Not Enough Chefs in the Kitchen

Originally published on February 7, 2018 by The Montrose Daily Press

Let’s imagine you are standing in a kitchen. On the counter in front of you are several ingredients. You’ve been tasked with making a delicious meal with the ingredients before you. What do you do? Do you pick up your phone and Google “life changing recipes containing x,y,z?” Or do you survey the ingredients, formulate a loose plan, and go for it?

Writer and thought leader Tim Urban, separates human reasoning into two interpretable “camps”: chefs and cooks. Urban defines the “chefs” as those individuals who have the ability to reason from first principles. In other words, they have the capacity (and courage) to experiment with ingredients and come up with new recipes. Conversely, Urban describes “cooks” (where most of us fall on a general basis) as the individuals who follow someone else’s recipe.

Urban said, in his interview for “Tools of Titans” by Tim Ferriss, “We’d all be happier and more successful if we could learn to be chefs more often — which just takes some self-awareness of the times we’re being a cook and an epiphany that it’s not actually as scary as it seems to reason independently and act on it.”

Urban is right. Independent thinking as he describes is terrifying. We’ve spent our lives in textbooks, employee manuals, trade journals and blog posts learning how to do our jobs like the rest of the people in our industry. We grow into leaders through our experiences with our own leaders; good and bad. We develop our own style; a pinch of that, a dash of this. We follow tried and true recipes for success and sometimes venture outside the confines of the recipe by adding a new ingredient or substituting chicken for pork.

Though this concept is simple, it is difficult in practice. That aside, it set off a spark inside of me and forced the question: How much of my management and leadership style is recipe based? How might we all be a little more chef-like in our careers?

1. Look out the window. I don’t remember where I read it, but someone said writing is a combination of putting words down on the paper and staring out the window. So true. When thinking about work and creative problem solving, how quick are we to “put the words down on paper,” i.e. solve the problem without first thinking about it?

Take some time. Stare out the window metaphorically or actually. Allowing our mind space for wandering through the “what if” statements, and the “what’s the worst that can happen” hypothesis’ increases its capacity for growth. This makes space for crazy ideas that might not work, but can be a launching pad for something that will.

2. Do the complete opposite. This is an exercise in forcing your mind into a place of discomfort. For example, the primary source of revenue for the chamber is membership dues. What if instead of charging 360 members an annual fee for access to our services, we offered all of our services 100 percent for free (a very uncomfortable thought!)? What if we took the leap of faith that our services would inherently stimulate some other resource model and suddenly through that thought process, we discover the next best thing to hit the chamber industry?

Now the door to a new way of thinking is thrust wide open and the mind is forced into exploring another ways of solving the revenue issue.

3. Give this time. Becoming a chef in your industry or area of the workplace isn’t going to happen overnight. Finding success will require reprogramming of our mental operating systems and this takes time. Be gentle with yourself as you navigate new processes and methods of approaching your work. Failure is the only way to success. We must accept that trying new things in the kitchen will result in inedible meals from time to time. We can let that hinder us or we can choke down the bad meal and laugh about it later.

Imagine an economy full of people who have the ability to reason from first principles. Every organization could benefit from people at all levels who approached problem solving with this mindset. As leaders and managers, our responsibility to these people and ourselves is fostering a kitchen that is open to new recipes, a pallet that welcomes experimentation, and a level of grace that allows failure to grow into mastery.

Chelsea Rosty is the executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and the city's director of business innovation.