Was it Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who told a story in a commencement address that life is about connecting the dots?
I think it was Steve Jobs, but regardless of who said that, I believe he is absolutely right. He also said that you cannot connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
Relating his concept to my own life story, when I look back at everything that has happened in my life, every event and experience actually prepared me for things that will come later in life. As every soul has a story to tell, so let me tell you my story.
When I was a student at San Jose State University in California, USA, I worked 40 hours a week, doing three part-time jobs to supplement my government scholarship because I refused to ask for money from my parents.
Not that the scholarship money could not get me by every month, but it was not enough for the life I imagined to live. I wanted a better quality life, even as a student – so that I did not have to share a one bedroom apartment with four to six other students, and to have money to travel the vast American continent.
I was a lot younger then; and I was a bundle of energy, passion and resilience.
Imagine this. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I would work at the faculty coffee house on the campus, which helped me got to know my lecturers better. I would say that was quite a strategic job.
Although I was just a cashier on Mondays and making sandwiches on Wednesdays, I developed good rapport and made friends with people who determined my grades in class, by serving people with my heart and soul. Believe me, there were dollops of love layered in between my sandwiches.
My classes were mostly on Tuesdays and Thursdays in stretches of three hours each class and would last from early morning to late evening. That way I would be able to work for a full day at the faculty dining room on Mondays and Wednesdays. Friday mornings would be spent on my research works at the library or studying at the beautiful rose garden at the campus.
On my working days, I would study at the library or at the employees locker room between my shifts at the faculty coffee house. During my one hour lunch and dinner breaks I would have a quick bite of sandwich or chips, read San Jose Mercury News and Spartan Daily and then reviewed my course works.
That was a tight schedule, but miraculously I somehow managed to balance everything well. Although I did not make it to the Dean’s List or the Honor’s Roll, I successfully graduated with a good hard-earned CGPA that I can be proud of.
On Friday evenings, I would work at the campus pub and restaurant serving pizza, pasta, chicken wings, chicken chops, lamb chops and steaks to both the faculty and the students.
At the pub and restaurant, I would spend six hours waitressing from 6:00 p.m. – either running around taking orders, serving food and beverages, bussing tables or washing dishes – to closing at midnight. From my job, I made many friends and developed social skills.
After finishing work, I would cycle almost two miles to get back to my apartment. During the colder seasons, I would leave the bicycle at home and walked because it was too cold that my upper and lower teeth would grind against each other amidst the blowing wind.
I was fortunate that my university provided campus police escort to walk me home safely. By the time I reached home, it was already way past 1:00 a.m. I was tired but happy.
I was a lot younger, and I was a bundle of energy, passion and resilience. So, most mornings I would spring out of bed, raring to go for the day.
There were some mornings, however, I woke up thinking, do I have to work again today? Nevertheless, when I thought about having to share a one bedroom apartment with four to six other people, and not having enough money to travel, I would get up and be raring to go again!
Having worked hard for the money during the weekdays; I would usually keep my weekends free and easy. Most weekends were spent studying and doing research. Some weekends I spent recuperating, sleeping in for half the day or bumming around in my apartment watching cable TV endlessly as I did not get to watch TV during the weekdays.
Some weekends, I socialised with the nine other Malaysians, some Singaporeans, Indonesians and a number of other foreign friends whom I got to know from campus and at the pub and restaurant. We would have either a barbecue cook out and picnic or went cross country horse riding at Alum Rock Park, which is San Jose’s first and largest park.
Some weekends I spent on the air, flying in a two-seater airplane which my flight-instructor-in-training classmate and I chartered for two hours. Thanks to my three jobs, I could afford this experience.
Some weekends, especially when the weather is hot, my friends and I would drive two hours up to Reno where there’s snow all year round. We would roll in the thick snow; throw snowballs at each other and tried our hand at snowboarding and skiing (at the beginner’s slope that is).
Some weekends my friends and I drove to the nearby cities where there were Malaysian communities – half an hour to San Francisco, an hour to Oakland, two hours to Sacramento, four hours to Fresno and eight hours to Los Angeles.
Some weekends, because of the opportunity to make more money, I worked at the campus stadium serving hotdogs, nachos and chips to spectators at the football games or rock concerts. Some weekends, I worked as a catering wait staff, serving faculty guests, including politicians, and corporate figures.
I remember thinking how nice it would have been to be in the customer’s shoes instead of being in a waitress’ shoes. Omigod, my good feet were killing me! Well, some days. Now that I am in the customer’s shoes, doing a lot of entertaining for my job sometimes, it is now more like, “Omigod, my good food is killing me!” You know what I hated most about being a waitress?
1. Those table numbers. I never did remember all of them. It took me weeks on the job to figure out how the numbering system works. In the first month, I managed to screw up a number or orders because of it. I eventually learned, the hard way.
2. Those stupid uniforms. The light blue t-shirt, navy blue baseball cap and navy blue apron my supervisors at the stadium made me wear. I thought of the uniforms as an opportunity cost because they repelled many cute guys at the stadium. They were so ugly; I would never want to be seen dead in them.
3. Being mistaken for a Hispanic. Because I had tan from swimming almost every day at the campus aquatic centre on my way home from class during spring and summer, I was being repeatedly mistaken for a Hispanic by some customers, and having to tell them that I do not speak Espanola.
By the way, now that I am back home in Malaysia, I became so fair skinned due to the lack of sunlight having worked in the office from sun up to sun down every day.
Nonetheless, I am grateful for my experience as a waitress. Because I was once in the waitress’ shoes, I have learned a great lesson in humility that has stayed with me in life. Ah well, you may agree or disagree that these are not strategic jobs, but I certainly did learn some good lessons and achieved a thing or two.
1. My biggest achievement of all time: not dropping a single plate or drinking glass or piping-hot pizza or pasta on an angry customer or anywhere near in my over two years of being a waitress.
2. I realised that a tip of a few dollars will not make me rich but it was still something for me to be happy and excited about at the end of the day, back then. The biggest tip I got was 20 bucks and that felt like a lot of money at that moment.
Because of this, now I make it a point to leave a tip, particularly when the waiter or waitress went the extra mile in serving me. I once left a tip of 20 bucks for a waitress who was pregnant and she actually ran out from the restaurant to catch me and thank me for the tip. That was really touching, how a little something can create a lot of things. I would never forget that moment.
3. I have learned that a hungry man is an angry man indeed. If an order is late or is wrong, a customer can sometimes become an irritated “curse-tomer”. I must remember, I was dealing with hungry people after all. So I better not make them angry. Because of that, now I become more sensitive and responsive of the people I serve, like my bosses and my customers.
4. I have learned that a sincere “thank you” or a small compliment from my customer or my boss really made my day. Today, I make it a point not to forget to say my thanks to people who serve me.
5. I learned some words in Spanish because of the customers who kept speaking Spanish to me. Now when I think of the Hispanic actress Salma Hayek, I really did not mind being mistaken for a Mexican Bonita like that gorgeous woman.
6. I learned from the cook how to make good pasta! Not only that, I also make excellent shepherd’s pie, according to my friends, that is.
7. I learned how to set a proper table for a formal dinner and what fork to use for what dish and in which order. This knowledge is very useful when I need to entertain people or attend formal functions.
8. I learned that no matter how rich your parents are, there is no greater satisfaction than earning your own hard earned money.
Oh well, I was a lot younger, and I was a bundle of energy, passion and resilience. Today, many, many moons later, I am not as young as I once was; but be rest assured that I still am a bundle of energy, passion and resilience. My battery is still ever ready, and it keeps going and going.
Most mornings I would spring out of bed, raring to go for the day. Some mornings I woke up thinking, do I have to go to work again today? However, I also learned that 99% of the time, the results I created in my life are about the choice I made and the effective (or ineffective) action I took on that choice.
So when I thought about the hard work I endured being a waitress and student, and how far I have come to be where I am today, I would get up and be raring to go again.