A Fine Dining Experience!

How a part time on-campus job experience taught me some finest lessons about work and life.

In 2015, I had arrived in NC State University, USA to gain a M.S in Electrical Engineering. But just like everyone knows how high the tuition and living expenses are in the USA, I decided to find some kind of an on-campus job to atleast pay my monthly bills like food, utilities and house rent. So, my job hunting begun and I actually ended up finding quite a few jobs, which included working with the University newspaper & media ( known as ‘Technician”), University Disability services and University Dining. As I was very keen to take up a job, so I decided to work at the media and disability services office. Soon, I realized that Disability services job was just once or twice a week, and paid very less. And the ‘Technician’ job was of a correspondent for which I had to write 10 opinion articles ( one per week), after which I will be accepted as a staff writer with pay. So, I was not going to earn much in these two jobs, as both hardly covered my monthly expenses. But I still continued with the Disability services, as it was a noble work, and I also liked helping students. And the Media job was something I always wanted, after having discovered a new passion which is writing! If I hadn’t taken up that job, it is quite likely that this blog might not have existed!

But then still I had to pay my bills, and so I took the University Dining job at Fountain Dining Hall. This is the work which paid just enough ( not too much) to cover my monthly expenses. And I was happy because not only I didn’t need to ask my parents for money, but also had gained a confidence in earning, and control over my financial expenses. And the job was pretty simple. All I had to do was stand behind the buffet counter, and help the students in food service. Well, simple isn’t it? But actually, it had much more to it. I not only had to just stand near the buffet counter, but had to stand for almost 3-4 hours per shift. And during that, I had to keep replacing the hot serving food containers, once they were empty. I had to make sure the food didn’t get wasted, by looking if any food wastage happened in any of the serving locations. Then, after the buffet was over, I had to be a part of the team to clean the area near the containers, including the floors and glasses which was followed by moping the floor and cleaning the window pane overlooking the food counter. Now, does it sound simple? I guess not….

But yes, this was pretty much the job. For an engineering student studying in a grad school, this kind of work certainly doesn’t ring any bell? Many of my class colleagues even loathed such kind of work. Their reasoning was why should a grad student need to do physical work, just for the sake of making some more money to pay the bills? Shouldn’t this time be invested in either studying or even learning some skills which might actually be useful in the job after grad school? Yes, this is true. This kind of work certainly does not resonate in the technical field in which I was studying.But then why did I give it a ‘GO’ for doing such a job, which demanded hard work, long hours and even a certain degree of banal routine?

Well, the answer is partly money even though I could have easily asked my parents to send me money, and they would happily obliged to it. But I wanted to earn myself, and stand up on my own legs. I was a 23 year old guy, and the very thought that I will have to ask money for paying my basic food expenses, and rent was unbearable. Also, my tuition was anyways being paid with the loan and parents funding. To add my living expenses to it sounded too much for me. So, I decided to take this job. But also the fact, I wanted to experience something different which I had never experienced before. Because in India, there is no culture of students working part time while studying ( its mostly confined to either IT or BPO). I have never seen an engineering student working in McDonald’s, or even Cafe Coffee Day ( which is India’s Starbucks) while studying. And before coming to USA, I had always been enthused with the American culture which promotes earning while studying, and gives ample opportunities to work part-time and attend classes. Unfortunately, India still does not have that culture ( mainly due to lack of such opportunities for students, surplus of mainstream workforce available to do such kind of work, and family/parents/peers disapproval)

But as I started doing this job, I started seeing a whole new world of catering and food service industry. This is because, usually I had never cared about how much efforts it takes to prepare the food, and to even serve them. But only when I started doing this job, I got to know about the real hard work involved as a team to deliver a fine dining experience. The minute details in food preparation including high standards of cleanliness were to be taken care of. Even standing behind the food counter for long hours, with a smile on my face and responding to students/visitors questions with courtesy wasn’t an easy thing to do. Even more needed was the strong control over desire of eating the good and delicious food which was being kept in front of us at the buffet counter. Ofcourse, we were given the opportunity to eat one meal per every shift, during the break for 15 mins. But still, I remember many of my colleagues discussed how the chicken smelled good, or even the pizza would be tasty to grab on! Maybe, I can write another post on the different foods served and how we wondered what might be prepared the next day!

What did I learn from this job? I would say a lot of things which might not be experienced at a regular desk or IT job. Surely, the first thing is the lots of hard work being put into this job. In this job, I found that helping people is a good thing. When freshman’s used to enter the dining hall, they used to ask so many questions, whether the food had peanuts ( fearing they might be allergic to peanuts), or even what was the name of a particular non-american cuisine, which were offered sometimes, including Indian curry. It is here where I met people from all backgrounds, be it rich or poor, black or white, urban or rural for the first time. I met some of the full time employees, who had been migrated from other countries as refugees such as Egypt, Latin American countries, Vietnam and even Pakistan. I met this old Pakistani couple who worked with the dishes, and who had fled Pakistan and arrived in USA. They talked to me in Hindi, and I was glad to meet someone who spoke Hindi. One of the migrants from Egypt told me that he was a big fan of Amitabh Bachchan, fondly called as ‘Big B’ in Bollywood. I also met an old lady who worked as a cook, and was known for her jokes and hearty laughs. Her witty jokes and laughs used to make all of us laugh and get back to work with cheerful moods. I remember her asking me if I had a girlfriend, for which I had no answer, as I was not dating anyone at that time. I even met many students from other departments in the university, who all worked along with me during morning or evening shifts. Many of them worked just like me to pay their bills, while few of them were actually quite rich, but still preferred to work, to get some work experience. One of the girl ( who was stunningly beautiful) came from a well to do family, yet preferred working in the dining as she was pursuing bachelor’s in food science. Working alongside with a beautiful girl in front of some of the best cuisines, I guess what else do you need in life? Life is beautiful, isn’t it? ….Just kidding…

In this job, I had two managers, one of them was an old white Irishman from upstate New York. He was one of the most calm and compassionate man I met there. He hired me directly without even asking much questions, and never ever criticized me even if I had made some mistakes in the first few weeks. Infact, I had to leave this job after few months, when my coursework became too much too handle. But then after the semester, I went back and asked him if there was any chance he could take me back on the job. And to my surprise, he accepted me immediately. After my graduation, I met him and told that I was leaving the university town. He wished me good luck, and even went ahead to provide me any referral if needed. I never met such a kind-hearted man as my supervisor before. May God bless him good health! The other supervisor was an African-American lady, who also liked me just like the old man. She couldn’t spell my name, and so she used to call me ‘Aby’. After coming to USA, I had abbreviated my name from ‘Abhishek’ to ‘Abhi’. But in this job, it got even further shortened to just ‘Aby’!. Anyways, I liked working with her too, though she was very particular about cleanliness and coming on time to work. But I don’t remember her being ever angry at me during my stint at the job.

Working with both of them taught me a very important lesson, that in this world, all the differences drop if we are kind with each other, and also good at work. I never felt even for a moment any experience of racism, or even hatred being an outsider to the country. They welcomed me, and treated me just like them, but also expected me to do my job well. After all this is what is America is known for. It really doesn’t matter from where you come from, as long as you can work, follow the rules and become a part of it. This diversity in working with different people helped me immensely in my later jobs and career.

Finally, the most important lesson I learnt is that of ‘Dignity of Labor’. That work is work, and no work is small or big. I found that people working in the dining were proud of their work. They never felt anything low about it. Rather, they considered it as an opportunity to provide the best service to the students and visitors coming to the University. I understood the importance of having pride in whatever we do. If we do not take pride in our job or work, how can we expect others to respect us, or even praise us, right? Even though it might not make us earn loads of money, or might not make a great impact on the world ( in Steve Jobs words ‘to make a dent in the universe’ or ‘to change the world’), but surely all work, be it small or big, does contribute to the betterment of the society.

Take pride in our work! And keep learning and doing better at work!

© Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Working (From or Forever) Home!

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With the unexpected shock of Coronavirus in 2020, the world went into lockdown and quarantine mode. And with it, many offices, businesses also went online or as it popularly called ‘Working from home’ or just WFH. Now, it will be almost a year since lockdowns and working from home started. And it seems its going to stay for a while.

There are many reasons WFH might be staying for sometime. Initially, it seems that WFH is convenient for employees only. It not only avoids the daily commute to office, but also gives ample space and time for employees to stay near to their family or loved ones. Employees can manage to give sometime to their personal life amidst all the busy work schedule. Besides the money savings are piling up with gas/petrol savings, living away from city in outskirts to skip the high rent, avoiding eating outside or even visiting starbucks/coffee shops for many of us. Not only that, we dont even need to follow the office protocol anymore, which used to be a big list which included washing and ironing clothes, shaving for men, makeup for women, packing food in lunch boxes, polishing shoes, and even a bit of extra efforts to impress the boss, or someone whom we have a secret crush in office, isnt it? But all this has been like a part of history now. Many don’t even shave for months, and wear shorts during online meetings. So, in a way, this has changed our life quite a lot.

Also, many have been able to even pursue some hobbies or learning new skills like cooking, reading books, blogging. Infact I started this blog last year during the lockdown, and so far, I have re-discovered myself that I really enjoy writing. I always had plans to start my own blog, but never could find the motivation or even time due to my work, and frequent business trips. But only when I started working from home, I could find a renewed inspiration to write. Similarly, many people with this flexibility have found new hobbies and interests worth pursuing.

But, this is not just good for employees. Rather it is even better for companies for many reasons. Like basic reasons include they dont need to take risk by allowing employees to come and work in office, which could lead to mass spread of the virus. As the offices are closed, so are the savings in maintenance cost, utility bills and security personnel. A lot of company money which used to get spent in everyday cleaning & maintenance is reduced drastically as hardly anyone enters the company building now. But even more better, is the fact that now due to WFH, it has become easier for the companies to make their employees to work harder and compel them to spend long hours at work! How? The answer is Digitization. With all the video conferencing apps like Zoom, Teams and Cisco Webex, messaging apps like Teams, Whatsapp and Signal, Outlook and Gmails, it has become like a 24×7 work schedule. Because earlier the office was considered more than a work place. It was also a place to network with colleagues and managers, share ideas and thoughts, brainstorm and solve problems, drink a lot of coffee during frequent coffee breaks, and thereby try to get away for sometime from the boring work, or manager!

But now, its just work, work and work! The employees cannot do any of the activities mentioned above. Of course, they can still drink coffee at their leisure, and even talk during meetings or calls with colleagues. But the real life human factor is missing. Using the company secured VPN, and assuming the possibility of meetings being recorded, there is almost no way for the employees to gossip or talk about his/her manager behind their back. I usually do not endorse such gossips or talks, but afterall we all are social human beings. Infact, many happily married couples in this world have known each other for the first time in the office. So, I feel this WFH has removed the human factor and actually made us machines. We work day and night by sitting in front of computer. And this Digitization has even made our analog life, (which used to have all the natural human elements ) into a digital life, of 1’s and 0’s. I guess the software coders or IT folks can easily identify themselves in this dire situation.

And the worse part is many companies and tech firms might keep this WFH policy for a while. Even though it is good for safety and well being of employees from the virus, but what about the mental well being of the employees? I can say that many employees are already bored while WFH, including me. Because wise people had advised to maintain a work-life balance. It is necessary to keep work and home separate. To have a good health, mental well being and family happiness, it is good habit to keep work at work, and never bring at home. But with this WFH, this is impossible as we have made our home itself as a workplace. Thats why it is inevitable that our social and family life is mired with all the deadlines and work pressures. Not only do we all get bored sitting all day working from home, but also it affects the relations with our family members. Infact, during the meetings, I have heard so many background crosstalk from family members etc. This is expected when WFH, but isn’t it affecting our ability to concentrate at work? Also, WFH affects our productivity and discipline. Because earlier we used to only work 9 to 5 in office, and complete the work before leaving for the day. But now, there is no such schedule. I can work even late at night and finish the work, to give the update next day. This is affecting our normal work-life balance.

But companies are happy and they won’t give up on this WFH culture soon. That’s why many people like me are fearing if this is Working from Home, or Forever from Home! I hope the latter never comes true!

Do what you love? or Love what you do?

I have always been perplexed by the pandemonium created by the thought: What should one do in life- Should we like what we are doing, or should we do only what we like? Hence, the tagline- Do what you love? or Love what you do?

Our mind never stays in the present. It has a tendency to either flock to the past or to the future. That’s why it is said our mind is flickering. The idea that we like or dislike something also is reflected in our mind. Our mind is not something which just resides in some corner of the body. We often confuse ourselves that mind is our head, or forehead. No, it isn’t. In fact, our body resides in our mind. Strange isn’t it? Bhishmaraj Bam, famous sports psychologist said ‘our body is an instrument of our mind‘. What we think we are is what is reflected by the mind. Everything first gets created in mind, then it reflects in reality. That is why Steven Covey said in his book, ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ that all things are created twice. We also call it consciousness. In simple words, it is what we are conscious/aware about. Like for example, if it happens that we see a snake in front of us, we feel threatened. This is because of the consciousness imbibed within us which brings us emotion of fear in order to save our life. And the interesting thing is this consciousness is also subtle.

Now, when it comes to a particular interest or inclination towards something, it is also because of our mind. Our mind plays games with us. We erroneously believe that we can do something only if we like doing it. We think that we cannot give our best if we don’t like it. We read or listen to famous speeches by Steve Jobs, which tell us to simply follow our passion. And by passion, it means what we like doing. There isn’t anything wrong in it. It’s good if we know what we enjoy doing. But the problem is that it also gives a message that if we fail at something, then we easily blame that we did not like it, and so we failed. We think that it wasn’t my passion and so I failed. Then, we search for another interest or passion, and then another, and keep doing this. We give aptitude tests and the test results tells us something. But our mind tells us that it might not be what it likes. We look for the right job, right partner, right environment, and we rarely find it. As Steve Jobs reminds us in his speech, that he was incredibly lucky, but all may not be fortunate as he was. Then we get confused, and we waste our time in life. This attitude is a real problem.

The idea of ‘Do what do love‘ depends a lot on our mind. And the fact is mind never stays in the present. The mind easily gets influenced by past experiences or future outcomes. Like for example, if someone tells us that by learning a particular skill, we can become rich quickly, then we start liking it. But if that same skill becomes outdated or doesn’t make us rich, then we lose interest in it. Hence, our passion, our liking, our interests depends on a lot of factors such as social status, past experiences, peer pressure and future gains.

Do what you love‘ represents a rebellious attitude as well. Maybe, that’s why it suited Steve Jobs and his charisma. This is because we then tend to select only those things which we think we like, and discard the rest to be unworthy of our talent. Though this might make us focused on a specific skill, but often the parameters to choose the subject of our interest are based on our limited understanding of the world. As mentioned, if social status or money makes us select a particular profession as our passion, then it certainly won’t be our true passion. Also, the age to become aware of our passion is usually either during teenage or early adulthood. And the problem lies in the fact that our experiences about life, our knowledge about self is usually very limited until that age. It is more common for peer pressure or career aspirations as conveyed by society to act as a catalyst to influence our decision making.

On the other side, ‘love what you do’ is more accepting and not rebellious. It makes us start liking things that we do. It does not depend on the rewards or end result to be gained from the action. If we simply love what we do, then we do not care about the final result. Because it is the action which give us joy, and not the fruit which happens in case of ‘Do what you love’. Though both seems to convey similar idea, but the approach of looking towards it is different. We are more free when we love what we do. We do not depend on the societal expectation or peer pressure. We have more options and many times, in the world, it is not always a luxury to select the kind of work we might have to perform. When we have a ‘Love what you do’ attitude, it gives the confidence that we can do anything in this world. Nothing can stop us. We have the capability to achieve anything. We come to an understanding that in this world, everything can be achieved, and to do that, we need to put efforts. And efforts can only be put once we have to aptitude to like it. And the most important thing is this aptitude can be developed by this principle of ‘love what you do’.

For example, during the war, no one likes violence. But the soldiers are made motivated to fight and kill the enemy. They are inspired to love to fight and kill, even if they won’t like doing it. Because that is the need of the hour. Similarly, anything can be done, if we convince our mind about the importance of doing it, and why doing that work matters. That’s all is needed to make things work, and with this attitude, anyone can move mountains!

Hence, it is better to ‘love what we do’ which will keep us inspired to keep working, and with consistent efforts, we will get what we want.

Finally, even Steve Jobs came to this understanding as expressed through his 2005 Stanford commencement address, “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”