Food for Thought

Really, I do mean food for thought. As in using it as a replacement for it or better yet, as sort of a teaching exercise.

A few years ago, I was experiencing probably the most stressful time in my early career. I was doing well, ‘exceeding expectations’ on a regular basis (whatever that means), but when that happens it usually comes with two other things:

  1. Exceeding expectations becomes your “norm”, and
  2. The pressure starts to get to you.

I found myself sleeping less, getting crankier and more temperamental than what was typical of me, and I became less pleasant to be around, even for myself. My work didn’t suffer but it also wasn’t giving me the satisfaction that I wanted, either in the process or the results.

You must understand that the concept of “exceeding expectations” means that you are doing more than should reasonably be expected. That’s not a silly definition I said there, really break it down: you are operating in an excess–it is simply not sustainable. In retrospect, that’s obvious to me now, but when you are in the middle, you don’t get that a) staying in the leading, bleeding edge will catch up eventually, and b) you some times need to take a breather, to step back and recalibrate. R&R is not just soldiers.

What became my way of stepping back, of recalibrating, was food. I used food, more specifically, cooking, as a way of teaching myself to slow down, of healing, and of learning how to think clearly again. I took a series of cooking classes; a few one-off’s and a single 4-class intensive on Fundamentals of Asian Cooking, which resulted in three life lessons:

  1. Stay focused. It is very easy to slice a fingernail or a fingertip off.
  2. Practice, practice, practice. No one becomes a champion at filleting a fish, mincing garlic, chiffonading mint, peeling a grapefuit, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera in a day. It takes time and it takes consistent practice.
  3. Learn the fundamentals. They are fundamentals because they are universal.

So, how did that translate back into my work life and how did it give me balance?

Cut the distractions at work or conversely find a way to mask them so that you can focus. It is very easy for e-mails, chatting coworkers, phone calls, office potlucks, tapping fingers or the paper airplanes to take you away from a task you are focused on. Even two seconds could be enough to break your flow. if it means you need to work from a coffee shop or to work from home a few days or you must hole up in a conference room–go do it. Your productivity will go up.

If you don’t use skills, they will stagnate. If you are in a job which is not stretching you or challenging you to learn something new, if not every day, on some regular basis, your mind is hardening like clay. If you have a skill, technical or functional, that you want to keep and hone and make stronger, you can’t just take a class on it–you must use it. I still come home some evenings and prep the heck out of my kitchen: my knife cuts are perfect and that’s because I’m not letting them rot. Don’t let your work skills rot either.

Fundamental skills are transferable. In the kitchen, good technique goes a very long way to working unfamiliar ingredients but still being able to bang out a good braise, a great sauce, or a pretty plate. That is no different in any job. If you learn the fundamentals well, you will always be able to apply them to new projects, different products, new teams or pretty much anything. What are some of those fundamentals? Be punctual; be organized; have solid communication skills; read; write thoughtfully and clearly.

I don’t have as much time anymore these days to take a lot of cooking classes, but like i said above, some times I come into the house and I go to chop peppers, to slice and caramelize onions,  or put together a meal step-by-step, piece-by-piece.

It keeps me centered. I stay focused, I practice things again and again, I go back to the building blocks.

Food for thought, don’t you think?

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