In 1851, James Abram Garfield convinced the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute to hire him as a janitor in exchange for college tuition. He woke hours before the first classes, took pride in keeping the facilities as clean as possible. By the time he was a sophomore, the college promoted him from cleaning toilets to a professorship; just a few years later, he was named the Dean of Students. Not too long after that, he was elected President of the United States.
Though I have never slept in the White House, I too have cleaned a lot of toilets in my day. For years I waited tables at a local diner that served meat-and-three to I-75 travelers. Long shifts of hot, backbreaking work and it paid less than minimum wage because I got tips – generally twenty-five to fifty-cents per table. Sometimes tempers flared in the kitchen – anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows what I mean – and sometimes you dropped plates, and sometimes customers hated the food and yelled at you. And at all times, your hair smelled like frog legs. And one a week, your shift went to close, which meant you had to haul out the garbage and clean the toilets before you could go home.
I loved that job, loved the people I worked with, loved my customers, loved asking people where they were from and finding common ground, loved cajoling someone into an extra cup of coffee or adding ice cream to their blackberry cobbler order. The fry cook introduced me to early rap, and loaned me Straight Outta Compton. A waitress in her sixties taught me life hacks when that was just called knowing stuff; she showed me how to fit two big bowls in one small microwave (you set one of them on top of a mug). The dishwasher taught me to curse in Spanish; my favorite is still tonto del culo, which means idiot of the butt. As our diner was just off the interstate, I met customers from every state in the country.
But I wasn’t a born waitress. I called my mom after the first shift, crying and exhausted. My arms ached from carrying trays piled with heavy plates and my feet ached from the eight or so miles I had walked with those trays (I wore a pedometer once and learned this was how far I walked on a normal shift). My mom listened with love but without pity. Like Andrew Carnegie, my mother believed everyone should be “introduced to the broom” early and often in life. “Listen honey,” she said. “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
I thought about it that night and returned to the diner the next night with renewed energy and pride. Self-absorbed or entitled was not for me. If I was going to clean toilets, then they would sparkle. I decided that I would love that job, and that deciding made me a great waitress. My cheer rubbed off on others, made someone’s bad day brighter, made my time there move quickly instead of at a glacial, cheerless pace. I didn’t get rich waiting tables, but I loved it anyway. And I now know the words to almost every Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton song ever written.
How you do anything is how you do everything.
I have done many things in life. Some of those things are impressive, some tedious, others straight up grueling. But none of those things were – or are – beneath me. Like Garfield, I realize that every decision I make, action I take, word I speak, or thought I have contributes to the life I want to lead. Every occasion is an opportunity to show up or give up. We tend to partition our lives into neat columns: job, family life, and personal growth. But they’re intrinsically linked. My job is not just as a yoga teacher or writer or mindfulness coach. My job is also to be a wife, parent, sister, daughter, and friend. My job is to be an active member of my community and a steward of my planet. My job is to show up, not give up. My job is to clean the toilet with honor and integrity.
Whatever I am doing, I plan to do it with all my heart. Because how you do anything is how you do everything.