Why do we have a higher standard for things than we do for ideas?

I’m involved with a group of Young Professionals in my town, and once a month we all watch a Ted talk and then meet for lunch to discuss it.

This month’s was The Way We Think About Work is Broken by Barry Schwartz.

Points I found most intriguing:

“Bad technology disappears. [But] with ideas, false ideas about human beings will not go away if people believe that they’re true.” This implies that we have a higher standard for things than we do for ideas. We care about having the best and optimally-functioning cell phone, yet we don’t really care if there’s any science behind that detox tea we keep drinking.

We have much less attachment to things than we do to ideas. There is a quick turnover with things, but a slow turnover with ideas. We’re quick to exchange our laptop for the newer model. But we maintain ideas for generations and are often hesitant to stray from them and our identity with them.

“It is not true that you “just can’t get good help anymore”. It is true that you can’t get good help anymore when you give people work to do that is demeaning and soulless.”

“Human nature will be changed by the theories we have that are designed to explain and help us understand human beings … We design human nature by designing the institutions within which people live and work.” So, what kind of human nature do you want to help design? Note that this can apply outside the workplace as well.

What I learned from my restaurant job

I recently quit my job of almost a year.

I worked at a coffee house, slash restaurant, slash bookstore, slash gift store.

I mostly took customers’ orders at the cash register but I also made lattes and the like.

Here are some general and specific things I learned:

  • Most of the customers were regulars.  They came in literally every day at the same time and ordered pretty much the same thing.  Its primarily these people who kept us in business, I’d assume.
  • Some customers, even if they come in regularly and always get the same thing, will complain about their food, every time.  And its not that it was made wrong – they just don’t care for it.
  • There are a lot of different kinds of milk (organic whole, organic  2%, regular 2%, skim, soy, almond, coconut).
  • Most people probably wont taste the difference (with the exception of the last three).
  • There are only subtle differences between all the major espresso drinks.  For example, a latte is espresso and milk.  Add chocolate and its now a mocha. Take out the espresso and its now a hot chocolate.  Add flavored syrup instead of chocolate and its now a milk steamer.  Ever wonder how a barista can so easily remember something as complicated as a “skinny half caf double iced mocha, with half the chocolate and sugar free caramel”?  Because its really just a slight variation on what the drink normally would be.  And yes it was rare that someone would order something that specific.  But once you know a few key terms, even the complicated things aren’t that complicated anymore.
  • There are a few different roasts of coffee: french (the darkest), vienna (in the middle), and city (the lightest).  In terms of caffeine level, its the opposite: city (most caffeine), vienna (in the middle), french (least caffeine).  At first this is always counter-intuitive.  You’d think that the darkest coffee would also be the strongest.  That’s probably because you’d assume it meant it was brewed more strongly or something.  But no, they’re all brewed the same way.  Some coffees are weaker on purpose.  The reason is, the caffeine in a coffee bean is on the outside.  So when the beans are roasted, the caffeine gets burnt off.  The longer it roasts (making it a darker roast) the more of the outside (the caffeine) gets roasted off.  Thus, dark beans have less caffeine left, whereas lighter roasts have more caffeine preserved.
  • People working for minimum wage bond by complaining and gossiping.  Bad, I know.  But oh-so fun.
  • Its pretty much the same, every day.  People would always ask me how my day was, or if we had been busy at lunch time.  “Good, how are you?”  “Yeah, it was kinda busy.”  I felt a little awkward always saying the same things to people.  But I guess I shouldn’t feel too awkward because they always asked the same questions.
  • If you steam too much foam, it becomes too dry, and it does not blend well into the drink.  The key is to steam less foam, thus keeping it wetter, and then you can more easily swoosh it around with the milk. It was only towards the end of my time at that job that I really started to get the hang of latte art.  Kind of unfortunate I left before mastering it.
  • If a drink has a [thin] layer of foam on top, you can practically sprint it out to the  person’s table without spilling it (exaggerating).
  • People like their drinks full, even if it means you spill it a little.  If I didn’t put enough foam on top and the drink started to spill over as I carried it out to them, I’d just say, “It’s a little full” in a somewhat apologetic voice as I handed it to them.  To which they responded with a smile and wide eyes.
  • One of the funnest parts of my job was referring to customers by their order (when talking about them with coworkers, that is).  “You know ‘Large salad, add carrots, sprouts, and tuna, Large decaf latte in a to-go cup’ guy?”  “Oh, yeah.”  Or, “You know, she always comes in and buys a bottle of water and like half an avocado?”  “Oh yeah.  Sharon.”  It was a fun game to see how well we knew everyone :).
  • As hard as it may be to trust employees, micromanaging is not efficient.  Honestly if I owned a company and had employees, I would be tempted to oversee everything and make sure it was perfect.  Must be hard not to do that.
  • When you order a drink and I ask “Small or Large?”, please don’t say “Medium.”  If we had medium, I would have offered it to you.
  • Things aren’t as clean as you’d like to think.  I learned that one in my previous restaurant job.  That one was even less clean than my second place.  But yeah.  Going to a restaurant after having worked in one requires a certain level of denial.
  • Free food is a very nice perk.  At my first restaurant job (I’ve had a total of 2) we didn’t get food.  We didn’t even get a break.  (Labor laws, anyone?)  So at my next job, getting a 15 min break AND free lunch was like the most generous and chill thing I had ever heard of.
  • I can eat lunch at the same place 5 days a week for a year and not get sick of the food.  I guess that’s how we had so many regular customers.
  • Being on my feet all day wasn’t that hard.  But the right shoes were everything.
  • In a big restaurant (5 rooms spanning 3 levels) with a boss who everyone knows and has questions/business inquiries for, it would be great to have a walkie-talkie system.
  • Some of our soups (and probably other things) were made with peanut oil.  And it wasn’t mentioned anywhere.  I’m kind of surprised no one died.
  • Working in a food-related job in a town where people are health-conscious and have a million different diet restrictions is frustrating and time consuming.  And repetitive.
  • You see a person’s true colors when you serve them lunch.
  • If they haven’t hired anyone new for awhile and half of the current employees are “sick” all the time, and you decide to quit, be prepared to be hated.
  • This was a fun job but its not my career nor my life.  At times it seemed like it was both, but really, now that I’m gone, I realize that everything that went with it – my daily routine, my stress, the people I would see every day – is all gone.  And in a year from now, none of it will matter.  Except I’ll still have all the things I learned from working there.