I have led in the hospitality industry for well over 10 years now. This has afforded me the opportunity to interact and lead almost every type of person imaginable. Some good, some not so. But all of it has left me with an understanding of how we work as people that I could not have imagined. I appreciate people for who they are much more now than I ever did as a young operator. I was much too busy trying to save those in my patronage, even if they weren’t looking to be saved. This left me exhausted, battered and often with my own struggles as I felt in order to save them (again, even if they weren’t looking for it) I had to be in the water with them. I took on so much of what they were fighting without them asking me. When I look back now I was doing both of us a disservice.
I can think of many situations where this happened but one truly stands out. I had an incredible cook in one of my kitchens, we will leave him unnamed as that is not what is important. The talent was obvious. Not only did his food look spectacular but he could easily cook an almost full lunch service of 100 seats with almost no help, but, and there is always a but, it completely depended on how he showed up that day. Which really depended on what he did the night before. If you are in this industry you completely understand and have worked with a person like this. For me I was young at the time and knowing this kids background and how it related to the tough times I had as a teenager and youth I thought I could help him. Only problem is he didn’t always want the help. There were times that our conversations would hit home and he would stay stable for a while but it almost seemed as though he would head back into troubled waters so that I would have to come save him, like he couldn’t see the positive attention he was getting and only the negative registered in his brain. I poured a ton of myself into him and for the most part he responded but only while I was around. My support, tough love, re-directive and positive feedback only worked if he was in my vicinity. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t create his own accountability system and consistency. It was because he never had to as I was always there to save him. Ultimately I ended up having to fire him as I could no longer ignore the damage his situation was creating and I realized the damage was my responsibility and this sent me reeling for a bit. I was exhausted and my psyche was badly damaged. I took it as though I was not a good enough leader to help this kid, that it was me that had failed him.
This isn’t the only team member I did something of the like with as a young leader, and I believe it is these things that sent me on my own mental health spiral for a number of years. I was trying to save those that were ultimately unsavable because they did not want to be saved. And how conceited of me to think that I could make a difference for someone even when they didn’t want me to. But when you are in it you don’t always see things for what they are and you don’t see another path. So as I headed into my own darkness I failed to realize that the term in service of others has nothing to do with giving a piece of yourself, it has nothing to do with “saving” anyone. Now with hindsight being 20/20 I believe that no one actually saves anyone else unless they choose to be saved and then really who is doing the saving.
Having put others burdens on my shoulders whether they wanted me to or not I was weighed down. Life was heavy for me and I was looking for a way out. I remember one day in particular where I just sat in my car crying outside of the restaurant I was supposed to be running. I watched the parking lot and the store fill up, I knew they needed me inside and I could not physically move out of my seat. I just watched almost like I was separate from myself, there was nothing I could do to make myself move for over an hour.
Now this is typically the point in the story where someone writes “and that is the moment I knew I had to make a change, and this is the shit I did” often times they make it seem like it all happened overnight, and these simple changes fixed everything and life is good. If that is true these people probably also fart fairy dust and their burps smell like roses. Now I don’t know about you but in this situation while that moment in the car may be the penultimate moment that I can look back on, I by no means changed immediately and probably didn’t even think that day “shit, I need to fix this”. I believe that day was about 4 years ago and if you have followed some of my blogs or IG posts you know that my journey to mental toughness really only started 3 years ago. So it took me almost a year before I started making any tangible changes.
I started reading and listening to better content and this is where the lighthouse and tugboat theory comes in. I am not sure exactly where it all comes from but I heard Sean Whalen talking about it on the old MFCEO podcast and it just clicked. I had spent my whole life up until that point being a tugboat, attempting to save those in troubled waters. You see a tugboat and a lighthouse theoretically provide the same service. They both save ships. They just do it in drastically different ways. While the tugboat heads out into the troubled waters, battered by waves and wearing itself down working to save one ship at a time, the lighthouses stands tall and shines its light. It does not take on any of the troubled water, it maintains itself and makes sure it is always a beacon for others to see and in the process saves many more ships than a single tugboat ever could. But not only does it help more than the tugboat it allows those in the water to save themselves.
Now I am not sure I am doing it justice and I by no means live this theory perfectly, it is something I strive to be better at every day. The way I interpret this is that I am much better off focusing on improving myself so as to be an example for others to see. Rather than to be a battered soul myself in the same waters as those I am trying to save. How do you show someone the way to safety, how do you light the way when you are taking on the same water as those you are trying to save? While some may see this as noble and will look at the lighthouse as an all too stoic and uncaring figure. I see it differently. As people we rarely respond to someone telling us we need saving and usually this person has decided on what that saving will look like. They are telling us where we need to go and what we need to do. But what do we really need? An example, someone that is where we want to be, someone that offers support but leaves it up to us to take. They let us be the hero of our own story as we still get to steer the ship out of the troubled waters and into the light.
So the challenge I have taken on is how do I live my life more in line with the way a lighthouse operates? This is one of the lens I use often to view my world. It is a question I constantly ask myself. When I see something that needs to be better in our world I try to think of how I can be better in that area of my life. How I can shine my light on the subject in a positive manner. If I want others in my life to get healthier then I must first be healthy. If I want our society to look after the planet better I need to always pick up extra trash. If I want people to have better tools to improve their mental toughness so they can positively affect their mental health, then I better develop those things in myself and test the theories I find. All in all it boils down to going first. To living what you say is important not just pointing your fingers at others that are in a worse place than yourself and not dragging yourself down to the place they are thinking that this will help them. You can only go to that place and come back from it so many times before you too break down in those dark and rough waters and need saving yourself.