How A Waiter’s Pad Saved My Life

The other day during my Twitter Q&A someone asked me why I use a waiter’s pad to write down ideas instead of a small notepad. I didn’t give the complete answer. Now I will.

Before the waiter pad, I had lost all my dignity. It was taken from me. I had taken it from myself. There was a hole. And the hole was filled with misery, depression, embarrassment, anxiety, shame, self-hatred, suicide, fear, pain, pain, PAIN. I was isolated, disgraced, and in HELL. I couldn’t climb out. It was a hole and only bad things filled it and I was all alone.

I needed help. A symbol. I needed sex, passion, abundance, love to fill my life. I needed something to get rid of the non-stop despair. I needed a way to regenerate. To rejuvenate. I needed my dignity again. Which, of course, will eventually bring me to waitresses.

Even waitresses in movies always have a waiter’s pad on them.

There’s two beginnings to the waiter’s pad story. Just like there are two types of explanations for every question: the “good” explanation and the “real” explanation. Think about that the next time someone tries to BS you. Example: a real estate agent will say a good reason to buy a house is because it’s “charming”. But the real reason: it’s cheap. This dichotomy of good versus real occurs with almost every word everyone speaks.

For me, there’s the good reasons when I started using the waiter’s pad. And then there’s the real reasons I was attracted to it.

Summer of 2002: I’m going to be dead honest: I was losing $40-50,000 a month just in living expenses. That’s because I’m mentally deficient. I didn’t know what I was doing. I made some money and decided to immediately up my lifestyle to unbelievable rock-star heights and then I lost all of my money in the worst horrible ways. I stimulated the economy.

So, in the worst bear market, with a loaded gun in my mouth and always a month away from dying (in Yiddish, the first language of my father, “dying” and “losing all of your money” are the same phrase) I had to make about 100% per month daytrading even though I was perpetually optimistic on the market. It was hard and I never want to do it again. I will kill myself if I have to do it again. I’m too old. I’m too tired. I don’t want to be the desperate addict again.

There’s a superhero in DC Comics in the “Legion of Substitute Heroes” from the 30th Century named “Kid Psycho”. He can move objects with his mind. As is the case with many science fiction characters who can move objects with their minds, he was bald and had an over-sized head. And his collar went straight up. But one sad difference with Kid Psycho: everytime he used his power he lost one year of his life. That’s why he was only a Substitute Hero.

That happened to me in 2002. I lost a year of my life every month. Nobody around me understood that. Everyone thought I was living large.But I had to hide everything, I was so ashamed. Every day  I was the worst kind of afraid. Medication and Meditation (funny how they are separated by one letter. I never realized that before) didn’t work. Only making money worked. Else I was dead. And even then, the writing was on the wall – I had four months to live.

Every day I mourned myself. The heartache was too much. Much later, I thought about the lives I could’ve saved and the lives I felt I had cost. Still, to this day, I feel lives are ruined. Heartache, despair, with every day a battle, every day, a practice or I lose against the demons.

It’s all I thought about. All I paced about. I lived 4 blocks from Ground Zero. I hate to say it but I almost wanted another terrorist attack to happen just as an excuse to have someone do me in for me.

But suddenly everything changed. I was walking around the Bowery and wandered into a restaurant supply store. Everything looked so silver and shiny. Everything brought back memories of diners and milkshakes and french fries and sandwiches. I was a little boy in a diner. And then I it. The waiter’s pad. 10 cents a pad. I bought 100 for $10.

I’ll make a list now:

10 Uses for a Waiter’s Pad

– write down ideas. It’s perfect for making a list not so big, not so small. I would write down lists of ideas every day. Bad ideas. My idea muscle had atrophied. But still a list. For instance, I would write down ideas for books I could write. Then I would write down the lists of table of contents for each book. For instance, one book I wanted to write (please steal it) was: “How To Beat Your Friends at Every Game in the Universe”. The idea was to have 4 or 5 trick techniques that if you knew them, you could always beat your friends. For instance: Scrabble. If you simply know all 2 letter words you’re going to win (especially if you know: “XI”, “QI” and “ZA” – very helpful). Also good to know the “Q” without “U”words (“QAT” and “QOPF”) being examples. Nobody will beat you except tournament Scrabble players.

Other games I had ready for the book ranged from chess to Monopoly to Hearts. I felt like I could make a series out of it. It would be fun also.

So that was one idea. Then I would write down ideas for businesses, ideas for hedge funds I could start. Ideas for potential investors. Ideas for articles I could write (and I did eventually write all of them. Even the “games” idea came back in the form of a Financial Times article in 2006.)

That’s how ideas work, they mate, they multiply, they flirt, they dance, they have one night stands, they grow in population and eventually create a child that grows on it’s own, a completely mixed-breed version of ten ideas you might’ve had over the years, as long as you treated them kindly, wrote them down, respected them.

– To-Do lists. Different from idea lists. Sometimes you want to feel good in the morning. A sense of accomplishment, knowing that you can change things in the world, knowing that the world wants to be changed by you. I would write  8 things I had to accomplish by 10am. I was a little boy again with gold stars! Not a grown man with a gun in my mouth!

– I Did lists: You did a lot today. More than you think. No matter how bad you feel you did more than you could’ve imagined. At the end of the day I would write down my “I Did” lists and they were always double or triple what I thought I had done during the day. That would make me feel good. And often it would lead to ideas for the next morning.

– Gratitude lists:  I would keep track of what I was most grateful for. When you are grateful for someone, then all of the good things in their life become yours as well. If you do this every day, your abundance in the world goes up exponentially. This is what happened to me. All because of a waiter’s pad.

– Business cards. If someone needed my number, no problem. I’d rip out a page of the waiter’s pad (if you buy one of those expensive journal/notepads its harder to rip out a page) and I’d write down my contact info. And usually get a laugh out of it as well. Someone would always say, “and I’ll take a coke and fries with that”. haha. Which leads me to…

– Conversation starters. Let’s say I arrive at a meeting, everyone’s gathering themselves, pulling out their pens, their pads, etc and small talk hasn’t started yet. I am bad at chit chat. I don’t know what to chit about. I feel awkward. Now I can pull out my waiter’s pad. Everyone laughs and it’s a good conversation starter. “I’ll order a pie with that steak”. I get that a lot. I’m not good at small talk so a waiter’s pad is a convenient crutch for me.

– It’s Cheap. At 10 cents a pad nobody can accuse me of being lavish. Shows people I’m willing to be frugal. Very handy when meeting with investors. 10 cents a pad is hard to beat. Small note bads at the local art supplies shop might cost you $30.

– Its fits in my shirt pocket. Or my pants. So always very handy to pull out and write ideas down no matter where I am.

– It allows me to steal from bookstores. I hate to admit this. Please don’t judge me. But I caused Borders to go out of business. I’d go through the store, spend hours even looking at books, find the 10 I liked the best, write them down, and then sit in the cafe and order them on my kindle. Easy to do with a waiter’s pad in my shirt pocket. Who would suspect?

– Remembers names: At the top of a waiter’s pad is the shapes of different types of tables with numbers for each position. So now in every meeting I can write down who is sitting in each position and match it to the right table. Perfect for remembering names. My memory is not so good ever since I permanently attached my brain to Google.

All of these things helped me to feel better. I started building my idea muscle which made me turn into an idea MACHINE within months. I started to feel better about what I was accomplishing. I got better at small talk. I gave off the appearance of frugality despite my former drunken rock star lifestyle. It was unique so stayed in people’s minds the way tipping with 2 dollar bills stays in the memory of a waitress so she recognizes me the next time she sees me. All of these things put together brought me from idea, to execution, to meeting, to deal, to selling companies. Even the sight of a waiter’s pad now is enough to turn negative feelings into positive ones, that’s how much luck and success I’ve had with them.

But it’s the waitress comment above that brings me to the “real” reason.

A waitress reminds me of everything I love. Being served. Being a child with mom or grandma cooking. Being comforted. Being saved. Later, as a teenager or in my 20s, being served by beautiful waitresses. How the uniforms would fit them. Often a beautiful light blue with that white collar.

How they would lean to pour the water and show just enough cleavage to let loose the shadows inside. How they would always be asking me, “are you okay?” Sometimes they would add, “hon” to the end of that sentence. They would pull out the pad and ask me what I wanted. A waitress is the womb. A waitress is sex. A waitress is comfort and pleasure and for the moment, takes away the pain.

With a waiter’s pad I feel like Ben Stiller in “Mystery Men”.

(with a waiter’s pad I feel like Ben Stiller in “Mystery Men”)

15 years ago I had a habit of asking out every waitress. I was obsessed. Maybe once in awhile I would date one. And now even when Claudia cooks me dinner it brings back memories of being taken care of in ways that bring me back to every decade of my life. I’m so grateful for the moments when I’m served. When I can relax. When I don’t have to think and it’s all because of a woman. And the waiter’s pad brings that all back.

I know this sounds pathetic. People aren’t supposed to admit to pathetic things. We have keep up the veneer of success, of perfection, even of dignity. But there you go. And that’s why the “real” reason is often hidden and the disguises we wear work overtime to come up with the “good” reasons.

Image of what a waiter’s pad looks like

But both the real reasons and the good reasons have made me feel better over the past decade since I started using waiter’s pads (to the day, to every day, to this morning, to ten minutes ago). They have brought me success and abundance. They have made me feel good. Today  I’m going to go into the city for a meeting that could make me money. I hope it goes well. But I know I will pull out my waiter’s pad to start things off, and no matter what happens in the meeting,  I will be surrounded in my head by sweetness, kindness, gratitude, ideas, and abundance. And life will bend over to serve me and show me it’s beautiful cleavage.

God bless you, my ten cent, light blue, red-lined waiter’s pad.

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  • Rizky Syaiful

    Go and buy waiter’s pad after finishing this post and comment? -> Like this comment.

  •  Some people just like physically writing things. There’s something about it that is just different than typing or tapping away. I usually do pen and paper, and then digitalise everyone to evernote.

    • Aloe

      Now thats a great idea that interfornicates the best of both worlds with a ribbon down below!

  • *sigh* This blog is so good, the whole thing yes, but this post in particular. The realness, the vulnerability, the nostalgia, the inspiration by something so simple. I love it. James, please stay on this path…I feel like you’re walking further down. It reflects in your posts and I see an evolution here in your writing and in you. I hope you know how much it helps others, truly.

  • wow !!!! this was the feel i got after reading it, its true you are not able to fully accomplish the thing when you just think of it, sometime later it just diminishes, distort or even may get escaped from ur mind, but if you pour ur heart n mind out on a piece of paper, it gives u peace ,a constant feedback and motivation to complete the task, there r many doubts ,ideas which keep coming in my mind at every moment after seeing or observing any damn thing, since i don’;t jot dem nywhere dey just erode or escape out in the space, making me feel nostalgic n pathetic at times, carrying with u pen or paper ,or ur phone 2 write ,ny thing vud help, main funda is is 2 “INSCRIBE” :)

  • P_Jaunne

    Another trader’s tale that rings too close to home (sigh).  Not quite the same, but I can wholeheartedly relate with the pain during the descent into the abyss and the aftermath.  In my case meditation helped avoid medication.  I am thankful for that. Still, it did not alleviate the agony of defeat.  To find something to hang on to and to climb out of the abyss in a waiter’s pad is simply ingenius!  Way to go, James.  Thanks for sharing the “rest of the story”

  • achilles3

    This is one of my favorite posts of yours James…I was one hell of a waiter myself. Started off at a Waffle House in SW Ohio and ended at a wicked fun fine-dining joint in the Berkshires called The Firefly. Those pads gave me some serious power too. Might have to get some sent to me!
    Achilles (Seoul)

  • Roy
    • Yes, watched the whole thing. Neil Gaiman has been one of my heroes since about 1990. 

  • Louisa Shiffer

    Mystery men!!  That movie does not get enough love!

    Now I am going to have to buy some waiter’s pads.  It will be nostalgic-believe it or not, being a waitress was one of my favorite jobs.

  • Nobodyinparticular

     Sometimes, I read your posts and think, “Wow, that’s me.”  And I tear up.

    Today, I cried.

    Thank you.

  • Tom

    I would love to read your article on games, especially why In Monopoly, the most valuable properties are the Oranges. Is there any chance to read it? Tom

    • I can tell you right now on Monopoly. A certain % of time people land on the Go To Jail card. So you’re on the Jail spot more than any other spot on the board. So when you roll from there you are most likely to land on an Orange property and pay exorbitant rents if someone owns it. So value / price is very high for the Oranges. 

      • xuinkrbin


  • “Heartache, despair, with every day a battle, every day, a practice or I lose against the demons.” I love this line and can relate. Best post yet!

  • Bruisedbutnotbeaten

    At times,  you mentioned your divorce. I’m going through the most pain I’ve ever had in my life. After 26 years, my wife left me for old boyfriend(major trade downwards) and is trashing me in the process. I’m in survival mode now for over 18 months. If I hear “move” or “accept it” one more time I think I’ll scream! Advice?

    • Yes. Acknowledge that you are feeling pain. Ask yourself, where am I feeling this pain. Feel it. This takes you one step out of “the past” that you put yourself in (the “why did this happen?” feeling). Of course you are mourning something inredibly painful. It’s difficult. But just sitting there with the feeling NOW instead of the diving into the past with the “WHY?” and “WHAT IF?” is the first step towards making that pain wither so you can move forward. Part of that is also doing the daily practice I recommend. 

  • Dicky_howard

    James, do you buy your waiters pads online now?  Could you tell us where you buy them?

    • I was about to ask this. Couldn’t find good ones on Amazon.

      • At 100 of them he might not have needed to buy more yet… Idea slacker.

  • i was using the reminders on the iphone but u make me want to go out and buy a waiter’s pad. I think I am going to. I think we all associate things with people especially nostalgia. If I would say one thing that would help me is a book like Agatha Christie. Reading an Agatha Christie brings back nostalgic memories and it is my go to refuge when I am low. Reminds me when I was 10 years and my mom used to feed me lunch during summer vacations and I was happily engrossed in a Christie book. I have since then had multiple favorite writers – Pamuk, Steinbeck, Philip Roth, Graham Greene but I still go back to my Christie when feeling low. Such is life!

    • Yes, the nostalgia aspect is key with the waiter’s pads also. I have a hard time anyway with smartphones just because i cant type so fast on them. So too much thinking in order to type takes away the thinking from the ideas. 

  • Atinuke

    Very interesting and Humourous! Thanx but I’ll stick to my expensive pads that I keep in my not so expensive hand bag.

  • Rob Hunsicker

    James, if you write the chess book, I would probably buy it. Every book out there is either for noobs or experts. There’s not much out there for casual players who like the game but mostly just want to beat their friends. 

    • I was thinking these games: chess, backgammon, checkers, scrabble, monopoly, hearts, Risk, crazy 8s, Othello, Go, poker to start with. And then additional books in the series for video games, etc. But this was an idea from 2002. I never did it. The idea would be 5 or 6 tricks per game that the average player would not think of that would make you dominate anyone who hadn’t studied the game. 

      • Jcmnjc

        …yes please.  I am, like Rob, between noob and expert and mostly enjoy besting friends :D.

      • Roy

        Instead of a book….how abt a free or subscription based site

        And others can give their tips and tricks too

      • Tor Munkov

         Couldn’t you write a book of the sort you’re writing now? A chapter for each game. The way you play the game is a lesson in life philosophy. In Go, you need to defend your liberties from your opponents or else get erased and die. What should I when I’m in Atari, both in the game, and in life?

      • I’ll support this book on KickStarter…

      • John

         Why would you want to dominate your friends? Most people secretly think they are losers already. Perhaps we would have more true friends if we didn’t want beat them down like the rest of the world.

  • Kevin M

    Great post James, it made me laugh several times. I’m grateful to get to read your blog!

  • Ha. I’m a writer and I need a notepad at all times. I think I’ll go get a waitress pad for my next one. When people ask me why I have a waitress pad I’ll say “Because James Altucher lost a pile of money.” That will be the good reason. The real reason will be the stuff you said here.

  • mikeyhell

    Down here in hot, sweaty Florida I had to compromise with the writing pad. A waiter’s pad wouldn’t last 10 minutes in your pocket here; you’d end up with all your ideas and to-dos dripping down your shirt and the paper would be a big, wet ball. So instead I dug out an old “Rite in the Rain” notebook that I had from my grad school days. The paper is water proof and if you use a fine point Sharpie the text won’t bleed. Pencil works but it smears if you’re a lefty like me. The notebook is bound like a small book and will fit into a large, sweaty pocket. It’s not disposable; you wouldn’t want to toss it when you’re finished. It’ll live with you. Mine follows me wherever I go. 

  • SF

    James – not sure where to start. 3 years ago I blew up my life. My hedge funds crashed, my biz partner was lying and stealing from the business and me, I was cheating on my wife with a co-worker, I was banned by the SEC, sued by my clients and lost virtually all my money. I moved from my hometown NYC to the middle of nowhere in the Midwest. I have been rejected on all job applications and I am down to my last few rent payments. Your honesty and sense of hope has been extraordinarily encouraging to me in these days. Thanks for what you are doing and please keep writing!

  • Great post in many, many ways. But as a writer it struck home for me on a more minor note as well. As a journalist I would always use legal pads turned horizontal to write, and I would do word webs instead of follow the lines, generally.  Sources would make fun of me for writing sideways, but our odd writing habits are hard to break. 

  • kevin faul

    so why don’t you set up an estore and sell waiter’s pads? you could print the titles of all your books on the back of each page.

  • Capitalistic

    Amen. I did the same thing when I sold my business in a fire sale. I was depressed for a month. Didn’t eat. Lost weight. Moved back to my mothers house. Horrible time in my life.
    I started brainwashing myself back into reality. I wrote feel good phrases about myself:”You’re awesome””You’re handsome”
    “You took a risk”
    “You have balls”
    “You’re fairly tall”
    “Your girlfriend still loves you”
    And it slowly worked. Writing helps. I started rationalizing why it was a good idea to sell asap. I started coming up with newer and better ideas. 
    Bravo James!

  • madLyfe

    nice post! i really enjoyed it!

  • jbecker

    Great post as usual… but what do you do with all of those pads?  Do you ever look back through them?  

    I started using moleskine books because the pages don’t come out (allows me to go back in time to meetings… sometimes seeing the doodles, handwriting, etc. enhances my memory of the conversations).  Now I have piles of these ridiculously overpriced books (God, I hope nobody reads them when I die) that I will likely never open again.

    Maybe i will switch to the old Guest Check… smaller and FAR cheaper… and they bring me back to my dad’s restaurant when i was a kid.

  • bthewall

    The waiter’s pad is now part of your imago.

    Read Harville Hendrix’s groundbreaking work “How to Get the Love You Want” for a better understanding of imago.

  • “And life will bend over to serve me and show me it’s beautiful cleavage.”
    now that’s a line I wish I’d written…..

  • Ms

    Super like!

  • Dave

    A beautiful post yet again.

  • Quite a few waitresses I have met have stock trading accounts.Go in on a slow day and you will pick up some stock tips to research.A few years back a waitress from the Midwest won the CNBC contest.Hmm,maybe i will start a hedge fund with all of them as stock analysts.

  • AP

    James, the way you take the reader through the journey from childhood memories and connect them to your sorrows and how you were able to pull through all the difficult times is amazing. The writer pad has been a savior and you have backed it by showing what it really means to you. This definitely did need a separate post as the reply in the Q&A did not do full justice to something such as this. Keep up the great work.

  • jg

    How many times have you saved my life int he last year, Super James?  I can’t say–but here’s another.

  • and just maybe

  • it’s because you are now serving

  • Dan Limbach

    This is my take on the waitress pad. James isn’t recommending we all start using waitress pads (unless someone wants to). The point is we all have to find our own hacks to get to where we want. A waitress pad helps James flex his idea muscle. For someone else, it could be a portable digital recorder or a smartphone or a tablet. Just find something that works and dedicate yourself to the craft of generating ideas. Don’t pick something that gives you an excuse to not generate ideas.

  • Rjmccormick

    Years ago, I had to leave a country on short notice. I ended up in Anchorage, Alaska on New Year’s Day morning with $1.25 and no plane ticket. The life-walkback seemed not possible, yet here I am. Sometimes the path we take is a necessary one even though we only see destruction and waste all around. The Wind & The Lion (1975) Sherif of Wazan: Great Raisuli, we have lost everything. All is drifting on the wind as you said. We have lost everything.
    Raisuli: Sherif, is there not one thing in your life that is worth losing everything for?
    [they both begin to laugh]
    Share this quote

  • Torsloke

    This struck home. I’ve fallen in love with every waitress who’s ever served me (and quite a few of the waiters). You nailed (pardon the pun) the appeal.

  • Do waiter pads have a nice weight to the paper? Weird Q, I know but I don’t want to buy a bunch that feel like newsprint.

  • Martha Vienna

    Thank you.

  • Nolan Walker

    I came across the following on The Chive a few days ago and my first thought was: James Altucher! I really think you’ll appreciate the photo gallery, and specifically wanted to share it in a comment to this blog entry as it is all about waiter pads:


  • InvisibleSun

    So excited to get going with my waiter’s pads! Just bought a 10 pack at Staples. Bring on the abundance, gratitude and flexing of the idea muscle! I’ll also be launched back to my days as a car hop! I’m always scrambling to write down ideas .. so this is going to be perfect! Thanks!

  • Christian Gambardella

    Hi James, where can I buy these waiter’s pads?

  • Jp

    I use the notepad on the phone and a real notepad almost the same amount of time. Should start carrying the real one with me everywhere and using it more.
    One thing I would add is to keep the old notes. When you´re some day going through them to throw them away, a lot of forgotten good ideas will flood back.

    I also use sketching and MS paint before doing anything in CAD or illustrator to formulate the idea and next steps without worrying about execution and only focusing on the idea itself.

    Ty, James, for another really good post and happy upcoming birthday to you!

  • Gabriel

    Doesn’t using a cheap product make you look cheap and unprofessional?

    • Erin

      He prefers the term “frugal”.

  • les_lim0121

    Good article. I was really enjoyed reading your post. This is truly worthy to read. Good content and good information. God bless!


  • Jeffrey Tang

    how excatly do you steal from bookstores? what is the ’10’ you referred to?

  • Tommer

    That was a FANTASTIC read. I know paragraphs 2 and 3 way too well. Thanks for sharing this story. I plan to read it again. And probably again.