“Why don’t you focus on just one thing?”

This is the second installment in a three-part post on leaving a career I loved, choosing to be unemployed for an arbitrary period of time, and indulging in a heck of a lot of tea and think-time.

Career Lost and Found (Part 2)

This is the second installment in a three-part post on leaving a career I loved, choosing to be unemployed for an arbitrary period of time, and indulging in a heck of a lot of tea and think-time. If you’ve landed here directly, click here to read Part 1: “Why don’t you take some time off?”

“Why don’t you focus on just one of the things you want to do?”

Most people are lucky if they have one passion. I have two! You’re welcome to interpret this as either a blessing or a curse. This was the line I was telling at various birthdays and meetups:

“I love helping remote distributed teams communicate better. It’s what I’ve been doing for eight years as a project manager. But I also love food and cooking for people. I’m going to explore both!

And so I did.

Doing the “yes” work

For two months I said “yes” to every door that opened, not thinking very much about said door. At times it felt liberating, very caution-to-the-wind(!) Other times it felt like I was using my own arms to force myself off a ledge. I had doubts. Sometimes it was “Do I want to do this?”; more often it was  “Will this be sustainable?” But I pushed those thoughts down and dove into the unfamiliar waters, ranging from murky but manageable to thoroughly terrifying.

Focus! Mise en place, harvest sticky rice. © Patti Chan 2014

A plunge into FoodLand

In two months, I catered dinner parties for over 150 guests. I planned and executed menus for clients as well as my own ticketed underground dinners. Newly “funemployed” I found myself working 15-hour days, almost all on my feet. I was bone-tired, a kind of physical exhaustion I had never felt before. I don’t think you can experience this kind of exhaustion going to a gym, and my years sitting at a computer desk had done precisely nothing to prepare me for it.

I loved it. It was worth it.

The surprise on people’s eyebrows as they one by one bit into a mini molten lava cake! The strangers in cocktail dresses who sought me out in the kitchen, just to tell me how much they loved my Korean beef barbecue. Every morning I woke up sore from hours of standing and prepping, yet hauled myself to the kitchen and willingly stayed there.

After a particularly challenging gig, I calculated exactly how many hours it had been since I slept or sat down for more than a quick break. It was forty. Forty hours.

The schedule was enough to burn me out. Specifically, the way that I had been going about it burned me out. I had some invaluable help in the form of a now-and-then assistant, but my most strenuous shifts were often done alone and well into the night.

Offers continued to come in for holiday parties and private dinners. It helped that it was the holiday season. But my depleting energy meant I felt less and less guilty about saying “no” or not following up with inquiries as quickly as I could have.

That other thing

I met with two project managers on two separate occasions to talk about distributed teams and building software. The texture of those conversations was old-hat. Neither were sold on my ability to help them, and I didn’t follow up. I had the confidence and know-how, but I didn’t have the excitement. Did this mean that I actually didn’t care about remote teams? Had I been lying to myself (and to whole audiences!!) for the past four years??

I was battling with this conflict when I got into a Lyft. I learned that my driver, when he wasn’t driving, spent his days on his headset coaching people all around the country to achieve the life they wanted. He himself had left a successful career in IT to make his own hours, tangibly impacting individuals as far away as Florida. I loved hearing that he was doing “remote work.” It made me proud and excited again that these long distances could be bridged with technology – and more importantly, with initiative. These two strangers committed to dialing a number at a designated time each week, to tell their stories to each other. They found it valuable and fulfilling enough that one even paid the other to keep doing it. I became eager to talk up my own past experience, skills and passions that I had neglected for weeks. For the first time, I found myself yearning for hours spent managing and mentoring again.

What I learned after two months of “yes”

I was afraid, when I started this, that I wouldn’t come up with any answers. I determined pretty quickly that simultaneously feeding two passions would not get me very far (credit to one of my earliest mentors for poking fun at that plan from the outset). And so I feared, that after three months of paying San Francisco rent with a starter business income, I would merely be left with the same uncertainty: what should I do with my time?

I capped the experiment at eight weeks, wildly relieved to have found more answers than I thought possible. I had gathered a ton of information — about these careers, about me, about my potential audience — that I couldn’t wait to shuffle through and organize into A Bonafide Plan. I took roughly another two weeks to sort through my experiences, reflections, and the new questions they generated. In addition to a bit of clarity towards what I should and shouldn’t be doing, I noticed a few other themes from my “yes” trial:

  1. Only things you want will present themselves to you
  2. It’s not one or the other
  3. Good things take time
Only things you want will present themselves to you

It was easy to think “Food chose me.” But the numerous dinner party and personal chef requests came from two habits:

  1. I talked about my food gigs and dinners I had just done all the time. What wasn’t I talking about? Teleconferencing tools and developer meetings. Action begets interest, and interest begets momentum.
  2. I was palpably excited when I talked about my food. I felt proud of the dishes I created and described them lovingly. Often I had the pleasure of talking to fellow foodies who sincerely wanted to hear about each plating of my four-course menus. I was both shocked and humbled by this. I couldn’t fake it if I tried.

I didn’t have the pleasure of turning down lucrative consulting gigs or teaching positions, because I wasn’t asking for them — consciously or unconsciously.

It’s not one or the other

When my eight weeks drew to an end, I actually had not discovered what I should be doing with my time. I learned that I didn’t want to be cooking 40+ hours a week, nor that I wanted to continue working with software teams. Didn’t I have more “yes”-work to do?

I peered closely at what exactly got me excited to cook or put on events. I peeled back to before the eight weeks, when I couldn’t wait to collaborate with teammates across the world. What linked all of these moments was the connection I felt to other people. I was excited by food, and my ability to make it, because it gave me an immensely rewarding way to communicate with someone else. What if I could hone in on that aspect, and align my time doing something that came naturally enough to me that I could sustain it for 40, 50 hour weeks?

Good things take time

It took me over a decade to become a truly good project manager. I spent years fine-tuning my ability to motivate people, break down complex problems, commune with clients, organize teams, and think on my feet. There was still plenty more room left to grow. As a nascent speaker, I could easily have spent five more years sharpening my ideas about team collaboration, crafting my storytelling and teaching abilities, and developing a compelling stage presence.

Come to think of it, I can still do this. That’s the great thing about being in control of your own life. Nothing is off the table.

I was reminded that “good” takes time every time I burned a rice cake or made rookie mistakes at a catering gig. Whatever I was going to do, I would have to accept that it would be another decade before I got really good at it. If I was clever about it, I could repurpose everything I had learned so far to get a head start on the gettin’ good part. But it would still take time. And it would continue. Forever. There’s always more to improve, fine-tune, reinvent. It’s more fun that way.

On to Part 3: “Why don’t you work for yourself?”