For the month of April I want to share a story about a person that I had met for only a few minutes, but during that brief encounter, it so profoundly changed the way I viewed myself , that it instantly changed the direction of my life.
Before I tell you about that life-changing moment, I have to preface my story with some facts about me. I grew up in a family of eight children, seven boys and one girl. I was number three. My first ever educational experience was the day I walked into my 1st-grade classroom. Because I did not go to preschool or kindergarten I was moved from classroom to classroom before the school finally found one that was suitable for me. I was such a daydreamer with A.D.D. that on my third-grade report card my teacher wrote, ”Russell seems to always be lost in space.” All throughout my junior high and high school years, the best grades I ever received were “C’s” and “D’s”. My main focus throughout school was simply to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Although I did graduate from high school, college was never on my radar. I figured that since my dad owned restaurants at the time I would at least have a job once I left school.
Now, the moment that changed my life’s trajectory happened while I was working at El Toro in La Porte during the mid-80’s. I had attended a luncheon hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce and the company they hired to cater the event did such a fantastic job that it caught my attention. Everything they did was perfect, from the way the buffet line and dining tables were set up, to the uniforms that the employees wore. It made such an impression on me that I made my way over to near the buffet line, and started up a conversation with the owner of the catering company, a lady in her late 30’s. I asked her various questions about her business. After she learned that I also worked in the restaurant industry, she asked me if our company also offered catering. Now, I do not remember what exactly I said or how I must have said it, but what I do remember is this lady stopping me mid-sentence and saying to me, “Well, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will!” I instantly froze at that moment. It was like she took a huge piece of lumber and hit me upside my head with it. It must’ve been my body language along with how I answered her, but she was absolutely correct. If I did not believe in myself, or lacked confidence in my ability to do anything worthwhile, how in the world was I ever going to get anyone else to believe in me? I wasn’t! And to this day I am so grateful that she was bold enough to say that to my face.
Six months before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated he spoke to a group of Junior High students in Philadelphia. He used the analogy of a blueprint to make his point that whenever a building is constructed, there is usually a blueprint that serves as the guide on how a building is to be constructed. And without a good, solid blueprint a building will not be well erected. He went on to tell the students that each one of them are in the process of building the structure of their lives. MLK suggested some of the things that must be in their life’s blueprint. Number one was (in his words), “..should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”
A couple of reasons why I lacked self-confidence was, number one since I grew up in such a large family, my siblings and I always seemed to insult one another. It was almost like a sport to see who could do it the meanest. As a matter of fact, even years later in 1993 when I decided to open up the first Gringo’s in a building where four other restaurants had already failed, I was told that I was crazy and that I was going to fail, and this was from just a couple of my own siblings! Another reason why I lacked self-confidence, was because of the fact I did not go to college. During my late teens and early twenties, anytime I would find myself in a social setting and if I suspected that the topic of college was about to come up, I would make it a point to break away in order not to be asked where I had attended college.
In that same speech Martin Luther King gave in Philadelphia, he tells the students that the second thing they must have in their life’s blueprint is the determination to achieve excellence in their various fields of endeavor. MLK finishes his speech by telling the students that no matter what they end up becoming in life, that they do it to the best of their ability. Once again, in his words - ”And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job, set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
Today, whenever I am asked by someone what line of work I’m in I proudly say, “I serve tacos and enchiladas for a living.” I have gotten way past the trap of defining myself through the eyes of other people. How someone views me today is way less important than it once was, and that is because now my primary focus in life and in business is to simply be the very best that I can be, by surrounding myself with people who help make me a better person, and by first believing in myself.