summer, and into a wider world where hardly anyone else had ever washed dishes for a living.