Here’s what I thought my options were: kill myself. Lie to a bank and take their money. Move to another country and hide. Leave my family. Or just disappear and die. I couldn’t see any other options.
I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t think I was good enough. I had unhealthy addictions. And I was depressed. I had nightmares in the rare moments I slept. So I couldn’t trust myself to take a risk.
I can’t even imagine what it would be like to give up a guaranteed tens of millions of dollars of future income to become a student chef with no guaranteed hope for any future at all.
The other day I spoke with Judy Joo, who went from being a high-paid Wall Street analyst to a low-paid chef.
I got right to the heart of the matter: “Are you making more money now?”
She didn’t want to answer but I pushed. “No,” she said, “Not even close.”
She was a bond analyst at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs working sixty hour weeks. Now she still works 60 hour weeks.
Only now she has a show on the Cooking Channel. She’s the executive chef at the Playboy Club in London and she’s an Iron Chef on several of the Iron Chef TV shows around the world.
But when she quit her job she was “nothing”. She became a student at the French Culinary Institute in NY. They have a restaurant where the students cook. I’ve eaten there while she was a student.
I remember the dinner specifically. One date and another couple. None of them speak to me anymore. I hope Judy didn’t cook that meal.
Why did she leave her job? She was on track to make tens of millions of dollars?
“I hated my job,” she told me, “and every weekend and night I was reading through every cooking magazine, every cooking show, every cookbook.
Cooking was calling her and she answered, “yes”. How often do we say “no” to the things that are calling us. Or we say, “I can’t do it until I make $X?” Or we say, “I have bills to pay. Maybe when the kids are older.”
And how do we know what’s even calling us, what obsesses us?
I know for me I’ve been obsessed with many things throughout my life. The only periods where I haven’t been obsessed with something is when I’ve had a BLOCKAGE in my life.
If your heart is blocked, eventually you have a heart attack and die. You can’t climb a mountain when there is a blockage to the heart.
When there’s a blockage, you have to deal with that first. When you’re sick, first you have to get better. When a partner cheats on you, first you’re in a world of fuckness until life resumes its normal colors. When someone dies, first you have to grieve.
But then you have to get rid of the blockages. The key to being open to the world around you is to eliminate the blockages:
– SICKNESS. This can be a physical sickness (you’re not sleeping enough, eating well, etc). Or an emotional sickness (why did she cheat on me?) or an addiction.
When I first went broke (the first time, and then the second) I think I had all three or worse. Definitely the addiction part. Definitely the second time.
– DOUBTS about myself or too much worry about what people will think of me.
I have to keep telling myself, “it’s none of my business what people think of me”. It’s natural to want people to like us, and to like our work.
But other people liking me will never make me better. I can only today do my best. And I’m only going to do my best on something I love. I can’t let anyone else dictate what I love. Else I end up worrying about things that will not make me my best.
– LAZINESS. I always know that I need to exercise my idea muscle, for instance, and it doesn’t take much time (just write ten random ideas a day down) but sometimes I would get lazy.
Judy went back as a student, worked her way up through various kitchens, networked everywhere she could for media contacts, started restaurants while juggling media appearances once she got bits and pieces of media.
Was it all worth it? “I love every day of work now,” she told me.
I used to say, “but I don’t have time!”. But when I added up news reading, junk TV shows, arguing with people, worrying about money, going to meetings I didn’t want to go to, going to social dinners, spying on people through their windows and emails- it added up to a lot of time I could be exploring.
Exploring gives you a chance to find what you are passionate about.
– CARELESSNESS comes from entitlement. You think your idea is the best so you deny the reality that it isn’t.
You think that you can skip to the top so you deny the work that goes into really learning the subtleties of whatever it is you are passionate about. I admire Judy from leaving her position near the top of one industry and jumping to the bottom of another.
When she finally got a job in a kitchen (Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen in London) she was yelled at, hazed, and had to start from the very bottom.
Being humble is the magic toolkit to avoid carelessness. With everything you do, no matter who you are, humility is not a strategy for being a good person – humility is a strategy for seeing the subtleties in everything, the missing pieces that everyone else skips because they think they are entitled.
– DELUSIONS. I’ve often been bogged down by the mythology of life. For instance, the idea that a 9-5 job is safe. Or that I needed college to get a job. Or that I have to do X to get Y.
I’m always surprised when I list my delusions. It’s a daily practice to be delusion-free. I always have to double-check my delusions. Today I’ll have a full list of delusions. And I’m sure tomorrow also. As long as we are alive.
Judy knew there was one thing she had to get over. Most professional chefs were men. I asked her: how come this is? I always hear about “mom’s cooking” from everyone.
The dads don’t cook. Since when did all the men become professional chefs? I haven’t even cooked a single meal in about 15 years (well, once for Claudia and I think she might throw up now if she reads this).
But that’s just the way it is. Judy couldn’t be delusional. “I had to play to my strengths,” she said, “and not deny the reality”. She was Korean (so she focused on Korean or fusion food), she was pretty so would look good on TV (sadly, I have a face to be a professional chef on radio), and she had the story of her career change, which was always a topic when she was networking with media contacts.
– VACILLATING. What if you can’t decide? You have this great Wall Street job but’re interested in cooking and you can’t decide which way to go?
Ok, start increasing the odds. Get more savings (cut back, take time, sell things, whatever it takes). Be the average of the five people you surround yourself with. So surround yourself with other chefs to learn from them. Be grateful that you even realize there is an interesting decision to be made here. Sometimes having more problems only means you have more choices. Which is a good thing.
Start listing the worst case scenario if you jump. If the worst-case is really awful then get creative and start listing all the possible jumps. It’s not just Wall Street to chef. It’s Wall Street to…. (see below).
– INERTIA. First Judy was a student. Then she worked for Saveur magazine. Then, in the middle of his restaurant, she introduced herself to Gordon Ramsay.
Then she kept going to networking events to find someone who could help her land a TV show. Then she looked for a restaurant to run. She landed the Playboy Club. Then she went from Iron Chef to her own show.
“What are you doing now?” I asked her. And she told me, “I have a new restaurant concept.” She keeps going. She doesn’t stop.
That doesn’t mean you can’t take a break and enjoy what you have. To celebrate the small successes.
It’s only by celebrating the small successes that you rejuvenate the energy to have the bigger ones. I often forget to celebrate those and I burn myself out or I try too much at once. I have to learn more.
– TRYING TO CONTROL. If a woman wants to leave me, how many months, years, agonizing seconds have I tried to resist.
And by resist I mean cry, beg, whine, argue, use logic, and beg more. And then more. And if that doesn’t work, then roses with begging.
If a job wasn’t good for me, how often did I try to make it work even though it was hopeless and I should have been trying to find something else.
To increase the options in my life.
I wanted to say that the key to getting control in my life is to surrender to what I can’t control. But that sounds sort of wimpy. “Surrender”. Sounds like Tom Hanks waving a white flag and those Somalian guys taking over the ship.
But I know now what’s the equivalent of surrender in real life: Every day work to increase the options you have in life. If I start to feel anxious or worried it’s because I haven’t been working hard to increase the options in my life.
So instead of focusing on what I’m anxious about, I focus on doing whatever I can to increase options, even small ones.
It takes some time. First by learning and being open to what the options are. “The option muscle” has to be exercised.
Then by networking. Then by constantly coming up with ideas. Then by giving ideas away. Then by people asking to pay you for ideas. It takes a long time. But the more options you have in life, the less anyone else controls you, the less you will get sick with worry, the less you will care what others think, the more you can be a good person and do the things you were meant to be. If you do these past few sentences in reverse, that works also.
– NO PROGRESS. What if Judy had jumped from Wall Street to being a chef and then found out she was awful at it? No problem! “First I was an editorial assistant at Saveur magazine,” she said. “I wasn’t yet a chef. When you jump from one career to another there are MANY ways to turn that interest into a career. Don’t limit yourself to one.”
For 20 years I’ve been interested in comedy. I’ve read every book. Watched every standup. But I never did it and probably never will. No problem. I give talks now about other topics. And in those talks I like to make people laugh. The focus of the talk is still whatever it is I’m trying to say. But it’s fun to make people laugh.
I then think about it afterwards. I relive each moment and try to think how I could’ve been better. Or I just enjoy it.
Sometimes it’s just good to enjoy things. We don’t always have to be jumping careers and slaving away in kitchens or networking or coming up with ideas.
Sometimes it’s great to do what you want to do, to not be worried about the consequences, to create more options in your life, and to finally take a deep breath and enjoy.
If you can’t enjoy, if you can’t look inside yourself and smile – lighting up all of your insides – then you’ll never be able to smile at anyone else.
One candle can light a thousand other candles and still remain lit itself. Be that candle.