My, my, what’s next?

I started this blog in 2012 to catalog the crazy adventures I was having in culinary school along with my food travels on the East Coast. The culinary program ended, I moved back to California, settled into my new digs in Sacramento, CA and have been trying, in various ways for the past few months, to answer the question “What’s next?”

What happens next when you try to switch careers? How do you break into a new industry? Clearly, I need a job, but what? And how?

Naturally, I had a plan. I always have a plan. Usually I have two plans, minimum. I can’t remember an instance where things ever actually went according to plan, which begs the question “Why bother having a plan?” but making a plan must be something like pregnancy; you forget the pain of having made the plan and having watched the plan disintegrate into a morass of Not-Planned-Things by the time it’s time to make another plan.

So, my plan was this: I thought it would make sense to keep plying my usual trade (teaching) while I worked part-time somewhere in the food industry (and I had plenty of ideas of ideal companies) to gain some relevant experience. I recognized that I would need to start on the front lines somewhere (and by this I mean retail) to make myself current. I didn’t mind this idea — in fact, I’ve always liked working with customers — since it was part of The Plan. This plan had a 6-8 month arc and by summer I would be ready to launch into my new full-time professional amazingness doing something behind the scenes concerning food products, product knowledge, promotions, training, special events, or programming.

So I made the substitute teaching happen, but I couldn’t make the part-time gig happen.Yet. (I’ve read that for every thing you haven’t been able to accomplish you’re supposed to add “yet” after the statement to keep metaphysical possibilities open). Could be the economy, could be the time of year, could be whatever planet is/has been/will be in retrograde, but ain’t no hiring happenin’ in these parts.

My plan has gone awry. The process has left me confused, confounded, alarmed, and sometimes abject. Add “Be Prepared To Feel Unqualified for Everything” to the list of Things I Wish I Had Known About Being A Career Changer.

Other useful things I wish I had known: every corporate job outside of IT or administrative seems to require either a sales or marketing degree.

Crazy things happen when things don’t go according to plan. You start wondering about definitional things: When does focus become limiting? When does being determined become stubbornness? When do admirable qualities become liabilities?

And the deeply uncomfortable question: am I the frog in the hot water? Or, when does faith become folly?

Here’s where I put in my favorite inspirational quotes. No, not the whole Helen Keller-one-door-closing-while-another-opens one, but others that I’ve always really liked:

“Success is the child of audacity.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” –Chinese Proverb

And, my all-time favorite:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison

I’m not any closer to knowing what comes next. I don’t know which moves are the right moves, which moves are stepping stones or just misfires, or where the boundaries between focus and folly are any more as I try to figure out who is next on my dance card.

I do believe it is possible to have a really cool, creative job in the food and hospitality industry suited to my particular brand of analytical and organizational skill sets. I just don’t know how to get from here to there.

When I know, you’ll know.

On Being A Prepper

It turns out I was right to be nervous in “And It’s Off to the Races!,” but not quite for the reasons I thought. I was worried that the classes would be hard — which they are — and that I would be slammed for time — which I am — but I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly flummoxed by the material. I also didn’t know I was skipping ahead three classes.

You might remember that I’m back in school as a career-changer pursuing a Culinary Arts Entrepreneurship certificate. I thought that the combination of business and culinary classes sequenced in the certificate would give me great flexibility when I re-enter the job market. Then sometime around the middle of last semester — with just one semester and three classes left to go, mind you  — I decided that it didn’t offer me quite as much marketability as I wanted, so I made an eleventh-hour decision to add a second certificate — Baking and Pastry — to my load. The problem was, I didn’t want to extend my completion date, so I had to cram the additional two lab classes of my second certificate into my last semester along with the units I was already scheduled to finish. This resulted in my having to take three pastry labs simultaneously. That’s a lot. Not a lot of people sign onto that plan. I knew this would make me crazy, but I decided it was necessary. I consulted my advisor, explained my time constraints, was approved, and set everything in motion.

It turns out that the reason people generally don’t take three labs at a time is because not only does it make you mean as heck but it places you in the very vulnerable and delicate position of concurrent learning. That is to say that tasks in one class are largely dependent on skills learned in one or all of the other classes. Which, if you took those classes last semester, is fabulous. If, like me, you are taking them all RIGHT NOW you just cross your fingers that the skill you are going to need in class “C” on Friday is one you’ll learn in classes “A” or “B” on Monday (because, naturally, two of my labs have to be back-to-back gracing me with a 12-hour stint on Mondays). Otherwise, you’re screwed.  To make things even more delicious, one of the courses I’m in is largely premised on two classes not required for my certificates so when I had the feeling that first day of class that everybody knew what was going on but me…well, I was right.

And anyone who knows me knows I hate not knowing what’s going on. I self-identified as an over-achiever in “For the Curious and the Stout-Hearted: Year One Reflections”  (which I continue to believe is an asset, not a liability). I take school very seriously — way too seriously, actually — and I try to prepare and prepare until not one thing is left to chance.  I’m an academic prepper. And, usually, this pays off. But I might have met my match. Because no amount of normal — or even my customary brand of way overboard — preparation can make up for what I don’t know. Still I tried. I spent the last two weeks (which has actually felt like an eternity) in mental overdrive trying to figure out how to get this situation back under control. I ordered three of the extra “Recommended” texts. I spent hours watching pastry videos on the internet.  I even asked if I could have all the Power Point slides from the other classes I didn’t have to take so I could read them to try to catch up. That’s how badly I wanted to be prepared. (That request was denied, by the way.)

What a nut, right? And that’s when I knew I had to let it go.

Socrates placed great value on knowing that you don’t know something. He thought that true learning could happen best when you proceed from the acknowledged place of not knowing because when you are aware you do not know something you are then glad for the chance to learn the thing you don’t know.**

I don’t have a problem admitting what I don’t know, but I learned that I might have a problem with allowing myself to be in that state for very long. I’ll struggle to get out of it as quickly as possible even if it makes me (and the people who have to listen to me) frantic. I’m results-driven, not process oriented. I always think things could be happening faster which is why I am usually looking at you like I want you to hurry up when you are explaining something. (You only need to say it once, friend.) But, sometimes, it seems, when you are rather thoroughly out of your element, you actually have to go through the process in the ordinary way complete with all its slow, messy, uncertain parts. And I am going to try to not let that drive me crazy.

So maybe they did me a favor by not letting me have those notes. I might not get an “A” in this class as a result — and I’ll have to figure out how to let that go — but I’m pretty sure I’m going to learn a lot because I clearly have a lot to learn.

Stay tuned for some really cool pictures.

**(You can read this very interesting argument in full for yourself if you care to work your way through Plato’s “Meno.”)

For the Curious and the Stout-Hearted: Year One Reflections

Ever wondered what it’s like to put your life on hold and go back to school? Well, here you go. Here’s what I learned about myself and others:

It’s a huge sacrifice.  Going back to school sucks, and this is from someone who loves school. Putting aside the actual expense for now (see below) let’s just look at the psychic cost to you and your family: you are working all the time. All. The. Time. Think of everything you like to do, big and small, and put that in a mental basket, along with the friends you haven’t called in months and the family members who are sick of hearing your constant whine about homework, and call it Collateral Damage. This is where all the people who used to think you were fun to hang out with reside.

It’s expensive. There’s the tuition, fees, books, uniforms, knives — all calculable. But most (well, at least many — not mine, fortunately) culinary arts programs are designed for full-time students. You move through in core blocks, no substitutions. You may be able to work part-time (good luck with that), which means you will reduce your current income by at least half, but try not to think about that or you will never feel like you can actually afford to do it. Suffice it to say there is lots more money going out, lots less money coming in. So take all the things you used to like — like going out for coffee, or lunch — chuck them into the Collateral Damage basket, and get used to feeling like a broke loser when your friends’ birthdays roll around. This is serious business for career changers/re-entry students who may have any or all of the following: kids, mortgages (or serious rents not involving three other roommates), cars made after 2005, and previous student loans.   And while we are on the subject of students….

The Other Students. If you’re anything like me, you might think Other People are a huge pain to deal with, so try going back to school  with them. I’m going to sort students into two basic categories here: 18-22 year-olds, and Re-Entry students. Based on my six years of teaching English Composition at the community college where I am now a student, and five years working in Residential Life at the college where I earned my Masters degree, college freshman are a marvel. I really like them. I really do, and I’m not just saying that. They are like bright, shiny pennies with the world at their feet and even though they might not realize it, they’ve got that precious commodity that you don’t realize you’ve lost until you see it in them: idealism. They are also, by turns, confused, excitable, strident, and brash, with a bored affectation that is laughably, and falsely, world-weary. Top it off with a dose of know-it-all zest that borders on mouthy, put them in a room with twenty other students, and call it Freshman Comp. Or Cooking 121. Or any other survey class where nobody knows nothing from nothing yet. Then ask them to do a boatload of work, and watch one-third to one-half of them self-destruct.

Except that I don’t want to self-destruct. I’m a Re-Entry student, and I mean business. So get outta my way. Re-entry students are their own glorious category. They are back for a reason. They’re not just taking classes to stay on their parents’ health insurance. The stakes are generally pretty high for this group — clearly, something is not working out right in their current career and they want a change badly enough to sacrifice for it, big time (see above). As a career-changer, I’m in this group. We’re focused, and driven. We want to know exactly what, when, where, and how. If you want to be around some serious students, take a night class. Those people really want it. A lady in one of my classes this semester has triplet infants at home. TRIPLETS. She knows how to work hard. I’d take her on my team any day.

Career changers don’t mess around, and this can be very off-putting to the other kidlets. But, sorry Charlie: I can’t afford to take three hours to do something that should take one hour. I spent two entire 75 minute class periods this semester making a poster — a POSTER – as a group effort. A POSTER. Which, by the way, ended up having not one, but two hand-lettered (who hand-letters a poster past sixth grade, for heaven’s sake? It’s not a garage sale) spelling errors on it by the end of class, so I had to take it and re-do it after class, anyway, which cost me another 45 minutes. Which reminds me…

Group Work. I hate it. Which brings me to…

What I learned about myself. “Overachievers” are not good team players. We’re precise. We’re prepared. We’ve read all the readings. We’ve done our production sequences. We think everyone should be taking this assignment/project/class as seriously as we do, and when they don’t, it bugs us because its our grade on the line, and that ain’t cool. I’ve gotten the definite impression that other students think we are a drag.

I’ve been called an overachiever at least a dozen times this year, which is funny since I don’t recall being called that before — not in undergrad, not in grad. Control freak? Yes. Micro-manager? Uh huh. Type A? Ok, although I don’t actually agree with that one. But “over achiever”? That  didn’t come up until I hit community college…and something about it rubs me the wrong way. I take issue with the desire to do one’ s best being cast as a social or character flaw.  Wanting an “A” isn’t overachieving. It’s just achieving, and I think it’s a pretty worthy goal. I admire people who take themselves seriously as learners and push themselves to do as well as they can in whatever it is they undertake.  I respect that. So, big ups to overachievers!

I’m saying “overachiever” but I really don’t care for that term. It doesn’t sound nice, does it? Put “over” in front of anything and dollars to donuts it’s pejorative: over-dressed, over-done, over-the-hill, over-achiever. Its use implies there is something wrong with achievement and I think there’s something wrong with thinking there’ s something wrong with achievement.  But that’s probably just me being over-analytical.

Summary: It has been a heck of a year. I would try to cash in on the ol’  “I laughed, I cried..” bit, but I don’t remember laughing much. What I do remember are hours and hours and hours of difficult, confusing, unfamiliar work forcing me to bend my brain around subjects about which I knew very little. It has been a year of pure, hardcore skill acquisition.  Being out of my element, being back at the bottom, is extremely uncomfortable. Being wrong over and over again sucks — until the time you get it right; then you exhale and think to yourself, “Damn. Finally.” And that’s why you’re here, right? To do something new, and to get it right?

So, it’s worth it. If you are thinking about going back to school, think about all the things I’ve said. It’s quite a tally. Then, think about everything you would stand to gain. What will be your measure of success?  The long term success of this endeavor remains to be seen, but to measure my short-term success, I table all the hassle and heartache of those sixteen week blocks and think solely of the academic experience itself: the adrenaline, the satisfaction, the flush of pride from succeeding in something difficult. Definitely worth it.

Stay tuned for Year Two.