11/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Asinine Lessons From the Dish Room

David Bailey hated it when people would tell him the day would come when he'd see his adversity as the best thing that ever happened to him.

"What an asinine, terrible thing to say," he says.

Months later, he tells this story without realizing that he keeps recounting all of the things he's learned and done since the day he was laid off at age 61.

Not long after he left his job as executive editor of Sky magazine for Delta Airlines, he sent me an e-mail that ended with this bombshell: "Did I tell you that I'm going to start work as a dishwasher in a fancy French restaurant here on April Fool's Day?" I was dumbstruck. He was one of the most talented journalists I'd ever worked with and a larger-than-life character. I could not believe this gifted man was going to wash dishes for $9.50 an hour.

His story has a happy ending. He was promoted to cook. And then, to something much better. But, it's the lessons learned in the middle that are worth sharing.

When we talked last night, he'd just come back from a fine dinner at the French restaurant where he'd been the dishwasher. He'd just dined on beef bourguignon on the terrace by candlelight, but before leaving, he stopped back by the dish room to visit two men from Niger, with whom he'd washed dishes.

"I hugged them both. They said, 'When are you coming back?' I had a stab in my heart. That's the thing about a kitchen. You have this relationship with these people and it's just like being in the newsroom. You are working extremely hard. You are producing something excellent. It feels good."

That was more important to him than taking time off, collecting unemployment and coming up with a new career strategy. "I just had to get back to work," he said.

"The real irony of unemployment is it robs you of your ability to do the thing that makes you feel good about yourself," he said. "Taking a job that may not be, in many peoples' view, worthy of my skills, gave me a place to go and a thing to do to validate myself and feel good about myself. That was a good thing. It gave me a community of people I could be around. Those people are still good friends. They are still very important to me."

When he started this odyssey, he feared he would lose his house. Now, he says, "If I'd lost the house, I would have gotten over that."

He didn't find the comedown from the white-collar world to the kitchen sink demeaning in the slightest.

"What's demeaning about washing people's dishes and cooking people's food? What's demeaning about cleaning a toilet? I don't find it demeaning. We were put on the planet to serve others." He's not defensive when he says this. It comes from his heart.

The French restaurant where David worked is owned by Dennis Quaintance, a man who was fascinated by his willingness to start out at the bottom. Most of the people who wanted to work for Quaintance in a transition capacity wanted to walk in and be maître d' or sous chef.  David just wanted to work and learn the business - even if it meant pushing a broom. In time, Quaintance promoted him to be marketing director for his company, which also includes two Greensboro, N.C. hotels. One of the hotels houses the restaurant where David started.

"I've had people tell me that, 'We knew you'd come out on top.' Well, damn. I didn't. I was worried. I'm still not comfortable. But, maybe that's good. Maybe we're not meant to be comfortable."

He's not making half of what he once made, but you can hear excitement when he talks about the company's efforts to make the Proximity Hotel profitable and sustainable.

"Sustainability is a metaphor for my entire life," he says. I wanted to live a sustainable life. I never wanted to be rich, but I wanted to be sustainable. When this whole thing came down, I was unsustainable. I was a person who could not sustain my family."

But, he did. And he sustained himself. Not such an asinine lesson, after all.