For me, some of the most important tools for life were gained in the kitchen.  They were gained when I had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to be in the kitchen by 5:00.  They were gained when I worked on my feet for a ten- or twelve-hour shift.  They were gained as I worked over a cherry red flat top range, sweat pouring down my back.  They were gained working with people whom I had to depend on, people from all kinds of backgrounds: ethnic, educational, race, gender, and age.  I grew up while I was learning how to work in a kitchen.

I didn’t know it at the time, nor did the hundreds of people with whom I worked over the years, but we were all being mentored by each other.  This was the place where we learned about life, about how to adapt, how to get along, and how to become uniquely us.

“There is only one road to human greatness – through the school of hard knocks.”

-Albert Einstein

There were plenty of difficult days, some that seemed impossible.  The shift started too early and lasted too long, the work was too demanding and the list of tasks almost beyond reason, and the pressure associated with timing and the skill required was nearly too much to bear.  But we made it through, the work was done, those hundreds of plates of food were beautiful and tasty, the guests were happy, and the chef gave us the thumbs up.  There were many days when our feet were throbbing from long days, when the cuts and burns were too numerous to count, when it seemed like there was no sweat left to give, but we made it and returned the next day to experience it all over again.  There were days of self-doubt when we were our own worst critic, when our work never felt adequate enough, when the chef shook his or her head signaling that we didn’t hit the mark, and when far too many dishes came back from a disappointed guest.  We remember those days; in fact, we never forget them, but we returned to give it another try.

The School of Hard Knocks is riddled with lessons that require us to fall down, feel inadequate, lose faith in our abilities, and doubt those of our co-workers.  But we return and learn from those lessons – it’s the assignment that comes from the school of life.  We learned a great deal about ourselves, those people with whom we work, and those we serve.  We learned what it meant to follow and how to prepare to lead. We discovered that we are in the business of service and it’s not always pretty.

While working our way through the kitchen we discovered what value was all about.  We opened that paycheck and knew that it wasn’t enough, but we also knew that we earned every penny.  We figured out that if we wanted to earn more, we would need to get better at what we do.  We discovered that our base of knowledge had to improve, and we would need to invest in that.  We managed to swallow our pride and accept critique if it was given as a way to help and not to demean.  We discovered that every plate of food that left the kitchen bore our signature and we found out that when it was right then legitimate pride was earned. 

Some of us may have gained knowledge through trade school or college, but many simply placed their education in the hands of hard work and patience.  We found out that both have value, but one without the other is rarely enough.  To be the best that we could be, would require an investment in learning and attention paid to teaching moments.

“Successful people are not necessarily gifted; they just work hard and then succeed on purpose.”

-G.K. Nelson

The School of Hard Knocks teaches us determination and commitment.  We figured out that we are never owed success, it comes to those who invest in the journey, learn from life’s lessons, and move forward with a sense of purpose.  Over time we discovered that no one owes us a living, we have to earn it.

So, what are those life lessons from the School of Hard Knocks?  Here are a few that can’t be taught as well in a classroom:


Show up, suit up, be sharp, follow-thru, finish what you start, exceed expectations, be consistent.  Do this and the doors of opportunity will always open for you.


Come to understand that every task (no matter how small or significant), every interaction, every step that you take impacts others and the products and services they provide.  Your work counts – do it well and do it right.


Today and throughout your career, you will rarely be able to succeed on your own.  An investment in others success is an investment in yours.  Help others to do well – it matters.


Respect every person you work with, work for, and serve.  Respect the ingredients you work with and the people who provide those ingredients.  Respect the facility where you work and the equipment that you are able to use.  Respect the profession of cooking that is as old as the discovery of fire.  It all matters and it is all worthy of your respect.


Nearly every level of success (no matter how you measure it) will take time to achieve.  You will need to build your skill level, make plenty of mistakes, develop a base of knowledge, and build the ability to adjust through the experiences you have – it takes time.


No one owes you an education – you have to seek it out.  Look at every day as an opportunity to learn and grow – build it into your daily calendar and at the end of the day ask yourself – “what did I learn today?”


Mistakes are natural as long as you learn from them, correct them, and work hard to avoid making the same mistakes again.  When viewed this way – mistakes are part of the growing process.  When you learn what not to do you are better positioned to get it right the next time.


Always remember – anything worth doing is worth doing well.  Never allow mediocrity to take hold – be on top of your game with everything you do.  Let excellence be your signature.


Eventually, you will become a leader in your field.  Learn one of the most basic rules of leadership: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”  The people who report to you are no less significant than you as a person – they just have a different position.  They will, in many cases, emulate your actions, your behavior, and your beliefs.  Be careful to represent what you would like them to represent.


When all is said and done – hard work is not a negative thing.  Hard work makes us aware of what we have accomplished and how we have approached a task.  Hard work helps us to grow, it builds character and demonstrates to others how committed you are.  As has often been said: “No pain, no gain.”

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”

-Mark Twain


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