Coach’s Challenge for 11/2/09

Good day, team,

Last week was a whirlwind, as I traveled the East Coast presenting sales and customer service training to a client’s branch offices. One experience stands out and forms the heart of this week’s challenge: the importance of getting away from our regular circumstances and patterns to expand how we see the world.

Monday, I flew to New York for Tuesday meetings. Having arrived at LaGuardia airport at around 6 p.m., I traveled to my hotel and, since there wasn’t a restaurant in the hotel, I asked the girls at the front desk about the nearest and best restaurant that I could walk to for dinner. As everyone knows, traveling by air these days provides you with tiny bags of nuts or pretzels, a soft drink, and coffee, unless you want to pay $6.00 for some sort of happy meal, so I was pretty hungry by the time I reached my destination.

My friendly desk clerks told me that the Italian restaurant around the corner was the best place and handed me a card with instructions on how to walk there, along with the name and phone number of the restaurant. As I walked down the street heading toward “Piccolo Venezia,” my stomach growled in anticipation.

I was in Astoria, a solidly blue-collar neighborhood with lots of three-story brick attached town homes, each with a small courtyard in front that showcased many different exhibits. A plethora of Halloween decorations were on display as well as many religious icons: a statue of Mary complete with plastic flowers at her feet, a stone bird bath with St. Francis overlooking the water, and small altars with pictures of Christ, illuminated by votive candles. It seemed like a safe neighborhood, so I relaxed into my stroll to the restaurant.

Once there, I walked into a darkened bar and, as my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw an imposing maitre’d in a tuxedo at the far end of the bar. He stood there with his arms crossed, and it became immediately apparent that I needed to walk to him. OK, I thought: This is New York, and this is his domain, so I play by his rules.

I approached, and he asked, “Are you alone?” I told him I was, and he ushered me into a dining room that looked like the kind of place Tony Soprano would take a more important client, with plenty of fancy touches in its décor. I appreciated that the maitre’d placed me in a good spot where I had a nice view of the room.

I took in my surroundings. Various forms of red wall paper and some interesting pink stone adorned the walls. There were inviting prints of Venice placed near bright gilded sconces.  Next to each table, a row of brass plates engraved with names like “Victor and Gloria Spinoza,” “Bruno and Rita Abelardo,” “Mario and Annalisa Fiorella,” paid tribute to the time-honored customers who had sponsored each table. I pondered how many times a couple would need to frequent a restaurant to pay for an engraved name plate in honor of their particular table. I realized that I was in a long-standing establishment that had a history of favorite customers, special events, and even a few minor celebrities whose pictures adorned the walls of the bar.

It dawned on me that I was no longer on the West Coast. No slow food or casual attire here.  My waiter wore black pants, a short red jacket with a white shirt, and a black bow tie. A white linen hand towel hung from his forearm throughout my entire dinner. When he wasn’t attending a customer, he stood in line with rest of the waiters, who were dressed identically to him, awaiting their next opportunity to serve their customers or get special instructions from the maitre’d, who also stood in attendance quite near them but just far enough away to make a distinction. As my waiter approached and recited the specials to me, I noticed that he didn’t write anything down as I ordered, he just nodded his approval when I mentioned certain dishes and was quick to make suggestions when I needed help.

Before long, I was served some delicious homemade pasta and a large glass of red wine. I could easily overhear the conversation at the table next to me: four men discussing their families, their jobs and the state of the world. One fellow’s wife was about to have their first baby. An older gentlemen at the table gave him advice about helping out in the middle of the night if the baby started to cry and suggested good Italian names for baby boys. Another fellow talked about the state of the economy, how in all his years, he’d never been so slow at the shop and hoped that, just as the stock market seemed to be picking up, his business would too. He said, “The cars they bring in these days aren’t what they used to be: No chrome, no fins, just little plastic economy cars that people don’t seem to care too much about detailing.”

When a large Italian family across the room passed the newest family member around—a chubby-cheeked baby with bright dark eyes and lots of black hair—I could hear the older family members speaking endearments to the child in Italian. How many members of that family had had the same experience many years before at the same table in the same restaurant?

I was born in New York state, and I lived in Manhattan for two years, so I have vague memories of New York accents and old Italian restaurants, but it had been so long ago that my familiarity with these things was very faint. This is a life very different from mine, I thought, and as I sat enjoying my dinner, I was reminded how important it is to remove ourselves from our daily surroundings regularly so we can become more aware of how other people live.

It’s easy for us to become comfortable with our lives when our attitudes and routines are never challenged. But place yourself in someone elses world and you find that, although you may not understand or agree with her or him, you become intrigued with that way of life.  Though we all share common concerns, our way of dealing with challenges may be very different. To expand our repertoire, it helps to keep our minds and hearts open to different traditions and customs.

When I finished the main course, my waiter approached and asked, “Ah, signora, some tiramisu and espresso for dessert?” I motioned to my very full stomach and replied, “No, grazie, but the pasta was great!” He smiled politely and swept the bread crumbs off my tablecloth with the small metal bar he kept in his pocket.

As I walked back to my hotel, I understood the importance of familiarity in our lives. It gives us stability and a sense of purpose.  I learned that for 25 years my waiter has worked at that restaurant and each late afternoon as he makes his way across town to get there,  he looks forward to waiting on the customers who have been coming there year after year to celebrate the important events in their lives or just have a good Italian dinner. I was the customer from Portland, some distant city he had seen mentioned in a “New York Times” restaurant review, who dropped into his life for a few hours. Maybe it was just long enough that it caused him to think about his life a little differently. When I mentioned that we enjoy locally grown produce in our restaurants here, he was surprised. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that if you live in a place where it doesn’t snow a lot, and it rains plenty, perhaps you can keep a local garden all year that can supply your restaurant. He shook his head as he pondered the thought and said, “There’s no room in my backyard to grow anything anyway, but my mother always grew her own tomatoes in a window box.” He sounded proud of her and as though he might entertain the idea himself.

This week, do something different to open yourself up to new ideas or possibilities. If you always drive the same way to work, try a different route. If you go to the same grocery store, try another one this week. Maybe you always start a meeting the same way or repeat the same routine when you get to the office each morning.  Ask a colleague, “What do you do each morning when you come in?” to discover a different way to start your day, and then experiment with it.

We are creatures of habit, but we also have the ability to adapt to many different ways of being. Don’t be afraid to stretch your boundaries for a week.  You may just find that it helps you see the world with a more expanded and compassionate view.

Have a good week!

Kathleen

Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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