Last Saturday night, Jason and I made a date with our friends Alli and Jason to have them over and watch the new Netflix series, Chef’s Table.
To say that the series was inspiring would be a gross understatement. It was beyond magical.
We watched all six episodes in one night (actually, to be totally accurate, we watched five episodes, then Alli, who is an amazing baker, started falling asleep while still having to bake an entire batch of scones from scratch later that night, so they had to dip out and Jason and I couldn’t wait another second so we watched the final episode after they left. Sorry guys!)
Whether you’re a foodie or a lover of filmmaking or have no interest whatsoever in either of those things - it doesn’t matter - do yourself a favor and make a date with this show, y’all, because it’s that good.
The docu-series tells the story of six of the world’s greatest chefs. Each episode focuses on one chef from one particular part of the world, each with his or her distinct motivations, challenges, heartbreaks, moments of failure, sources of joy, and experiences that led them to pursue their craft in a masterful way.
There were so many interesting ah-hah moments that struck me during the show, but the whole thing reminded me of a topic I’ve had on my mind for months now, and that’s this idea of mastery.
The first time this idea came into my consciousness was back in 2010 when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In it, Gladwell talks about the 10,000 Hour Rule - the idea that to become a “master” in a field, you must practice roughly for 10,000 hours. He had tons of research and examples to back up this theory, but for whatever reason, this definition of mastery seemed boring to me.
Sure, being a world-class violinist or one of the world’s best whatevers has an allure to it, but it seemed to me that pursuit of mastery JUST for the sake of mastery felt a bit empty to me, and I was never sure why.
Until Chef’s Table.
There I watched story after story of these MASTERS, and I was mesmerized and inspired by their dedication to perfection. Me? Inspired by perfection? You guys know that’s not my jam. We’re all about imperfect progress around these parts, not things like mastery and exquisiteness.
So what was it? What had my ears perking up? There was something that these stories were trying to tell me.
In almost every case, these chefs went to culinary school to learn traditional techniques and had a mentor who they studied under early in their career. Yet each one mentioned something very telling - that after they left to strike out on their own, they found themselves simply trying to copy the same old dishes to perfection, the ones they had learned over and over. And though they were talented, they all found themselves overworked, burnt out, and wondering why their restaurants sat empty.
That is until they dared to venture off the traditional path and find their own voice. To start cooking truly original food. To find an identity among the craft - a vision.
It was a theme throughout all six stories. In order for these chefs to ascend to a higher level of Creative Mastery, the quest for excellence had to be temporarily replaced by the quest for vision.
And, in almost every case, they had to actually unlearn their craft to a degree. Take Massimo Bottura from Modena, Italy, for example, who had to let go of the ideas he had about the traditional meals of the Italian Kitchen that had been around for centuries so that he could push the art of Italian cuisine forward into the future.
He had to become much less concerned with the idea of “excellence” in the eyes of the people to find his vision beyond the boundaries of what was accepted in cuisine at the time. That creative triumph is such a beautiful notion to me. To reject the external in order to find one's inner creative light.
Now, where am I going with all this? How does this idea of mastery apply to YOUR STORY and what lessons can you take from the lives of these chefs?
Creative Mastery isn’t just about the pursuit of pure excellence. It’s about pursuing a unique vision with excellence.
A minor change, yes, but it makes a world of difference.
When we’re kids, Excellence runs the show. We’re taught that achievement should be our goal. That the dream is to become truly great at something.
So we practice and learn and imitate and emulate, all in an effort to mastersomething. In my case, that pursuit of excellence showed up in my studies. I wanted to be the smartest in my class. The most successful. Win the most awards. I wanted to excel.
But, like those chefs, I was just trying to follow a well-worn path that was laid out before me. I had no vision and no identity.
It wasn’t until I was able to reject my own desire for that external validation that I truly found my creative voice. My vision.
I think the first big breakthrough in the life of a creative is when we’re able to put aside our desire for excellence (the external kind of excellence, the kind that comes with conditions set in place by society) in order to forge our own path. To find our unique perspective in the world.
The world remembers people who do things differently.
And this can be really scary because there’s a lot of risk in doing something that’s never been done before. When Massimo tried to reimagine some of Modena’s most cherished traditional Italian dishes, there was backlash from the more classically-minded Italians. His restaurant struggled. He wondered if he should give up. But he didn’t. He stayed true to his muse and continued to make dishes that pushed the envelope.
Day after day he worked to once again perfect his craft, but this time it was in pursuit of a mission that was truly original. (SO original, in fact, that his restaurant, Osteria Francescana, was named #3 on the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. #3 in the world, people!)
Once you’ve found that vision - that identity - that’s when you’re able to adopt that notion of Excellence once again. No longer are you trying to master a craft only for the sake of mastery. Instead, you’re truly executing on your vision to its fullest potential.
So here’s my conclusion: The kind of mastery that I’m down with - Creative Mastery - isn’t just about practice and execution, it’s about having something unique to say.
It is both Excellence AND Vision. I simply can’t get behind mastery for the sake of pure excellence because to me, that’s mastery for the sake of external validation.
And in order to find your creativity, you must first find a way to un-master your craft. To unlearn it the way it was taught to you, so that you can find your unique vision. It is those kind of creatives that move their art form forward.
So, this week, I encourage you to ask yourself where you are in that journey to Creative Mastery.
Have you found your voice yet - your vision? If not, ask yourself if it’s time to unlearn some of that excellence you’ve been taught to strive for. To color outside the lines for a while in order to discover that vision.
And if you have found your unique perspective, ask yourself if it’s time to move back into Excellence mode. To practice your craft so that you might more fully realize your vision.
And then... go watch Chef’s Table. You won’t be disappointed. :)
Thanks, as always, for being here and for participating as I try to hone my own Vision. It’s no easy road and I’m not trying to win any “50 best newsletters in the world” titles here, but I am trying to do something that matters.