I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Life Less Ordinary

Note: There may be a bit of "yay me" in this post, and there may be a bit of "woe is me" and there may be a bit of "self deprecating me" and a whole lot of other references to "me." No different to my other posts here, but made somewhat more interesting by the fact that a) I plan to spill out my guts and b) I plan to not edit it, but just hit "publish post" instead. This is emzeegee, laid bare.

I recently had a conversation with DH where I admitted (for the millionth time) that I am totally unsure of myself as a chef, and that I think I use the children as an excuse to NOT challenge myself. To whit - a few weeks ago I saw an ad in the paper for a job I'd like to have. It's was at a well known, internationally recognized restaurant. To put that I worked there on my resume would be a BIG thing for me, and potentially would open some doors. The ad was hiring for all levels of staff, so there is no reason (theoretically) why I couldn't apply, and at the very least get to the interview stage. However as I looked at that ad, several thoughts ran through my head. First came self doubt - but I've never worked in a restaurant (of this type) before. I wouldn't know what I'm doing. What if I get hired and I suck and then I get fired? What if I'm not fast enough? What if I hate it? What if I don't get along with the people who work there? Shortly after the self-doubt came the supposed "reasons" as to why this job wouldn't be good anyway: I love pastry, and they aren't really known for pastry. I'd have to work loads more hours than I do now, and that might be bad for my mental/physical health. It's in the city, and I hate shlepping to the city and dealing with the traffic and the parking and the whole thing. I wouldn't ever be home for dinner. DH would have to take on more than he already does. Then came more excuses: I wouldn't get to see the children at night. I'd never be able to go out with friends or be involved with the kids' school or other social organizations which hold meetings at night. How would I fit culinary school in? Would I ever see the (rest of) my family? My relationship with DH would suffer. This job would put a serious dent in my lifestyle.

Interestingly, I had this same conversation with the Executive Chef at my current job. His take on it was that the people who work in these types of places might be lauded for their culinary genius, but that they're also divorced, lonely, burnt out, and on drugs and hating their lives. In his opinion, I have been making the right choice all along, and it's far more important to balance work and life than it is to say "I worked at Spago." (or wherever)

So I had my excuses of kids, hours, money, life...and so on and so forth. An endless list of why this job, a job which I think would teach me a lot and really, really put me on the map, and potentially somehow VALIDATE my chef self... isn't the right job for me. So this has me thinking. Do I feel it's not the right job for me because it really isn't? (See reasons above.) Is is not the right job for me ...just because I am terrified of somehow not succeeding at it? Is my fear of failure somehow keeping me from achieving more in the first place? Truth is, I don't really know the answer to this one. I make no secret about the fact that I am a Type A personality, a classic extrovert competitive overachiever Capricornian success-hound. The sad thing is, I not only want to be successful, I DESPERATELY *NEED* to be. Case in point, if I make/cook/bake/write something (anything at all), I need enormous, ridiculous amounts of positive praise just to feel as though what I've done is good enough. Case in point, this past weekend I made some sandwiches and platters for a meeting DH had to go to. When he got back, I totally HOUNDED him about how it all was. Did they like it? Why didn't they finish it all? What did people say about it? Was it enough for everyone? Were YOU happy with it? ...and when he gave me a (very reasonable) answer of 'it was all fine and everyone was happy' - *I* wasn't happy. I kept at him, nipping at his heels wanting more info about how it all went. For fuck's sake, I was harassing him for feedback about egg salad sandwiches and a fruit platter. Yes, really. This is how much I need to know that I am good enough. Good enough for who? I'm not sure about that either.

The Baker's Wife mailed me this article about the "power and peril" about praising your kid. She sent it because she thought it might be of interest to me, as a parent of school-aged kids. I spent the entire time reading it thinking, holy shit, this article is about me. For as long as I can remember I've been told how great I am. How clever, how smart, how mature, how well-spoken, how well I do a bunch of things, and how "everything I touch I succeed at." At the end of the day I don't really care how hard I tried (although I try to convince myself that this matters). I care only that I WON, I SUCCEEDED, and that other people know of my brilliance. Reading this article I was reminded not only of the praise I got as a child, but the fact that my grades through most of junior high, high school, and college netted me a solid B/C average. I freely admit that I made almost no effort through those years, and as a result I suffered the consequences. I didn't win awards in high school, didn't get into my "dream" college, didn't study a degree in college which I gave two shits about, didn't get a great job, didn't really have any focus whatsoever (and yet was "good at everything"). I knew I was smart. I didn't really have to try. That not trying, though ... the not trying is what left me in my late twenties with a feeling of mediocrity. An unchallenging job, a constant seeking for something to "DO" with my life. I don't blame my parents, or my childhood experiences - I've had a great life, with exceptionally loving (if demanding) parents. They did what parents (myself included) know how to do. Sadly, I think it did me a disservice.

Throughout my various jobs I've often been praised for being dogged in my determination to get things done, see them through to the end, meet my goals. This was true of my weight loss efforts, too. However as soon as the reward was given - the goal achieved, the praise no longer given, the task finished, the paper handed in... I lose all interest. In the case of my weight loss, I was getting months and months of praise for my dramatic changed. I hit a fairly lengthy plateau and thus was getting no praise....and I basically abandoned ship, and gained it all back again. In the article I mention above Po talks about research into "praise junkies" - people who are literally hard-wired to need praise, and who have very little persistence because they "quit when the rewards disappear." While I have persistence, as soon as I either approach or just get over the finish line (whatever that line might be), I'm looking for my next challenge. Similarly if a task is no longer rewarding (as in the weight loss), I lose interest. If it's not hard to do and I'm not good at it, it's not worth it.

This is me, in a nutshell. I constantly need positive reinforcement, just to feel like what I do is adequate. This means I stay in a job where I know I perform well...and I don't apply for the jobs where I can't be 100% sure that I'll perform not only as well, but better. I dwell on negative feedback for an unhealthy amount of time - regardless of whether or not the feedback was justified. I'm somewhat terrified of culinary school ending this year, because then I will be without the one forum in which I am always, always miles ahead of my classmates. Bloody hell, it's not unusual for my TEACHERS to call me outside of school for pastry advice or good recipes which they know they can trust, because they believe in my skills. I have built around myself a cocoon of expectation. The people around me expect me to succeed -- and I almost revel in that expectation, because I know I can meet it. Over the course of my schooling several teachers have openly admitted to grading me harder or demanding more of me because they know I am capable in the first place. Rather than see this as a compliment, I have tended to see this as an injustice. Why should the benchmark be set higher for me?

So I come back to the original question. Am I hiding out in an easy job because there are valid reasons for me to do so (money, kids, flexible hours and so on)? Or am I hiding out in an easy job because I am afraid I will fail somewhere else? Maybe the truth exists somewhere between both of those - that I've made the choices I've made because they both put me in the comfort zone of success, AND they meet my criteria of living a life of balance and quality. What happens, though, when I really need to challenge myself (for health reasons, for work reasons, for whatever reasons), regardless of the praise I might get? WHAT WILL I DO THEN? Will I fail?

The ripples of self-doubt travel far and wide, and now I find myself doubting, wondering and worrying.

This is the single hardest blog post I've ever written.


Heidi said...

I wish I had some insight but I don't. All I can tell you is that I'm just like you. "Fine" never cuts it...I need more, a lot more. A few weeks back I was devastated when my beautiful yummy quiche only got a few "you made that? It was good" at a potluck. If only they'd let me bring a desert!

Poppet's mum said...

Let's face it emzee, marriage is a job too and wouldn't you hate to fail at that MORE than failing at a job??!!! Also, working at a fancy restaurant won't necessarily validate you as a chef - it might mean you work well with others - I think the ultimate test would be if you got your own business off the ground and made that a success because that would be yours and yours alone and you wouldn't be contributing to something that was already a success but creating a success yourself and I for one have no doubts that any business you set up yourself would be an absolute success.

DH said...

First off, let me sat that despite her doubts, emzeegee is a magnificent mum, peerless patissiere, champion chef and all around great person! Mind you, I may be biased (she's also tall.)

We talked about this stuff the other night and I pointed out that despite her nagging doubts, she has made reasoned career choices based on solid, practical and personal reasons that stand up to any scrutiny. If she really wanted a restaurant brigade job she would have one already.

DW is not "hiding out" in an easy job at all, she has made a sensible choice based on her own priorities and lifestyle needs. I have every confidence in her ability to rise to the challenges that life, work and family will present. She often disagrees, but so far I've been right far more often than I've been wrong. (Take yes for an answer emzee, and buy the damned tree!)

She also knows that I support her 110% in her work and study even if my (one room) housekeeping is sometimes a little spotty.

I am very proud of my wife.

Cameron said...

Sharing your knack for unreasonable self-expectations, I feel for you. The realization that I can't do everything all the time drives me nuts, too.

The Bakers Wife said...

I would like to add a thought about the cooking side of this. But I have been typing and rambling at this and there's too many layers..I will try to be succinct.

For me, cooking is craft. Craft like knitting or painting. I learnt the about the materials, chemistry, the fundamentals and then it was practise, practise, practise.
The places you work can afford the opportunity to develop and practise aspects of your craft, and bring you in proximity with those who may have mastered their cooking. These masters are revered for their skills, dedication and persistance. They have immersed themselves in the practise of their craft (often at great personal, emotional and financial cost) and work to push its boundaries, stretch our understanding of what cooking is. They are lauded for their knowledge and often feared for volatility. Such is the nature of the artist, in the quest for the perfection, practising in the commercial world. Self critical and compromised.

I sought out this experience in the effort to be a good cook, seeking validation from my peers and that elusive perfection. I have worked for chefs at the pinnacle of their careers, both here and O/S, in restaurants that a handful of people will ever have the priviledge of eating in. I did seventy hour weeks, triple double shifts and bear the physical scars (the badges of honour) of my industry. I did it because I thought restaurants were the peak of what my industry was about, everything else was pretending, those who hadn't done it didn't have a clue.
Here's what I know now.
The pinnacle is never reached. Chasing perfection is folly because the craft of cooking is one where you constantly learn and strive to do it perfectly. It is a massive task to exert control over your ingredients, suppliers, environment, equipment, assistants, our own short comings...some days it's even possible to manage it. But the result is not tangible. We cook it, we eat it, tomorrow we do it all again. It doesn't matter where you practice your craft (cafe, restaurant, caterer, at home) you get the same outcome. You need to find a different measure of success. Validation by reaching perfection is not the measure of a good cook.
Restaurant cooking is an extreme sport. One of my chefs used to say that every service was like the playing in the Grand Final. She was right. The elation of doing a 'good' service gives you the feeling of winning the Grand Final, a 'bad' service definitely feels like you lost. But you can feel this way by successfully baking a cake. Cooks who care feel like this.
I have suffered for my craft, but did it make me a better chef? Only because on my path I learnt about integrity and that is the secret. To be a great cook you have to do it with integrity, not be half arsed. Don't try only for some people and not for others. Be present and mindful of everything you do in a kitchen. Respect yourself, your ingredients, your environment your co-workers (even those who should be in the stupid corner), your training, the craft. Doing what you do takes time, energy and skill. I learnt that it is a priviledge to cook for others, wherever I do it. That others benefit from this time and care, the sum of the knowledge, experience, skill. There's immense pressure to cut corners, produce more, faster and cheaper, to compromise the craft, and we've all done it. I have seen 'great' chefs do some shocking things and I have seen unknown chefs produce beautiful things everyday, simply for local people. The difference is integrity.
Bakers say 'you're only as good as your last bake' and it's true. Chefs and cooks seem to constantly seek validation for their efforts (critical success, commercial success, adoration of peers). A chefs efforts are judged according to fashion, opinion, personal tastes. We attempt to be all things to all people. No wonder we live in a mania and suffer burnout, failed relationships, financial destitution, loneliness.
I found validation in striving to cook with integrity, so that I know whatever I produce is the best I can muster. Integrity allows me to adapt, to face challenges and contribute in a team with confidence. I don't need to be the first, the fastest or the best, as I am true to the skills of the craft. Those other things come with practise. Sometimes I seek development through my employment, but no longer need them to validate me. Often my employment just teaches me how bad people are at cooking, managing kitchens, staff, produce, stress, themselves, a business, adequately. I'm in a kitchen because I choose to be. It's my real job and I treat it as such.

You chose a kitchen too. And I've seen you using your brain, watching and sucking in knowledge where possible, challenging bad practices, lethargic attitudes, being interested and inspired by the ideas and possibilities of cooking. You've got it. The rest is practise.

I understand feeling that restaurant work would mean you've 'proven' yourself in the chef world. You owe it much more to yourself to be the best. Doing your own thing, at the best you can will be a greater reward than a seventy hour week and a few scars. Go to it, lady!

The Bakers Wife said...

I don't know if I succeeded at succinct..

emzeegee & the hungry three said...

...and THIS is why I write a blog. I am humbled. Thank you, all of you - including those who did not comment, (but who wanted to), and those who called/emailed me with their comments.

I am most grateful. At the end of the day I am luckier than most, in that I get to choose my own destiny. Maybe that's more important that the actual choice - the freedom to do so.