Service 101: Living A Life of Service

Mindful service
The key to life is service

Even though this blog is about the food industry, it’s also about exploring the world behind food. Past the great meals, restaurants, the work, and relationships with talented chefs–there’s the deep stuff that goes on between meals that’s vulnerable and important.  The more I write about living a life in the service industry, the more I understand that all this service stuff has some pretty profound lessons to teach. I’m beginning to understand that at the core of the service industry are some fundamental truths that apply to just about everything. Life is all about service.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve been dreaming about service lately.  These aren’t the old fashioned anxiety dreams about restaurants that never close, or tables that never get taken care of. The dreams I’m having are more like intensive courses in philosophy that show me the meaning behind service. So I guess you could say I’m tapping into something bigger than me.

I think I might be onto something. Because here’s the thing, when I woke up from an intense nap the other day, I felt like I had been given a gift. While I was sleeping I got a message about what life is all about. And the message was pretty simple.

The key to life is service.

The dream had me buzzing for hours after I woke up. I felt a gentle and purposeful nudge that got me to the computer and compelled me to write–despite the fear that maybe you wouldn’t understand what I needed to say. Despite several drafts and the desire to delete this whole thing, I feel the need to tell you what I learned. Because I think this could help a few people.

What the heck does the key to life is service mean?

The key to happiness is service doesn’t mean everyone should drop what they’re doing and start waiting tables or work in restaurants. What I think it means is that no matter what you do for a living, it’s good to remember that at the core of what you do is service.  Your work may feel like it’s to produce a certain product on time or deliver a specific kind of service in a reliable way. But the real truth is, your work is to serve the needs of someone else.

By definition, to be of service means one must actively help another or do work for someone else. So, regardless of the end goal or result of your personal work, everyone’s job hinges on an idea or a process to aid others. No matter what you do for a living–be you a scientist, an architect, a rock musician, a banker, a fisherman, a politician, a medical professional, a parent, or a baker, you name it–your role is to help people. Being of service should be the reason behind everything we do.

Whether or not we’re aware of it, we’re all in the business of being of service to one another.

I think the reason why so many of us are unhappy at our jobs is that we’ve forgotten this piece of the equation. In the rush to get our work done, we by-passed the primary goal of our work. Rather than keep in mind that our goal is to make other people’s lives better in some small or meaningful way, we focus on the minutia. Deadlines, emails, conference calls, technology, difficult bosses, co-workers that get on our nerves, and long hours take our focus off the true end goal and rearranges our priorities.

We make getting through our day our goal. Or surviving a crazy boss. Or making good money. Or creating a certain thing that pleases only us (everyone else be damned!).

Being mindful of the happiness of customers leads to success and happiness

But when we actually take the time to put others’ requirements before our own, we get an opportunity to step away from the internal chatter of what we need and get to something else. We get to something better. Not only do we find success, we find a new kind of happiness. I’m sure you’ve experienced one of those extraordinary moments of service at your job. It’s the kind of thing that stands out when you spend your days in a cubicle or in a chaotic room full of customers.

A great moments of service starts simply. You do your job and then, for some inexplicable reason, you go the extra mile for someone. You do something extra nice for a co-worker.  You give generously of yourself (with a peaceful humility that comes so easily it even shocks yourself) to a client or customer. You do this thing not because you have to, but because you want to. You do this great thing at work because it feels right.

And then it happens. A stillness comes over you. The mind clears of useless, back-talking chatter. You feel a lift. You feel happy. For an instant, you feel free. You want to do a victory dance.

This is what living a life of service is all about.  The more you give, the more you get.

If I spend all my time looking out for everyone else, who’s gonna look out for me?

Being of service is a difficult thing. Believe me, I know. It’s been my job for almost twenty years.  It’s not impossible to find myself surrounded by people with big egos and angry hearts who will do wildly cruel and devious things just to mess with me. The people who like to make others feel small to boost themselves up are the biggest challenge to the practice of mindful service. Because being of service to jerks, blowhards, meanies, and self-obsessed people makes the proposition the key to life is service seem impossible.

But the reason why I think it’s important to share with you this idea of being of service to others, is because I think it really is the key to finding happiness. The key might be simple but the act of using it is hard.

Here’s the thing. Ever since divine inspiration came to visit during nap time, I’ve noticed I’ve had more and more opportunities to do little things for other people. Whenever my thinking gets chaotic or my motives seem to be a little off, I jump into action. I put aside my fears, concerns, and mind chatter and remember to put my focus on service.  Rather than mope or feel bad for myself, I open the door for strangers. I greet fellow joggers good morning as I pass by them on my run. I pack snacks for my husband before he goes to work. I call friends and listen to what’s happening in their lives (rather than complain about mine).

And you know what? Being of service to others makes me happy. Really happy.

The more we give ourselves, it seems, the more we get. I’m starting to realize that the act of being of service to others is like making a deposit in someone else’s bank account and still getting dividends. I’m not sure what kind of banking system that’s called, but I like the way it works. Being of service to others is an investment in our future happiness.

I had a dream

I had a dream, and in it I saw what the world could look like if we all worked for the happiness of others first. It was beautiful.

So thank you for sticking around and reading these words. I really appreciate you taking the time and reading this stuff. What you’re doing is being of service to me and I appreciate it. I hope it gave something back to you in return.

How has the humble act of taking care of another person’s needs before your own made a difference in your life?

Do you have any great stories of service you’d care to share?


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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. henefeld
    July 21

    thanks for posting that. you showed me another angle of my passion for cooking and baking for others, trying to meet special tastes of requests.

  2. dtac
    July 21

    This is so well said! Thank you for encouraging your readers to re-frame our perspectives!

  3. Allison
    July 21

    Great piece, and very resonant to me. I have had the great fortune to have worked for the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses for 7 years, where all of these themes of the joy of service and of “Servant Leadership” were embraced and taught and practiced. I have always looked back on my time there as an oasis of love and principle and caring and fun. Since leaving there, I have discovered that when I consistently give great service to others with nothing expected in return, even when everyone around me seems to have nothing but self interest to motivate them, something good happens. People start to be a little kinder, and to enjoy each other a bit more, are a bit more patient and focus more on accomplishing goals rather than constantly seeking a personal advantage.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • Food Woolf
      July 21

      Allison, thanks for your kind words. ZCOB are an incredible model for servant leadership and a business that actively practices service in everything they do. I appreciate your kind words and continuing to pay it forward! Thanks for coming by and reading! Best, Brooke

  4. Amen. I have actually had similar conversations with people. Everybody serves someone else. If they’re not, then what use are they in this world?

    Thank you for articulating it so well.

  5. Dear Brooke,

    I literally had chills as I read this and I feel like you were talking directly to me. I cannot tell you how much I needed to hear this – especially after this morning when I received the nastiest email of my life from someone I thought was a friend but who apparently has an angry heart and is doing wildly cruel and devious things just to mess with me. The irony of course is that it revolved around my service to others and truly made me question why I continue to do what I do.
    Thank you for reminding me that in a nutshell service is really all there is in this world and that to give up is to let the “darkness” win.

    Wish I could give you a big hug in person so I’ll take a rain check on that:-)

    • Food Woolf
      July 21

      I’m so glad this post had such good timing. I’m sorry you received that email today and that it shook you to the core. Keep strong, keep doing the good work, and remember that people who act out like that are individuals who let fear and pain rule their life. Not a pleasant place to be, for sure. Hugs back to you. xoxo, Brooke

  6. I totally agree with you, it’s like a boomerang in my opinion… if you give to others it will come back to you in spades.

  7. July 22

    “Treat others as you want to be treated” is what I always tell my kids. And giving and being generous with your time and spirit will always come back to you ten-fold. Great piece, Brooke. Thanks for being so raw and honest!

  8. Such a beautiful dream Brooke. I agree with what you say in this post. Life is so much better when we give ourselves – carefully- to others 🙂 xxoo

  9. July 22

    Loved this post – life is just too short not to be nice! I always loved the character Mrs Do As You Would Be Done By in the Water Babies as a child – glad to be of service when it means reading such a heartfelt reminder. Sic Vos Non Vobis was my school motto and perhaps it should be Foodwolf’s ‘This you do, not for yourselves’.

  10. I agree with everything you said, Brooke. Ever since studying hospitality management in undergrad, I’ve had a similar view. It’s taken a while but I have learned over the years how to give productively so that it is constructive both for others and myself.

  11. Dyepotgirl
    July 23

    What a great article! I know exactly what you mean and I try to put Service in action every day. Most days it’s really easy, but occasionally it’s really a tremendous effort. Like when you don’t feel good, or you have a particularly rotten day and just don’t seem to have the energy to make the effort. If I manage to push through it I’m always amazed at how much better I feel, and how I get a recharge in the energy department. It’s like when I can tell a retail clerk or waitress is having a really bad day. I will make a little extra effort to be really nice and maybe to crack a joke to make them smile. It’s always worth the effort when you see someone who seemed to have the weight of the world on their shoulders relax a little, brighten up and smile. It makes my day.
    Service is a gift that we can give anytime and anywhere. To coin a phrase, “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” For me, when you boil Service down to it’s most basic essence, it’s really all about love. Loving and caring about what you do for a living, or some aspect of it. Caring about others, and trying to make the world just a little bit better, or life just a little bit easier for someone else just because you can. When you pack your husband’s lunch or a snack, you’re telling him you love him and care about him. You didn’t have to make him lunch but you did because you love him.When someone opens a door for another person, they are saying that they see this person, that they care and that person matters. Some people might think that my thoughts about this subject are sentimental, dated and naive. That nowadays, most people who still do things like open doors or other random acts of kindness are just doing it out of habit. I think they are wrong. Love is the one thing that we get to take with us when we die. Think about it. It’s probably the one thing in the whole universe that we can never run out of. It’s inextinguishable. So when we do something nice for someone else, when we care about what we do for a living or how we treat others, what we’re really doing is just spreading a little bit of love around. How cool is that! What an amazing gift to ourselves and others. I don’t know about you but I find that the great feeling that I get when I try to be of Service to others is really addictive. There are definitely worse thing to be addicted to. Great article! thanks so much for sharing it!

  12. Brooke, what a beautiful post. I work on the service side of the museum community, and I’m sharing this post with my clients. In my daily meditation, I have a phrase about, “Whenever I get too hung up on myself, I turn my attention to serving others.” It works every time. Thanks for sharing this in such an articulate way.

  13. Brooke, I think this is both lovely and true. So much of life is grinding and necessary, and the only two things that are reliably joyful and ennobling are love and service.

    You’re going through life with a focus on ennabling other people’s happiness, and spreading good will. And you can never, ever be made to feel small, even by the meanest of hearts, for the simple reason that you’re not small. You are so very large.

    I loved this post.

    • Food Woolf
      July 23

      Thanks for the encouragement, Tamar! It’s nice to know that the message of humble and generous service is big enough for all of us to share.
      xoxox, Brooke

  14. Awesome post and if everyone shared your views here the world would be a better place.

  15. What an inspiring post and one that everyone should read because I think we have forgotten what our grandparents once did naturally. Taking the time to put others’ requirements before our own is not something we are taught anymore, it’s all about “me” and “mine”. I think the concept of being of service to one another is one that needs to be revived for sure!

  16. christina
    August 1

    Yes. Emphatically, YES. Thank you for being the right words at the right time. Much love to you and H. ~ Christina

  17. Amen, sister! Service is a concept much in need of more focus in our world today, even in the so name “hospitality” industry. The New Testament names hospitality as a gift of the spirit- if only more of us remembered that.

  18. Amen! Generosity of spirit and resources and gifts always serves one well. Just had this same conversation with my teenagers!

    • Food Woolf
      August 6

      Thanks Shelley. And a double thanks for being such a great mom and teacher to your teenagers! What a great lesson to share with them.

  19. […] staff, and educate teams on how to give great service to customers. The more I teach the art of customer service, the more I realize that the work I do has roots in the ancient teachings of compassion and […]

  20. November 30

    Thank you so much for posting your thoughts on living a life of service. It’s exactly the theme I want to present at our company employee awards ceremony tomorrow. I usually begin this annual ceremony with a short (some years not so short but I’m trying!) “pep” talk on a topic that supports the underlying values we seek to encourage among our staff. In a nutshell this boils down to everyone doing their part to create a mutually supportive and respectful workplace. Last year the theme was gratitude and the strong link between feelings of gratitude and personal happiness. This year, while reviewing our employee of the month nominations the recurring theme of service kept popping into my head. It seemed to me that most of the monthly EOM award winners had one thing in common which prompted a nomination from their coworkers: they put the needs of another person before their own. One person went out of her way and put in extra effort to keep a colleague’s work caught up while the colleague was off on vacation – so the person wouldn’t have to return from her vacation to face a pile of work stacked up on her desk; another, who had her work caught up for the day, volunteered to help a neighboring dept. that was swamped – instead of hiding out at her desk surfing the web. I thought to myself: these people are putting the service of others first and in doing so they are contributing to a positive and productive workplace. I did a Google search to look for help finding the right words to present the topic of service to our staff tomorrow. Your comments popped up. I appreciate that you took the time to put “pen to paper.” Thank you. I have the impression that you won’t mind if I borrow some of your well spoken thoughts for our ceremony tomorrow. Thanks again.

  21. […] when restaurants are your life, you can’t help but enjoy the dare. Can you go another hour without a meal? Is it possible to get […]

  22. April 27

    Thank you! The person that came to mind immediately is Mark Horstman of Manager Tools. He is a management consultant and philosopher extraordinaire on the art of service. If you ask him his title, he will say, “I am a servant.”

    An amazing guy and he and his business partner Mike are both great resources for anyone who manages people (and most of the content is free):

    • Andrea,thank you sooo much for the note and for introducing me to Mark’s site,! What a great resource! Your timing couldn’t be better. There were a bunch of forms I really needed to see. Thank you!

  23. Kyleigh Gingrich
    August 31

    Kyleigh Gingrich
    Univ. 103.16F
    Dr. Braddy
    We were told to read the blog called “Service 101: Living a Life of Service” for our assignment. It was about a girl who realized that her purpose in life was to serve others. She enjoyed helping other people and seeing them happy, made her happy. She admitted that serving other people can be difficult at times, but in the end it is always worth it. I can relate to her to a certain extent. I grew up in a Christian home and we were always taught to be a servant to others and to put others before ourselves. Because of that I would always be doing some form of volunteer work with my church or school, and I really enjoyed it. In fact, last Thanksgiving my sister decided that she was so thankful for the things she had, that she decided to help in a soup kitchen. I joined her and together, along with other volunteers, we served homeless and worse-off people a hot and delicious Thanksgiving meal. We enjoyed helping so much that we helped again on Christmas Eve. Doing things for people makes you feel good inside, and that was a major point that the author of the blog was getting at. Helping those in need is a wonderful thing and is something that I truly enjoy doing.

  24. Colleen Mitchell
    March 10

    Thank you for this gift today! God bless you.

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