Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trial and Error (and Trial and Error Again (and Again))

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me – is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

- Ira Glass


If you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs. All the pressure drops away. This is because, if your goal is to pay attention to only what your are doing right now, then as long as you are doing just that, you are reaching your goal in each and every moment.

- Thomas M. Sterner

I realize it's been a (ridiculously) long while since my last post – but it's been a busy few months: Changes in my personal life, a move and, most notably for the purposes of this blog, a new job. I've moved on from the world of chain restaraunts and “upscale casual” to straight up, Michelin-rated fine dining. It's been pretty exciting. New tasks, new responsibilities, and a few new skill sets that I didn't even know I was missing.

In all honesty, it hasn't been the smoothest of transitions. I had forgotten exactly how much it sucks to be the new guy. It doesn't help that at this level of dining there isn't really any training per se; it's kind of incumbent on you to ask the questions and mostly figure things out for yourself (which is very odd, because there are very precise and specific ways you're supposed to do everything). So, there's a lot of messing up. Sometimes on the floor, in front of the guest. And a lot of irritated servers giving you irritated looks and sharp corrections. Over and over and over and over. (Side note – how often have you been in a service situation as the customer and the employee you're dealing with is clearly new, and not very skilled at their job. My initial thought is generally “Oh come on already, how hard can it be to ring up a coffee?! (or make a sandwich, or get a coke refill, or whatever it is). Let's go already!” I'm grateful to say my current experience has given me a little more patience and understanding in that area).

At my old job I was one of most senior staff, and I certainly did my share of eye-rolling and, “How can he not get this already?” when new employees would get hired. So to be that new guy, to be the one always a step or two behind, who has to take those extra few seconds to process everything, it's been a humbling experience to say the least. (And a few seconds may not seem like a lot, but when you're on the floor and you're supposed to be executing flawless, synchronized service with the other servers in front of the guest, it's pretty noticeable. You know when you bump into someone going in the opposite direction, and then there's that awkward dance where you both try to step out of each other's way but you do it in the same direction, and then maybe go back and forth a couple more times? Yeah, it's like that, but with meals the guests are forking over $200 a head for).

I think one of the main reasons it can be so frustrating in trying to learn a new skill, or to grow in an unfamiliar area – creatively, professionally, whatever – is because we have the ideal in our mind; we know what the end result is supposed to look like, so each and every time we fall short of that result (which is going to happen, and going to happen a lot when we're in the process of learning) the natural inclination for a lot of us, I think, is to criticize ourselves for not “getting it” fast enough and we get frustrated, and start to maybe think "well, I guess this just isn't for me."

Of course, this is ridiculous. Yes, we all have certain innate talents or leanings, but even those in the tops of their fields didn't get there without making lots of mistakes along the way. The main thing I've had to remember is just to be observant, to learn from those mistakes, and try to be aware and not do them again. We recently had a new sommelier come on, someone with years in the business, and he had a great introductory speech to the crew where he basically said, “I know wine, but obviously I don't 100% know your system or how you operate. I'm going to make a lot of mistakes – hopefully not too many the guest will notice – so just correct me as we go and I'll do my best to get acclimated and have things running smoothly as fast as possible.” That was such a great attitude (especially fom someone in a senior position) – just the knowledge and acceptance that, yep, things are going to be a little choppy at first. I especially love that he didn't say “I may make some mistakes,” but rather “I'm going to make a lot of mistakes.” Because that's how it is at first for a lot of us. There may be some people who only need to be shown something once, and then they do it perfectly each and every time after that. But that's not me. The key is to pay attention to the moment, and to continue to learn. As long as we continue to do that, growth is inevitable.


  1. Glad to see you're back writing on the blog. This Ira Glass quote is one of my favs., and you flesh it out with your own words/antidotes beautifully.

    Lastly- your new sommelier sounds like a great man.

  2. p.s. I love the Ira Glass quote too (obviously) - I got it from your boyfriend on fb