I learned to make spaghetti sauce from my grandmother. Every Sunday we gathered at her house for a sumptuous meal. And like all great cooks, her recipe contained ingredients, preparation and a plan to put them all together to create something delicious. She even taught me to remember the flavoring ingredients in pairs: salt and pepper, garlic and onions, parsley and basil, a pinch of oregano and 1 bay leaf. (Yes, there were meatballs and sausage but that’s a story for another day.)
At her side, I learned that you don’t just start throwing things in the sauce pot and hope for the best! Before we began, we gathered all the ingredients we needed and prepped them so they would be right at hand at the right step. Chefs call this mise en place - a french term for putting everything in its place. We crushed and chopped the garlic, diced the onions, chopped the fresh parsley and basil.
Next was the process... first sauteing the garlic and onions in just a bit of olive oil, just until the onions were transparent, but before they started to caramelize. Next, adding the tomatoes, and finally the spices. Bringing it just to a rolling simmer, not a boil. Adding the meats that had already been prepared, and then gently simmering and stirring for hours. HOURS. This last part - simmering - might sound like a simple process, but there were so many variables! If the heat was too high and the simmer too vigorous, or if it was not stirred often enough, I’d be left with ingredients burned on the bottom of the pan, and the whole thing would taste bitter. (Yep that was one of my learning experiences!) If I put in too much basil, (which I did - once and only once!) it was not my grandmother’s sauce!
It might be passable, but it would lack the blend of flavors that made our mouths water just thinking about it, and wouldn’t conjure the sense memory of those weekly family gatherings, and the love that went into the creation. For anyone who remembered those Sundays, my sauce would have been a “failure,” and for myself, as a cook in the family that remembered, I was the failure.
Which brings me to risk.
We’ve all followed a “recipe for success” in our careers. Sometimes, we get things just right - all the ingredients, the timing, the team, the audience or clients or customers…and we have a success on our hands. When we don’t have the success we’re seeking, we’re often quick to deem the process a failure, or worse yet, we think of ourselves as failures and we put up roadblocks to taking the steps we need to take in order to try again.
Here’s a scenario we’ve seen before in our careers: in the analysis of what “went wrong” in a less than successful attempt in the market place, whether its a product, project, service or event, we identify one element that wasn’t quite right. But rather than making an adjustment, we eliminate it altogether. Pretty risky!
Which brings me back to spaghetti sauce.
That’s what I did the next time I tried making the sauce after putting in too much basil. I decided this time, I’ll just leave it out rather than try to course-correct and get it right. A risky move, but there was no way I was going to have too much again.
The result was just as big a failure as too much basil. That made TWO failed attempts. At this point I could have given up and just left the task of making the sauce to another member of our huge family. But mastering the sauce was a rite of passage that I was not willing to give up on.
Which brings me to practice and coaching.
I did what many of us do in our businesses and careers; I sought the advice of an expert. I went back to my grandmother, who shared stories with me of learning to make the sauce herself, tips her mother and grandmother shared with her, and encouragement to keep going.
With her coaching me, I revisited the ingredients, the prep and process. I practiced and I mastered it. Flash forward to today - I have kids who want to learn to make my sauce. But I had to learn how to balance the feelings of failure with the desire to succeed, and have the diligence to practice and follow a plan.
Which brings us right back to choice.
How you feel is up to you. Getting back in a game where you may have had failure may simply be the result of a lack of experience or practice.
What’s your current recipe for success? Do you have the best ingredients? Do you have the best process that works for you? How much time do you spend practicing and learning? Your awareness during each phase is your best asset.
YOU are not the failure. There are actions you can take to course-correct and improve your outcomes.
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