I can’t cut a potato. No, it’s not a metaphor. I discovered this week that my ability to cut a potato with any kind of precision is a major challenge. I wouldn’t say that precision in cutting vegetables has ever really been a personal goal of mine. I admire the perfectly diced vegetables when I go to a great French restaurant, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, my focus has always been on using the whole vegetable, odd shapes and all. That said, my personal preferences are being put aside for the next ten months and the importance of expert potato cutting has risen to epic proportions as I embark on my latest journey—as a culinary student. In an interesting turn of events, I made the decision to return to school, and have since launched a hands-on study of the science and art of cooking at a health-focused culinary school. Truth be told, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into when I started class last weekend. And certainly, I had no idea how French knife skills would take me to my knees and generate feelings I haven’t experienced since high school. It’s been a long time since I’ve been terrible at something. The good news is that I have many more coping skills than I did when I was 16. So, my challenge this week was to call on the techniques I’ve honed over the last two decades to find a comfort zone within this new and uneasy situation. And, let me tell you, it was hard.
During our first class, we learned basic knife skills. From the beginning, it was clear this was something I would need to practice, but it seemed within my reach. I practiced my hand placement, kept my knife steady and aligned, and built up some confidence prior to our next class. Little did I know our next class was focused on the most precise form of knife skills—French knife skills. Our teacher went around to each of our stations with a ruler, measuring our one-inch, half-inch, and quarter-inch dices. She checked our orange slices for even the tiniest bit of pith (that white part under the skin) and analyzed the proportion of our julienned carrots. The list of items to be scrutinized went on and on. At the beginning of class, I rationalized that I would get better as the class continued. But about midway through, it became clear that instead of getting better, I was becoming decidedly worse. It all climaxed when I cut my finger. As I was being bandaged, I took some focused breaths and talked to myself—not out loud so as to alarm the person bandaging me—but loud enough in my own imagination to shift my attention.
My self-talk in the classroom went something like this, “Why can’t I get this right?” “How is this person next to me doing this so easily?” “Am I ever going to be able to be as precise as is required?” “Am I going to pass the knife skills test in two weeks?” And downward it spiraled, all the way into “Am I going to have to drop out?” My bleeding finger was my wake-up call: My negative self-talk was taking me down—I had a bloody finger to prove it.
When I went back to my station, I tried something new. When a head of cabbage was handed to me, I told myself that this new knife skill—chiffonade—was a new opportunity for success. And then when radishes came my way, I again reminded myself that this was another opportunity to master yet another skill—matchsticks. Every vegetable, every knife skill was a potential new opportunity to succeed, different from the last. And instead of saying to myself, “I have to get this,” I said to myself, “Try to learn this.” My heart rate dropped back to normal, and I became more focused.
By the end of class, I couldn’t say I had perfected any of the techniques. But what I did succeed in was shifting my mindset. Instead of thinking, “I can’t do this,” by the end of class I was thinking, “I can’t do this yet.” I know from the work of Carol Dweck, PhD, that this small shift in mindset, from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, helps us better navigate life’s challenges and builds resilience.
Looking back, I’m reminded of something my mother used to tell me as a child when I was feeling less than. She used to tell me that there will always be someone who is faster, better and perceived as more successful than me. There will always be that “ringer” in class or in life who seems to have mastered some skill or technique without any effort. In my new class, it has taken me some time to accept that French knife skills will not come easily. For the past decade or so, I’ve been living in a place of comfort, doing things I am good at and knowing that although some new things within my realm of comfort may be hard, I am capable of achieving them. This class reminded me that confidence alone is not always enough. Learning something entirely new, outside the comfort zone, can be a challenge. And, regardless of the apparent ease of mastery enjoyed by others, my greatest asset (and yours too) is the effort and the ability to stick with a challenge despite failure on our first, second, or even third try—perseverance!
As the unrelenting researcher, I bought two grocery bags worth of vegetables on my way home on which to practice those elusive knife skills. I’ll let you know how this challenge goes (and I imagine the many more to come), as well as how my conscious effort to maintain a growth mindset assists me. Trying something new is scary. I’ve been scared since the day I started. But the lessons I’ve already taken away (including the bloody finger) and the new things I’m bound to learn to make it more exciting than anything else.
Don’t let your negative self-talk stop you from trying something new. Take a look at our article, “Positive Self-Talk to Stimulate Change” to learn how to develop your own growth mindset. Why? Because how you choose to talk to yourself, how you build yourself up or tear yourself down, really can shift your perspective and ability to succeed.
Make A Change Today,