For the past year, I’ve been taking cooking classes at George Brown College in Toronto. I initially signed up for these classes to learn how to be more independent. I didn’t want to become a professional chef, but merely wanted to stop eating take-out food several days a week.
After a few classes, I gained the skills that enabled me to start preparing meals on my own. But most surprisingly, cooking school taught me lessons that I’ve been able to apply to my professional life. Here is some of the wisdom I’ve gained so far:
Observe and anticipate
Cooking requires careful observation at all times – whether you’re listening for a sizzling noise from vegetables in a pan, or waiting for pastry in the oven to turn into a golden-brown colour.
The same thing goes for your career. A successful career requires you to be acutely aware of your surroundings. Make sure you observe your peers and your leaders.
Spend lots of time listening. Figure out how they view success, what motivates them, and what ticks them off. Once you notice trends in the behaviour of others, you’ll be able to anticipate questions or issues that may come your way. This will allow you to be proactive, and take control of any situation at hand. It will also help you form your own leadership and working style.
During a knife skills course, my instructor recounted the story of training as an apprentice, when he was given a large cardboard box filled with hundreds of carrots. The head chef gave him the task of slicing each carrot into thin, star-shaped coins – a technique that requires intricate, repetitive cuts. He was not allowed to go home until he had cut all of the carrots.
As you begin your career, you may be faced with tasks that seem beyond your abilities. Strong employees learn how to become comfortable with challenge. Rather than become frustrated, they are able to divide the task into realistic chunks, immediately start on the things they know how to do, and ask for help where they need it.
Step back and look at the big picture
When cooking for others, it’s not just about one dish, but rather how the whole meal works together – from the appetizer, to the main course, to the dessert and drink pairing. Specific ingredients and flavours in each dish are chosen to complement and enhance one another.
As you develop your career, you’ll realize that it functions like a meal with multiple courses. Your career does not centre around one high-profile project you’ve completed, or one in-demand skill you possess. In fact, all your skills and experiences work together to tell a story. For example, when asking your manager to be part of a project, you may showcase your ability to analyze complex data sets.
However, your story will be more impactful if you also talk about your ability to draw insights from these analyses and present them to others in a simple way. In this situation, data analysis and presenting are two different skills that complement and enhance one another.
Sharing can be the most rewarding part
Cooking for yourself is great. However, cooking for others – whether you’re entertaining family, or teaching a friend how to cook – is far more rewarding.
In the long-term, your career will be more meaningful if you’re able to give back and share your knowledge with others. You can start off small: if you’re an Excel genius, why not informally hold a training session to help some of your peers with pivot tables? If you’ve got a keen eye for detail, why not offer to review the resume of a younger student? You’ll walk away with a sense of accomplishment that you won’t be able to gain just by furthering your own career.
With all this said, there’s no need to sign up for a cooking class. Just remember that your personal and professional lives are not mutually exclusive. As your career progresses, you’ll find that your own experiences, hobbies, and relationships will teach you lessons that can be applied to the workplace (the opposite holds true, too). The smartest leaders know that learning doesn’t stop once they step outside of the office.