what I learned from a bar: leaning in in an age of skepticism

I am lucky enough to live within walking distance to the best bar. The 12th South Taproom patio is my favorite place to sit alone or with a friend as an afternoon unwinds. The food is fabulous, the wait staff happy to pretend we’re old friends, and the infinite selection of draft beer inspiring. My deep familiarity with the Taproom is sometimes shaken when I introduce a new friend to the bar. The problem is this: The wait staff appear to have no rules. They are cheerful, engaging and never in a hurry. They are so chill, in fact, that they share each other’s work constantly and seamlessly. I have come to love watching the dance they do, mostly because they remind me that my obsessions with efficiency and doing are powerful forces that dehumanize those around me.

At the Taproom, you sit wherever you want, and pretty soon a waitress bring you a menu. She grabs your drink order. A few minutes later, a waiter brings your beer, and then asks if you want to order food.  At this point, the first timer nearly always looks at the veteran with hesitation, then turns to the waiter, “Um, we already have a waitress, and she took our drink orders.”

Waiter: “That’s cool. I’ll take your food order.”

First timer: [Looks skeptical]

Veteran: “It’s a crazy system, but you can trust it. I’ll have the Cobb with Salmon.”

First Timer: “Okay. I’ll have the quesadilla.”

Minutes pass, your beer is getting low, and a totally different waitress walks by, asking if you want another round.  The first timer says sure, and picks up the beer menu to figure out what she ordered before. By the time she looks up, the waitress is gone.

First timer: “Wait, that wasn’t our waitress. How does she know what we ordered?”

Veteran: “I have no freaking idea, but they never screw it up and somehow they know already.”

By the end of the meal, the skepticism has vanished, your friend has met most of the wait staff, and she is starting to see why this neighborhood bar feels like a neighborhood. You all seem to know each other, and you trust that by being together, the doing will get done right.

I am a systems thinker; I love knowing how everything works. I also love being in control, so my first few visits to the Taproom thoroughly baffled me. Thrown by the casual way the entire staff shared every table, I was sure it was an inefficient system that would drop a lot of balls. But it wasn’t. And they don’t. It all runs perfectly, pretty much every time.

That was a ridiculously long set up just to say that I’ve been thinking about the relationships between doing and being, and the links between understanding and engaging. By adopting the practice of observing my own patterns, I realize I am a doer, and I typically don’t fully engage until I understand a thing or a person comprehensively. I like goals, and I like efficiency that is measured and consistent. This is why the Taproom baffled me initially; the system didn’t make sense to me. When I was a first timer, or even a first-few-timeser, I didn’t want to tell the random waiter what I wanted. I didn’t want to waste my time investing in a system that couldn’t possibly work. But then it did work. My need to understand a thing before I trusted it kept me from fully enjoying the moment I was in.

For those of us who prefer doing to being, trusting someone else’s excellence can be excruciating. We get disappointed a lot. But here is the thing: When I withhold my engagement because I’m not sure I understand or support exactly what is going on, I miss out on the life happening before me. I withhold myself because I trust my sense of things more than I trust the innovation of others. This might seems like good boundaries, but it is actually unchecked arrogance. The truth is trusting only my instincts diminishes the people around me.

Loving the Taproom without understanding how a stranger always bring me the right beer reminds me that my way of seeing and doing is not always best. It has taught me that I can fully engage in a system without understanding exactly how it works. It has taught me that sometimes I need to be instead of do. It has taught me that compulsive doing and fixing can be toxic not just to myself but to others. My need to understand before I engage greatly blocks my ability to empathetically be with those around me. My unhealthy need to do:  

1)   Makes me focus on process and product more than people. I lose sight of those around me or under my care when I focus on efficiency more than those contributing to the system. I simply cannot appreciate a person, their effort, or perspective, when I find value in them primarily through my understanding of their efficiency.

2)   Makes me a drag to be around. People see skepticism. People know when I withhold my active engagement, and they can sense when approval is not granted. When I only engage after I fully understand and approve of a process, I send signals that the people around me have to earn my love, my support, my presence.

3)   Makes me arrogantly value my perspective more than others. I trust my instincts, but I need to learn to question my need to understand and do, because both urges often hinder me from appreciating others.

My ability to preemptively—and incorrectly—judge the way a bar organizes their staff serves as a reminder that my dual needs to do and understand are often wrong. We all have patterns of behavior that determine how we engage with and value people. In a time when many of us seem to find little value in unfamiliar systems or peoples, it is necessary to actively resist the individual habits that keep us from engaging. I am convinced the only way for me to appreciate a person different from me is to spend time being fully present with them. To lean in, instead of hanging back until I assess their worthiness. Observe yourself. Do you withhold your full engagement until you are 100% convinced others have earned your presence? Does your need to fix or do hinder your ability to be present? When are you likely to withhold? As a society we face fragmenting forces from many arenas; it behooves us to make sure we are not one of them. When we withhold our presence from those around us, it is nearly impossible to affirm their dignity or enjoy discovering the differences among us. Question your instincts, and others might surprise you.