6 life lessons I learned from working in the hospitality industry

When was the last time you stood at a to-go counter, looking at 30+ boxes of warm food that need to be packed up five minutes ago?

Behind you, a stranger is tapping you on the back, asking for an extra side of ranch. An impatient mother looks at you from thirty feet away—she is still waiting on that highchair you promised ninety seconds ago.

You have about five entrees to fire on the POS, but you can’t get over to the screen.

Oh, and you’ve had to pee for about three hours now.

How do you even begin to prioritize what comes next? You just do. That’s the terror and the beauty of the business.

Welcome to hospitality. We can seat you once your entire party is here.

Lessons from the hospitality industry

Working in hospitality teaches you skills you could not learn anywhere else. It teaches you about prioritization, about swift problem-solving, about communication, about humility, and about how people act when they’re seriously hungry—like monsters—and how to keep a smile on your face despite that.

You can be the valedictorian of your high school class, you can graduate magna cum laude from an esteemed university, and you can earn your Master’s degree from yet another esteemed institution, but you will never learn what you can from a night on the line at a busy restaurant.

If it were up to me (it isn’t) everybody would be required to work at least a year in the hospitality industry—maybe making complicated coffees at Starbucks and invariably being yelled at by a guy named Brock.

It builds your character in a way no post-graduate degree can, in a way no C-level executive job can.

It’s about people—each and every type of person.

Working in hospitality means truly working with a team to get through a rough shift. It means interacting with customers you may never have met otherwise. It’s gathering stories you would never have heard. It’s building empathy for people who seem rough on the surface.

Rather than writing off the old lady who always wants her soup piping hot, maybe ask her how her day was. Because maybe you’re the only person she talks to today.

In short, working in hospitality teaches you real-life soft skills that you will carry through your entire life. You will have great experiences and you will have bad ones.

You will probably cry mid-shift (I know I have.) Here’s a few I took away from my time sweating through a challenging weekend night shift.

How to prioritize + multitask

If you’ve worked a busy Saturday night, you learn something about prioritization. You’re 86 chicken, the wait list is 40 people deep, you have 30 to-go orders for 30 separate Postmates cyclists who are forming a circle around you, and, oh yeah, you actually have to wait tables, too.

Working in the hospitality industry creates a pressure cooker. When you’re in it, you sort of snap into motion. You intuit exactly what needs to be done, when, and in what order of importance.

Before you know it, it’s 11:45 p.m. and (almost) everyone has vacated the restaurant—except for that one couple on their first Tinder date. They’re really hitting it off!

I can’t really explain how you know what to do, you just do. It’s like a dance. You’re learning the moves on the fly, but you flow through it. When you come out the other side, you realize you did it. Not only that, but you have a pocket full of singles to show that you did it.

Proactively problem-solve

Guess what happens every day at a restaurant? Problems. Whether it’s the bathroom overflowing into the dining room, someone no-call-no-showing, or a deeply unhappy customer, problems happen—often all at once.

An enormous life skill you learn at a restaurant is how to solve problems on the spot. Often, you do not have the time to ask for backup or additional guidance. Instead, you need to find a solution, and quick!

Problem-solving skills will come into play no matter what career path you choose. Some problems are easier to navigate. If someone doesn’t like their food, you can offer them the chance to reorder. However, there are trickier problems.

Personally, the waitlist was always a problem in the busy restaurant I worked in. The waitlist was a purgatorial home to some of the angriest people I’ve ever encountered.

In order to squash potential problems, I always over-communicated the wait situation—with a smile and a little commiseration, “I know the wait is long and being hungry is the worst, but it will be worth it!”

Practice patience

That brings me to the next life skill I learned in hospitality. Patience. Classically speaking, I didn’t have much in the way of patience. However, like many things in the hospitality business, you either learn to be patient, or you get out.

Patience occurs table-side when you have to wait for someone who claimed they were ready to order, but they are clearly still reading the entire menu.

Patience occurs when you encounter someone with severe allergies and you are painstakingly careful to make sure no cross-contamination occurs anywhere.

Patience happens when a toddler is running around a busy restaurant while his parents are blissfully unaware of his entire existence. Patience is necessary when a party of 18 walks in seven minutes before closing.

These are a few examples of situations that require extra care, extra work, and extra patience. This is also what separates you from a good worker and makes you a great worker.

Be warned that when you put in the extra care and patient touch, it will often go unrecognized. But! Sometimes, a person will stop you for a moment and thank you for the extra effort—and that makes it all worth it.

Always have empathy

Empathy is a big one. You learn a ton of empathy in hospitality. There are two kinds of empathy I think you learn—directed toward your coworkers (who become close to family) and directed towards customers.

When you’re in the middle of a busy shift with your coworkers, you might want to yell expletives at them, throw dishes at them, or just exile them from your life altogether. Once you clock out, though, it’s usually all hugs and post-work decompression.

One of the more fascinating aspects of working in hospitality is the scope of people. On one staff, you are likely to have a diverse range of ethnicities, ages, and personalities. Someone you may never have met otherwise might suddenly be serving as your work mom.

Like it or not, you will learn an incredible number of life lessons from your coworkers.

Another target of your empathy will be customers. What might seem on the surface like a grumpy, nit-picky guy—well, he might actually be a lonely person trying to engage in the only way he knows how—for better or worse.

Empathy is huge in hospitality. Sometimes, you have to take a moment (when you don’t have a moment to spare) in order to really consider someone who you might otherwise write off as a jerk.

Respect everyone

A majorly important life skill you will learn from hospitality is respect. Unfortunately, you might learn it the hard way. As a server, a busser, a host, a cleaner, a cook, or a manager, you will experience people who are rude. Sometimes, these people are seemingly rude for sport.

If you’ve ever been yelled at for an inaccurate order, a long wait, or other elements out of your control, you will gather real-life experience of that golden rule.

Working in the hospitality industry gives you insights into the people you see every day. Remember — you never know what someone is going through, so give them the benefit of the doubt. Treat people kindly, with care, and with respect.

If none of this is resonating with you, I challenge you with this. Next time you’re in a busy restaurant and you really, really want to complain, take a look around instead. Is anyone sitting around doing nothing? Is your server leaning up on the bar texting a friend? Probably not.

What you’ll likely see is a staff running around, getting as much done as they possibly can. Instead of complaining, give a thank you for the hard, (usually) thankless work they are doing to get some bowtie pasta in your belly. And always tip—which brings me to my next point.

Tip for service

Okay, this one may be specific, but bear with me. If you have worked in hospitality—whether it be a restaurant, a coffee shop, or a hotel—you will understand the value of a tip. And guess what? You’re probably not going to miss that dollar—especially if you just spent $5 on a single coffee.

When you have a nice dinner, tip. When you order tacos from a taco truck, tip. When a valet brings your car back to you, tip. When your Lyft driver offers you a piece of gum to keep your ears from popping on the way to the airport, tip.

See the trend here? Tip.

If you know the value of hard people-facing work—of getting up every damn day and putting on a smile through heartbreak, through financial turmoil, through sickness—then you know that it’s always going to be worth it.

Dig deeper into your pockets and help out your friendly server. It’s the right thing to do.

This article first appeared on Career Contessa.