Question for a Bad Waiter, Why Break Rules? and This Week's Challenges
Break a Rule—Find Your Best Risks. Newsletter # 1
Welcome to the very first Break a Rule weekly newsletter
You’re receiving this because you signed up to take the Risk Finder Quiz after having your water glass rudely overfilled by a bad waiter . . .
Or, you stumbled on Break a Rule directly and thought to yourself, “Damn this is cool!”
Either way, welcome.
Each week I’ll be:
helping you overcome fear, overthinking, and paralysis (FOP) by taking intelligent risks
sharing stories about my adventures as a professional misbehaver
posting new risk-taking challenges that correspond to the rule you’ll most benefit from breaking.
If you haven’t taken the Risk Finder Quiz, or can’t remember which rule you should be breaking, you can take the quiz again right here.
This Week’s Story
(There are some really fun hidden camera photos in this story featuring guests who have been at some of my events. If you find yourself showing up here and want your picture removed, just let me know!)
What’s Wrong With You?
“What’s wrong with you?” is the question I’m most frequently asked as a speaker and professional development consultant—but not out loud.
Crisp white-linen table cloths, precisely folded napkins, spotless cutlery, and a fresh ocean breeze drifting in through the french doors that open onto a stunning view of the Pacific ocean. It all provided the perfect backdrop for what I was hired to do at this corporate event.
Inside the Hotel del Coronado resort in San Diego California, a well-groomed corporate executive reflexively backed up in his chair as I made my way around his table and shoved a packet of Sweet and Low into each of the guest’s mashed potatoes.
Not quite the impeccable service he anticipated.
I purposefully ignored the prolonged stares of each person as they fished the sweetener out of their mound of potato puree and laid it aside. I also ignored those who attempted to signal they didn’t want the sweetener.
Next, I’d start delivering rolls with a dinner fork.
I have a very unusual job.
I make my living posing as an inept, eccentric, and clumsy waiter at company meetings. It’s literally my profession to make people wonder how the hell I ever got my job and how I’m keeping it.
I deliver professional development seminars to Fortune 500 companies, and my bad waiter routine is the lead in for the surprise unveiling of my true identity.
Despite my urge to eliminate the tension and immediately confess my ruse while I spread my incompetence, I remain firmly in flustered character through the usual three courses of the meal.
For the guests it’s like listening to a tone-deaf beginner practice violin—they eventually just want it to stop.
You see, they have no idea I’m about to become their keynote speaker.
So, as I overfill their water glasses, vacuum beneath their feet mid-meal, and get down on my hands and knees to retrieve silverware I’ve dropped under the table—the question, “What’s wrong with you?” is psychically launched my way via expressions of disdain, disbelief, and incredulity.
I’ve been wordlessly berated hundreds of times within the span of a single hour. If you count moody glares and the involuntary emission of stress pheromones as means of communication, I’ve been asked, “What the hell is wrong with you?” ten-of-thousands of times over the course of my career.
Guests silently ask what’s wrong with me and then, just as unconsciously, answer the question in a way that suits their imagination.
They’ll tell themselves a story about the medication I’m on or might have missed that day. Or they imagine I’m on a work release program, that I’m the nephew of the general manager, that I’m autistic, high, or just a disengaged jerk of an employee.
Here’s what’s really wrong with me:
I’m a socially anxious introvert who gets nervous in crowds.
I lost my social confidence early on, perhaps because I got laughed off the playground when I was seven years old after a group of kids overheard me singing the national anthem to myself in a concrete stairwell.
Other personal traumatic encounters contributed to my fears and I discovered that performing was a way to stay in control of social circumstances.
There is ample empirical evidence to show the human mind favors perceptions that ensure survival over those that foster tolerance, kindness, and compassion.
We assume a fumbling waiter is an idiot rather than wonder if he received the right training. Guests have confessed to planning their escape route from the meeting room after imagining that I’m part of a work-release program and routinely corner the banquet manager mid-meal to orchestrate my firing and preserve their sense of entitlement.
For over-filling a water glass.
Fortunately, once the ruse is revealed, 99.9 percent of those who have gotten their knickers in a twist are relieved to learn the truth, and they’re able to take it with the humor that’s intended.
But my antics do serve a purpose:
To bring our unconscious reactivity into the foreground and engage it with more awareness.
It’s the very moment we’re able to catch ourselves wondering “what’s wrong” with a person, circumstance, situation, decision, system, or object that offers us direct insight into our own limitations, misperceptions, and opportunities for growth.
How I got what I deserved
I once gave a presentation to the British Columbia Roofing Association.
After speaking, I exited the conference room into the lobby where I was scheduled to sign books for the guests once the meeting had adjourned.
A plate from lunch had been saved for me since I had been performing during the meal, and I managed a few bites while setting up for the book signing.
When the attendees began streaming out of the ballroom I was overwhelmed with enthusiastic buyers and those anxious to regale me with their personal experience of the presentation.
I was quite hungry, and barely had a chance to enjoy the delicious meal, so that plate of food was on my mind as these conversations lingered.
“No worries,” I reminded myself, “Lunch will be there when this is done, and it’s going to taste so good.”
I looked over my shoulder to reassure myself of this fact, but as I did so, I saw that three contractors who’d been in the audience were now hunched over my plate—each with their own fork—relishing the last of my entree, salad, and dessert.
My first reaction at the sight of this invasion of territory and property (my food!) was extreme annoyance and displeasure—duplicating the thousands of such moments I’d created for others.
There was no denying the beauty of this act of poetic justice, and witnessing my alarm only amplified the delight they took in the reverse punking. My distress quickly turned into appreciation for these men and how masterfully they had played in return.
We are, one and all, subject to the same default wiring:
To defend, protect, and preserve the territory of our identifications—whether that’s property, status, self-image, or beliefs.
The more we are able and willing to question exactly what it is we’re defending when we see judgment, annoyance, and reactivity arise in our awareness, the more we’ll be able to act with compassion and kindness—and foster innovation, creativity, and connection in the face of workplace challenges.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you react poorly to bad service at your next meal.
There’s also nothing wrong with your waiter.
We’re all doing our best to cope with an upside-down world and the stresses and challenges of being human.
But the next time you find yourself in the midst of a judgment, criticism, or reaction to something that’s “wrong”—pause for a moment—and ask what would be an appropriate response if it were all just a piece of theater, designed to help you take the small stuff a little less seriously.
Why Break Rules?
This article goes into detail about why we need to break the hidden rules in our culture for professional success.
This Week’s Challenges
If you’ve recently taken the Risk Finder Quiz and you know which rule you should be breaking, you can visit here each week to see a risk-taking challenge that will help you accelerate your growth and professional success.
That’s all for this week.
If you want more like this, stay tuned every Monday for the next newsletter.
If you don’t want stories, inspiration, and professional development research that supports the practice of taking intelligent risks, you can unsubscribe at any time.
This is a fantastic first edition, Rick. It seems like unnecessary societal rules stem from conformity. We can lean into our vulnerability -- our humanity -- by questioning the rules that keep us within the confines of conformity. Breaking those rules requires taking a risk, yet on the other side of risk is connection, creativity, and authentic expression.