Steve Jobs in a commencement address said that life is about connecting the dots. You cannot connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect the dots looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots from your past will somehow connect to the dots in your future. I can relate his concept to my own life story. When I look back at everything that happened in my life, every single event and experience was preparing me for things that would come later in life.
When I was a student at San Jose State University in San Jose, California, I used to work three part-time jobs. The scholarship from the government was enough to get me by, but not enough for the kind of life I imagined to live. I wasn’t willing to share a one-bedroom apartment with six other students. With extra money I could travel, too.
I was a lot younger, and a bundle of energy, passion and resilience. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I worked at University Place, the faculty coffee house. I was a cashier on Mondays and made sandwiches on Wednesdays. The job helped me get to know my lecturers better. It was a strategic job, as I developed rapport with people who determined my grades. Of course, I didn’t do it for my grades. I served my customers with my heart and soul. There were dollops of love in between my sandwiches.
I enrolled for courses for working professionals who were continuing their education. Simply for the reason that I learned more from classmates who have years of working experience. My classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays in stretches of three hours each class and would last from early morning to evening. That way, too, I was able to work full day on Mondays and Wednesdays. Friday mornings were spent on my research works at the library or studying at the campus rose gardens.
On my work days, I studied at the employee’s locker room in between my shifts. During my one-hour lunch and dinner breaks I would have a quick bite of sandwich, salad or nachos, read San Jose Mercury News and Spartan Daily. After that, I would review my course works and did my assignments. That was a tight schedule, but miraculously I balanced everything well, somehow. I didn’t make it to Dean’s List, but I graduated with a decent CGPA and my graders were good enough to keep my scholarship.
On Friday evenings, I worked at Spartan Pub on campus, serving pizzas, pastas, chicken wings and steaks. Luckily, I was under 21 and wasn’t allowed to serve alcohol. I worked six hours from 6:00 p.m. to closing at midnight – in the kitchen helping the chef preparing food or running around taking orders, serving food and beverages, bussing tables or washing dishes. From my job, I learned how to make friends with other students and developed social skills.
After finishing work, I cycled two miles to my apartment. In winter, I walked as it was too cold to cycle due to wind chill, and my university provided campus police escort to walk me home safely. When I got home, it was past 1:00 a.m. I was tired but happy. Well, I was a lot younger, and I was a bundle of energy, passion and resilience. Most mornings I would spring out of bed, raring to go for the day. Some mornings, however, I woke up thinking, do I have to go to work today? When I thought about having to share a one-bedroom apartment with 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 weekdays; my weekends were free. Most weekends spent on studying and doing research. Some weekends spent recuperating, sleeping in or watching cable TV, as I did not get to watch TV during weekdays.
Some weekends, I socialised with Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians and other foreign students whom I got to know from campus and at Spartan Pub. We went for barbecue cook outs and picnics, or cross-country horse riding at Alum Rock Park. Some weekends, I was up in the sky flying in a two-seater airplane that my flight-instructor-in-training American classmate and I chartered for two hours. Thanks to my three jobs, I could afford these experiences.
On Summer weekends, when the weather was hot, my friends and I would drive two hours up the mountains to Reno or Lake Tahoe for some snow. Some weekends, we drove to nearby cities to meet other Malaysians. 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, I made money at Spartan Stadium on campus, serving hotdogs, nachos and chips to spectators at football games and rock concerts. I got to watch football games and rock concerts for free, too.
Some weekends, I waitressed for the catering service, serving faculty guests. I would sometimes think, how nice to be in the customer’s shoes, instead of a waitress’ shoes. “Oh my God, my good feet were killing me!” some days. Now I’m in the customer’s shoes and being served instead of serving, it’s like, “Oh my God, all these good foods are killing me!” some days.
You know what I hated most about being a waitress? Those table numbers. I never did remember all of them. It took me weeks to figure out how the numbering system works. In the first week, I screwed up numbers and orders. I learned the hard way. I also hated the stupid uniform. It was an opportunity cost because they repelled all the good-looking guys. I would never want to be seen dead in the uniform.
I was always being mistaken for Hispanic, being tanned from swimming at the campus aquatic centre every day, except in winter. In San Jose, there was a huge population of Hispanics. I hate to keep telling people that I did not speak Spanish.
Even so, I’m grateful for my experience being a waitress. I learned great lessons in humility. Whether or not it was a strategic job, I surely learned valuable lessons and achieved a thing or two. 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 three years of waitressing.
No doubt, a few dollars tip will not make me rich. But as a waitress, it was something to be excited about at the end of the day. Now, I make it a point to leave a tip, particularly if the waiter or waitress went the extra mile in serving me.
I learned that a hungry man is an angry man. If an order was late or wrong, a customer can become a “curse-tomer”. I was dealing with hungry people after all. I better not make them angry. I learned to be emphatic to the people I serve and work with. I learned that a sincere “thank you” or compliment from my customer or boss really made my day. I make it a point to express thanks to people serving me or working with me.
I learned some Spanish words, eventually. I learned to make pastas, sandwiches and salads. I learned how to set a table for formal dinner and what fork to use for what dish and in which order. This is useful when I entertain or attend formal functions. Most importantly, I learned, no matter how rich your parents are, there is no greater satisfaction than making your own hard-earned money.
I was a lot younger, and a bundle of energy, passion and resilience. Today, I am not as young as I once was; but 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. But some mornings I woke up thinking, do I have to go to work today? When I thought about how hard I had to work as a waitress, and how far I have come to be where I am today, I would get up and be raring to go again.