April 6, 2010
I am thinking a lot these days about what course very successful entrepreneurs took to get to where they are. (“Get where they are” is the best description I have for what these people have achieved. It involves aspects of having fun and making important changes in the world. I hope to refine this description over time).
Earlier today I was reading Daniel Boulud’s “Letters to a Young Chef”. I just started the book, so most of what I was reading was Boulud’s thoughts on what a chef should do early in their career. By “a chef”, I would note that I mean an entrepreneurial, ambitious chef, which Daniel Boulud assumes the reader is or wants to be.
Much of what Boulud talks about is mostly (a) working at the best places you can find and then (b) keeping your nose to the grindstone. Importantly, he talks about how a young chef may not always be treated well. “There is room for only one ego in the kitchen - don’t take it personally”, he says.
This made me think hard about what it means to be a manager or a leader, or in this case a chef. I have always been struck by how the people on the low end of the totem pole are counseled to keep their noses down and basically subsume their desires, thoughts, etc. to their boss’.
It is an almost military sort of hierarchy and way of rising to a position of influence. I remember reading a passage in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, where talks about how important “food cost” is - restaurants have to squeeze as much as possible out of all their ingredients if they want to stay open. One day, a sous-chef in a kitchen where Bourdain was apprenticing threw some usable chives in the garbage for some reason.
When the chef found out who it was, he walked up to the sous-chef and slapped him in the face. This is supposed to be acceptable behavior from a leader. (I used to be an investment banker, and that was better, but occasionally not so different). It seems to me that a boss should be held to a higher standard of behavior than his subordinates, but that is a blog post for another time.
Anyway, this strikes me as one view of how to become influential and achieve things. Work really hard, do everything perfectly, and outlast everyone else in doing so.
At the risk / likelihood of sounding trite, one thing that has inspired me since I originally read it was Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech. I keep coming back to it from time to time. Many days I feel unsure of what is truly important to me, but this speech always helps me remember, if not articulate it.
I am not going to read it again now, but in it I remember Jobs talking about his early career. He dropped out of college. This isn’t in the speech, but I believe he went on to found Apple with Steve Wozniak, in his garage. Jobs says that “you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
As far as I can tell Jobs has gotten to where he is by essentially indulging his curiosity and interest in things. I am sure I am oversimplifying or romanticizing. Nevertheless, this seems to be a successful approach for a lot of people. Also, let me be clear that I don’t think that means they haven’t worked incredibly hard; it just seems to come from a different place, and seems to be more natural.
I used to work in a Course 1 environment (investment banking), followed by a Course 2 exploration (six months off), followed by a re-immersion in a Course 1 job that I thought was a Course 2 job (I currently work at a startup nonprofit).
I am about to leave to go to business school. I am hoping that I will have the courage to follow course 2, permanently. I guess I am just conflicted and a little confused.
The merits of Course 1 and 2 approaches are obvious. I also know that Course 1 has to entail a love for what you are doing, and I know that Course 2 has to involve a lot of hard work, and sometimes doing things you don’t want to do. Are these maybe really the same approach? I know there is significant overlap. Conversely, am I oversimplifying things?
Also, it has not escaped me that, for each of these people to talk the way they do, is advantageous for them. Of course Boulud says his is the path to success - that’s the way he did it, and if other chefs keep their noses to the grindstone, he believes that benefits him as a manager. (Does it?) Of course Jobs wants to create a “follow your bliss” type myth around himself. The picture is made unclear by the fact that these people are human beings with their own interests and tastes, and not oracles.
I need to think more about this. But emotionally, my sympathies definitely lie with Course 2. And I think it should be possible - perhaps because I have been a Course 1 person for all my life!