Why you're not happy, but could be

The Champagne corks should have been popping for Eric Justice. Barely into his 40s, the admittedly driven chef had achieved the sort of success that instructors recount in culinary schools to stoke students’ dreams and determination. He was overseeing culinary operations for one of the industry’s hottest concepts, making a good income from a company hailed as a great and challenging place to work.

But the skyrockets weren’t flying for Pei Wei’s vice president of culinary development. Justice was packing 40 extra pounds, treading the broken glass of divorce proceedings, not seeing his kids enough and just not feeling the elation a person with his ambition might have expected. “Here I had this great job, but I wasn’t that happy about it,” he recalls. “Nothing was wrong. It just wasn’t remarkable.”

It’s an all-too familiar bit of soul searching for people in foodservice. Restaurant Business recently surveyed restaurant folks to see if the job has lived up to expectations. Forty-six percent said they’re not as happy in the business as they’d anticipated.

Many didn’t pinpoint what’s missing, or how to get it in foodservice. When we asked our disappointed respondents what would make them happier, about 20 percent skipped the question. Of those who responded, more than 9 percent gave an answer that amounted to changing careers.

Justice, who started in a kitchen at age 16, didn’t want to change careers. But he couldn’t diagnosis the blahs of his current job track. He read the Top 20 business books, but “they didn’t really have an impact on me. No one seemed to be talking about how to change as a person.”

In the winter of 2009, a friend invited Justice to attend a three-day business seminar, where instructor Jonathan Clark spoke of setting “declarative goals” and carefully considering the way you pursued them. It was called Mastering Performance.

For whatever reason, where other self-help philosophies had failed, this one clicked. Justice walked into the program with nagging feelings and walked out with a new direction. Happiness, not merely success, would be his goal.

And, in an epiphany, Justice realized a seeming contradiction: he wasn’t going to find that happiness by focusing on his own well-being. He was only going to make himself happy by making the people around him happy. (We’ll pause for a minute so you chefs can get your head around that one…Ok, let’s continue…)

He saw that he and he alone had to be the agent of change, but the focus had to be on others: his family, his coworkers, his peers, even his boss. He was going to pay them the same share of mind he’d once zealously devoted to himself.

And, in short, his soul-searching and life change worked. Justice terms it “phenomenal.” He’s happy like he’s never been happy. He empowered the people around him, took responsibilities off his plate and gave himself more time to cultivate a life outside of work. Today he’s back with his ex-wife, competing in triathlons and responsible for P.F. Chang’s namesake brand as well as the Pei Wei chain.
He’s no longer the hotshot who knows better than any subordinate, who gets impatient because other departments always seem to be standing in the way of excellence, who finds his emotions unduly souring situations.

Justice gets so much out of empowering others these days that he shares his journey at industry events and mentors other chefs, hoping to re-engineer the business into something more exceptional and rewarding.

Forthwith, Eric Justice’s Guide to Happiness in the restaurant business.

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