Being Yourself When You Serve (Part I)

Powerful Ways The Service Environment Reveals & Tests Our Ability to Be Our Authentic Selves

Probably the most played out bit of wisdom we get from people of all positions and disciplines is encouragement to “just be you” rather than whatever you think people expect of you.  It’s something we always do well to be reminded of, but what I think requires the most attention are the subtle little ways we subvert “being ourselves” throughout the day. They are sometimes imperceptible, gently blowing your authenticity off course like a gentle autumn breeze.  Everyday we’re surrounded by different people with widely variable personalities. Where I work, in restaurant hospitality, the job requires a constant and fairly deliberate expression of one’s personality (or at least whatever persona the server keeps themselves wrapped in).

The format allows the servers to witness the effectiveness of each personality and observe actual measurable results – i.e. tips (which sometimes reflect amiability), sales (which sometimes reflect persuasiveness), getting complimented on service and requests to serve repeat clientele, etc.

These appear to be definitive results, but are only part of the picture regarding how well you serve.  Still, one can’t help but compare themself to other servers. If you see qualities in others that people like and say “aren’t they great?”, you might be tempted to feel lacking in not having them.  I spent my entire career doing that (and still do sometimes).

Every workplace has the more charismatic, gregarious, good-humored employees that seem to win the validation of others with frustrating ease.  They put themselves out there so enthusiastically, respond to people with such fluidity that you feel like a sulking troll in comparison. You’re not a sulking troll.  The only crime you’re committing is one against yourself: comparison. You don’t owe the world some effusive expression of yourself. People don’t require gregariousness.  In fact, much of the time, they don’t want any such attention taken away from themselves and their needs – even though they will indulge you’re bubbliness and temporarily enjoy it if it is entertaining.

How To Be A Service Warrior

So just be you.  Be yourself fearlessly.  This means not being afraid of being enigmatic.

People simply want their needs met.  And they don’t need an outpouring of conversation, commentary, humor, and emotion to know that you care.  You can be reserved, even laconic. Actually, the term “laconic” comes from Ancient Greece. Laconia is the Southwestern region of the Greek peninsula in which Sparta was the Ancient capital.  Spartan soldiers were legendary not just for their prowess and grit, but concise way of speaking. As is the way of the warrior, they saved their efforts for action. So if you were found not wasting words, you were speaking like a Laconian, AKA: Laconically.   

Excessive speech is often unnecessary, and then irritating once it begins to replace caring action.  It’s fine, and often ideal, to let your actions do the talking. As a warrior would do. And damn right a warrior doesn’t worry about what others think about their personalities.  They definitely aren’t saying, “Y’know if I was more like him/her, I think people would like me better.” They definitely don’t fear that their terse means of communicating may seem less immediately charming than Mr. Popular’s across the room.  

How Warriors Are Examples of Service…Even When They Seem Too Badass To Be

If the true warrior knows that no one matters but him/her, then are they such shining examples of service?  After all, what does not giving a damn have to do with being selfless, attentive, always growing and changing from contact with others, etc.?  “Don’t worry about what others think” is too simplistic a code to living a truly full life. Only a sociopath can fully commit to this premise. A fully realized warrior is more dynamic than this, able to be many different things that may at first seem contradictory.

A true warrior cares tremendously about the effects of their behavior and is ever vigilant about remaining in integrity.  To do this, they have to pay attention to what others think and feel. Those opinions just won’t allow them to doubt themselves, and are mainly just a useful barometer.  They don’t need approval about whether their mission is righteous. Their resolve comes from within. They just need opportunities to express it.

Though their mission remains steadfast, they are personally always learning, growing, and changing.  Truly being of service means constantly discovering new dimensions of what and how you are serving it.  They just don’t need outside approval of the lessons they are learning or the person they’re becoming. All certainty comes from within.  They learn in a very streamlined way, without neurosis. Without the egoic fear that they are somehow deficient in the eyes of others. And in the absence of neurosis they are actually less self-absorbed.  For the warrior, this frees them to be more of service to their mission and more present while on their path since energy is not wasted on self-doubt, self-criticism or confusion. Since they’d rather their attention be geared to something bigger than them (mobilizing a cause, helping others, defending, or all of the above), they cannot be distracted by a needy ego.

This is the mindful, self-realized way that they “don’t care what others think”.  And in the case of you the conscious server, you are committed to defending the art of hospitality.  In whatever way you serve, you defend human kindness, comfort and connection, the shared pleasure of the familiarizing process.  You are a warrior of connection in a disconnected world.

Subtle Little Ways We Subvert Our Authentic Selves Through Comparison & Persona Sculpting

If you see a quality in someone that you wish you had more of, you must never allow it to make you feel deficient in some way.  Even if you don’t go inauthentically trying to project these traits, but just sort of internally wilt a little, wishing you were better in some way, then you are allowing your energy and attention to be stolen by a delusion.  This delusion is a sense of inner lack. You are disrupting your possession of yourself, your certainty that you are the rightful agent of what you are serving, and are of value to who you are serving.

There are endless human qualities that one can be good at embodying.  So unless you believe yourself destined to ascend as some divine being that is perfect and superior in all facets of life, you are a unique package than can only be strong in some areas.  Every viable human grouping needs to consist of people that have various strengths and witnesses. That’s what makes an effective group dynamic. And every possible human trait or quirk can be useful to serving what and how you serve.

Now, you always have something to learn from observing behaviors in others that are effective.  Being around people that are strong in areas that you are not is the stuff of growth and life. But that process must never cause lack.  There never needs to be a break in perceived wholeness. Lacking can’t drive learning – not any sort of quality learning, anyway.

Stop creating stories about ideal traits that people in your profession, relationship, etc, are supposed to have.  To idealize individual personality traits is to suggest one aspect of humanity is better than another. This is a false hierarchy constructed by your social conditioning.  Being charismatic is not more innately valuable than being contemplative. Everything has its place and time. A seventy-five-year-old man doesn’t need as much charisma at this stage in his life.  He is less likely to be trying to attract a mate, achieve career mobility or accumulate power. Reflecting on the wisdom of years gained, and perhaps sharing it with others, is more likely the priority.  And for that, you would do well to be a strong contemplator.

Try To Please Everyone & You End Up Pleasing No One

Everyone has different proclivities.  If you source your identity in other people’s endlessly variable whims, you’ll end up accumulating endless expectations of how you’re supposed to act.  Endless badly-executed affectations, and endless neuroses around those bad executions, blocking the flow your genuine self.

Let’s return to the idea of measuring the most effective personality traits a server can have.  Though none can even remotely adjudicate your ability to really serve, let’s say your acumen can be measured by how often returning guests request you.  Well, I serve pretty darned attentively and plenty of people at the restaurant request me. But plenty request servers other than me. Plenty request servers that don’t seem as eager to please as I usually do.  Why? Because, it’s all about chemistry. There is no accounting for taste, especially when it comes to the complexities of one person’s preferences. Now, there are many things one can do to increase the odds of getting along with someone, but at the end of the day certain people vibe with certain people.  Some people like gregarious and comedic, some people like measured and polite. Some people like gregarious…but only sometimes…and are maybe in the mood for someone more chilled out and measured today.

Actually, people are curious in nature.  Give them less and they will seek more. Some people might want to be served by someone whose kind of a dick.  Because they own sense of inner lack requires that they somehow win the approval of a judgmental douchebag in order to feel better about themselves.  I see this happening all the time: sometimes people actually order a more expensive bottle of wine in order to impress a server they want to warm up to them.  Don’t try and be this kind of server – or person in general. If you cultivate a comfort with who you are and a genuine interest in the well-being of those you serve and interact with, they will reciprocate such respect automatically.  And, as described by the warrior server archetype, you can do well by being a bit more enigmatic and measured. But it will not nurture a healthy (or sustainable!) dynamic if you try gaming respect with some sort of stuck up persona.

Fixed vs. Fluid: How Easy It Is To Confuse Your Ego With Your Authentic Self

Your surest bet in life is to be the best version of what you truly are.  One of the biggest ways we can misunderstand who we truly are is by believing this identity to be some sort of fixed state.  Funny enough, your authentic self is your most adaptive state.  Your authentic self is the part of you that doesn’t need to look or act a certain way.  It doesn’t need to project any identities. It’s just open, aware and ready to experience the world.  You are not the roles that various situations require you to play. Your authentic self is found in your wisdom to correctly manage those roles.(1)

You might confuse your authentic self with your ego, AKA: the story you tell yourself/others about who you think you are.  Really knowing yourself doesn’t come from some voice inside of you saying “this is who the fuck I am!” No matter how affirmative it sounds.  In fact we actually aren’t ourselves until that voice gets out of the way. Our true selves are more of a channel through which other things can flow – i.e. the needs of others, information, craftsmanship, creative organization, etc.  But though the ego is a valuable ally, it is simply a mechanism to separate and protect your individual mind/body from the rest of the world so your authentic self can have a safe home in its carrier vessel.

To quote Alan Watts:

“Ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word “water” is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism.”

In our minds, the ego reveals itself as a story of the lives we have led.  It becomes an idea of who we are based on some collection of things we’ve done and experiences we’ve had.  This story creates consistency and an illusion of wholeness, but any commitment we make to maintaining this story will cause untold self-limitation and unnecessary suffering.  A lot of effort is wasted to sustain this illusion of wholeness. An illusion we don’t really need – we’re already whole. All of this unnecessary energy is spent in the name of safety. Since consistency feels safe, we tend to like maintaining this idea of ourselves and following the same patterns and protocols in every situation – even if the situation doesn’t call for it.

Thinking this ego (and the stories it tells in our minds) is what we truly are is like thinking the guy guarding the castle is the castle itself.  You are not your story, your history. “Yourself” is not the moods you tend to be in. Including the pleasant ones that fleetingly reveal themselves when you get your way.  “Yourself” is not the opinions you have. Or the things you know (or think you know) that others don’t. Or the life you imagine having once you free yourself of all these annoying obligations.  Your true self is much bigger, more benevolent and more available to the real juice of life. This is the “Self-with-a-capital-’S’” that the ancient Eastern sages are talking about. The Self that we get glimpses of in the depths of meditation and then become fully established in after repeated practice.  

We may refer to our ego-fed story when considering our individual capabilities.  And this will limit us to a very thin stream of individual potential. What you are is infinite potential that is constantly up for grabs.  And you need to claim who you really are like a thief. Because sometimes just a little openness, readiness, or audacity, will alert the guard that is your ego.  And in its obsession with the safety of sameness, it will deny you of your self-realization. even if that means preserving patterns of your history that are no longer relevant to the present moment.  Your potential will be fought in the name of continuity (one of the ego’s favorite obsessions). Sustaining these limitations are like letting the continuity supervisor direct the film. They have no sense of where to artistically take things, only how to maintain consistency.

To quote Maharishi Mahesh Yogi:

“The important thing is this: to be able, at any moment, to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

How The Ego Makes Us Other-Dependent Rather Than Other-Serving

Tethering ourselves to our story will also make us dependent on others to constantly confirm this story and validate our imagined identity.  If we’re unsure how we are of value, we tend to require others to approve of this egoic idea of ourselves. Here we’ve truly cheated ourselves: relinquishing our integrity to the approval of others.  People are too fickle and too self-concerned to depend on as guides for who we should be. They’re virtually always wrong about the lives we are supposed to live. They just don’t have enough information (no one has more information about what is right for us than we do).  Your sense of who you are can only come from a deep state of inner knowing. This can discovered by aggressively getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself, but is especially fast-tracked through meditation and mindfulness practices.

Truly being yourself demands that you’re always paying attention and adapting to the situation at hand.  Your authentic self is tasked with constantly being aware and managing the competing faces of your ego that are fighting for gratification and disrupting your ability to clearly observe, see your role in engaging, and creatively responding to the needs of the moment.  Living authentically means living in awareness as part of a whole that is always calling you to be in service of it.

A leap like this doesn’t require some dramatic shift into becoming a sort of awakened being that feels the music of the cosmos coursing through its veins.  You’d simply be operating in kind with every other natural system: collectively. This may just seem like a considerable leap because there is conditioning to break (very American conditioning) that has emphasized the importance of the individual above all else – i.e. get what’s yours and to hell with everyone else.  But many other cultures are collective, meaning that they understand that they are part of something bigger than them and consider it virtuous to be of service to that thing over their own needs (and, amazingly, those cultures tend to have very powerful service philosophies).

To quote Alan Watts again:

“For several thousand years we have been obsessed with a false humility—on the one hand, putting ourselves down as mere “creatures” who came into this world by the whim of God or the fluke of blind forces, and on the other, conceiving ourselves as separate personal egos fighting to control the physical world. We have lacked the real humility of recognizing that we are members of the biosphere, the “harmony of contained conflicts” in which we cannot exist at all without the cooperation of plants, insects, fish, cattle, and bacteria. In the same measure, we have lacked the proper self-respect of recognizing that I, the individual organism, am a structure of such fabulous ingenuity that it calls the whole universe into being. In the act of putting everything at a distance so as to describe and control it, we have orphaned ourselves both from the surrounding world and from our own bodies—leaving “I” as a discontented and alienated spook, anxious, guilty, unrelated, and alone.”

Now, I realize I just finished telling you not to carve your persona out of some idea of what others may expect of you and now I’m telling you to act in service to the whole.  To that you can certainly say, “Wouldn’t that mean adjusting my behavior to what others expect?” No, it means taking your unique gifts and making them an offering to the collective, rather than exploiting them to simply get more for yourself (this ultimately benefits you, but we will discuss how at another time).  

This also means having a balanced interplay between self-concern and other-directed service.  Over-commitment to either individualist or collectivist philosophies can lead to trouble (for example, you cannot serve the collective as best you can if you have neglected your own needs and therefore become a less effective member…and vice versa), but balancing them perfectly with lead to a fully-realized life.  Balancing them perfectly means your authentic self can be a channel for valuable action. Your commitment to serving means you allow information flow in from the collective and then positive creative action to flow back out again.

It’s that simple to be authentic.  It doesn’t require any especially expressive personality traits.  Just an enthusiasm for being involved in life, and a nimbleness to dodge the ego, whose neediness will always narrow our potential to really live.  Life is too rich and rewarding to be used to simply confirm some story we’re trying to tell ourselves about who we are.

And so ends part I of an article whose topic is too large to contain in one entry.  Check out part II here!

Footnotes:

  1. Internal Family Systems is one psychotherapeutic discipline that most thoroughly looks at this dynamic of self vs. the roles we play, but these ideas go back to ancient Eastern philosophy.  The link to the podcast episode with David Tian, pHD serves as a great introduction to this field.
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