The Service Epiphany

One of the coolest jobs I have ever had was working at Tower Records when I was around nineteen or twenty years old. Unfortunately, the pay was inversely proportional to the cool factor. If you have ever seen the movie Empire Records with John Cusack, the experience was similar to that. Most of the people who worked at Tower, myself included, were music nerds who were customers as much as we were employees. We paid five percent above cost for music, movies, and books and a lot of my paycheck every week went back into Tower’s pockets. It was a fair trade, as far as I was concerned.

When I first started working at Tower, I was a music snob. I liked what I liked. I knew what was good and what was pop garbage or music for old people and I scoffed at anything that was not hip enough or edgy enough for me. It never occurred to me that the pop albums and the classic rock were what kept the place in business so that I could buy the latest Front Line Assembly or Massive Attack CD and get dozens of free avant garde promos from the indie label record buyer. Celine Dion and Blink 182 were a waste of space, as far as I was concerned.

I was working the floor one night, putting away new albums and cleaning up the racks, when a woman asked me if I knew where some new popular record was. I did, so I showed her. As I handed it to her, I could see that she was visibly happy to have it. Something in me shifted. Regardless of her taste in music not aligning with my own, it felt good to see her smile. I walked away with my head a little higher as I processed the encounter.

The simple act of helping this stranger, with no selfish or ulterior motive whatsoever, was transformative. I wanted more of that feeling. I was on a mission to help as many customers as I could to find what they were looking for. Every time I did, it was like hitting a reset button on my day and I felt more vibrant and alive. It turns out that our personal tastes, preferences, or opinions really have nothing to do with being of service or the value it adds to our lives or the lives of those around us.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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