Can you learn any useful career lessons while eating breakfast at an airport Burger King? Turns out you can if you mix luck with awareness.
In 2009 I left home on a service mission for my church. This story isn’t about how I spent the two years of that mission. It is about one odd event that started it off.
I was at the Salt Lake airport headed to Arizona. Being 19 at the time I was still brave enough (or dumb enough) to think Burger King breakfast was a safe thing to eat before a flight. As I stood in line chatting with a friend, someone ahead of us in line caught my eye. It was hard to be 100% sure so early in the morning…but it looked like…maybe it was…yep it was almost certainly Cheech Marin from Cheech and Chong.
We debated between ourselves for a bit and finally decided it had to be him. So we did the only thing that made sense. We got out of line and ran back through the terminal to our group to find a digital camera. We didn’t have cellphones at the time, but even if we did you couldn’t trust them to do the work of a real camera at such a critical time. We got the camera and sprinted back to Burger King. He was still in line, so we got back in line as well, we wanted to get some food before we risked embarassment in approaching him.
After we got our food we walked over to where he was sitting. After sheepishly saying hi, we confirmed he was in fact Cheech, and learned that he was traveling home with his kids. We asked if we could take a picture with him and he said "yes", but only if we sat down and ate breakfast with him first.
It was definitely a weird sight, two church missionaries eating breakfast with a comedian and his two kids. Cheech was on Lost at the time which was one of my favorite shows. I asked him about how he got involved with the show. That started us the path of him talking about his career.
He got his start and rose to fame as a comedian, along with Tommy Chong. They carved out their own niche in the industry, and people came to expect a certain type of comedy and style from him.
It would have been pretty easy for him to coast on that persona for the rest of his life. But he wanted more. He wanted to try other styles of comedy and also take on more serious work. But the only way that was going to happen was if he pushed himself. No one was going to encourage him to step outside of the work that made him famous. Most people thought he was crazy for breaking from a successful formula.
He told us things were bumpy at the outset, and at other times throughout the journey. It was difficult to get others to see him in a new light. He had to work hard to refine and develop his skills. But eventually he proved to himself and others, that he could do a lot more, and be successful across multiple genres.
This has always stuck with me (it’s hard to forget one of the most weird and random meals of your life.) But it’s stuck with me for more than just the novelty. In that career journey is a lesson for all of us. If we’re good at something, it is easy to get complacent. If we do our job well it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Others will come to know you for your brand of work. And as long as you keep delivering, they often won’t expect anything more from you. Before we know it, we’re are coasting along on what got us here.
The lesson to learn is that if we want to grow and become more than we are, then we need to be the ones pushing ourselves. We need to invest the time to develop our skills. We need to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone. Others aren’t going to do it for us. And they may even think we are crazy for breaking from a successful formula. But if we are willing to do the work, we can prove ourselves to be successful at almost anything.
I never thought I would one day be writing about a lesson I learned while eating with a comedian at an airport Burger King. But you can bet that it’s a story that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
You can also bet that every time I’m at the airport, I scan the restaurant lines, hoping to see Tommy Chong. Hoping he’ll let me eat lunch with him and I’ll learn some more, unexpected career lessons.