Faceoff! Gluten-Free Bread vs Everything – Long Read

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Before we begin, a little background. In a past life I was thisclose to becoming a baker. I had no idea what it would mean to be a baker, I just knew that making good bread was worthy of a lifetime of study and appreciation (Incidentally, this is the #1 reason not to start a business, as you can read here.) I was really making bread from scratch: I was milling my own organic wheat by hand, five pounds at a time. With this flour, spring water drawn from a bubbling brook 50 feet away, and a pinch of salt as my canvas, I set out to create a masterpiece.

After 18 months of way-too-early mornings and a change of address, I put baking on the shelf for a while. I had learned that some bakers nurture their own sourdough starters for years, to develop just the right properties of crumb and crust. This wouldn’t work for me, I thought at the time… and besides, I had noticed that I felt better when I didn’t eat bread. Suddenly ‘Gluten-Free’ had a whole new appeal for this almost-former-baker.

The honeymoon only lasted about two weeks, though it has taken me over ten years to organize my thoughts on the subject.

Gluten-free as a business case makes phenomenal sense. The rise of social media coupled with the simultaneous increase in gluten sensitivity just helped it spread that much more quickly. Customers voted with their dollars, small nimble companies took notice and increased their gluten free selection… only to be swallowed up by larger companies looking to leverage the expanding trend. When Pizza Hut gets on board, you know they mean business.

And yet… who says something has to taste good for it to be a commercial success? The genius of the gluten-free revolution is that bread is as much a medium for social exchange as it is a food. Perhaps even more so, since it’s ubiquitous. Can’t eat bread? You’re not just missing out on the calories: you’re missing out on friendship and community. That’s the chord struck by gluten-free brands, with phenomenal success.

An examination of the exponential growth of gluten-free as a lifestyle and a category will reveal that when it comes to food, nutrition and flavor are often the last considerations.

With this post I’d like to highlight three overlooked characteristics of the wheat we eat that can help us all enjoy our food more… and maybe even spark the rise of new businesses to meet an unforeseen demand.

Wheat – It’s Not What It Used To Be

“If people are sensitive to gluten, then gluten must be the problem. So let’s create products for them that are totally free of gluten. Problem solved.” OK… but this makes gluten-free look like a solution in search of a problem, not the answer to our prayers.

Since the early 20th century wheat has been hybridized countless times to isolate a handful of traits that are useful to commercial bakers, regardless of how it might affect our health. Even worse, during processing wheat is stripped of its germ and most of its bran. What shortens the shelf-life of the finished loaf (the high oil content of the germ) also happens to be the most nutritious part of the entire plant.

People don’t specifically want tapioca starch, potato starch, and white rice flour when they eat bread. What people really want is to break bread together, and enjoy it without fear or anxiety. Gluten-free breads give us this opportunity, but only by sidestepping the abuse that most wheat endures as it is transformed from seed to loaf.

The New Farming

In Daphne Miller’s book Farmacology, she discusses other cultures’ attitudes towards wheat, most notably Italians. In one of her public appearances late last year, she elaborated by describing the process by which wheat in Italy is harvested and cured before being milled. So what’s different? Nothing.

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The Italians (and many other cultures) have been harvesting wheat the same way for hundred of years: grow it in small plots, harvest it by hand, bind it in shocks, leave it to germinate and cure in the field for a few days, then thresh it and package it for shipment to the local mill. This careful process, carried out at a human pace, allows the wheat to sprout and helps remove various anti-nutrients before it’s ground into flour. In these few short days, nutrients become more readily digestible and the large molecules of gluten begin to unravel.

What’s different is the way we harvest wheat in America.

A process that used to take days is now accomplished in seconds. The wheat is harvested and threshed by giant combines which mow down millions of acres at a time. Worse, the wheat is already dead before the harvest begins: many farmers who raise wheat spray the fields with Glyphosate (Roundup) before harvest, since this forces the wheat plant to use its last remaining energy stores to create even more, and plumper, wheat kernels.

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Besides percolating into the groundwater and being taken up by neighboring fields downstream, some of this invariably finds its way into the wheat itself, into the flour, and onto the shelves of our supermarkets and kitchens.

The modern-day cultivation of wheat is extremely centralized. Even if only 5% of all farmers apply Roundup to their fields, their crop is bound to be co-mingled with their neighbors’. Once you spray it, you can’t take it back.

By the time it’s transformed into bread, modern wheat still retains all its anti-nutrients – natural defenses the plant evolved to protect young shoots from being eaten by animals. Without the chance to germinate in the field, the large gluten molecules remain as tightly bound as a ball of twine. Finally, traces of Roundup and many other chemicals linger in the final product.

Is it any wonder that many of us have trouble eating wheat? After preparing it the traditional way for thousands of years, changing everything for the worse in the span of a generation is probably not the best way to nourish each other.

Once again, gluten-free bypasses many of these obstacles… yet trades them for an entirely new set of challenges which are far more subtle.

  • Anti-nutrients? The ingredients in gluten-free bread have been grown and harvested in exactly the same way as wheat.
  • Roundup? While wheat may take the spotlight since it’s one of America’s most heavily treated crops (alongside corn, soy, and cotton), if the ingredients of gluten-free bread are being grown in a Conventional way there will probably still be traces of these chemicals in the final product.
  • OK… but what about evolution and our digestive systems? We’re doing things to wheat now that are unprecedented… and we’re doing much the same with the ingredients in gluten-free bread. We couldn’t imagine how our bodies would respond when we started making wheat bread in hours instead of days. We might be in for a similar shock if we combine a dozen unrelated starches in entirely novel ways (I’m looking at you, frozen “bread” made from potato flour and white rice flour sweetened with grape juice concentrate).

But hey, at least none of these new products have gluten!

Anyone want a cookie?

The first two factors above are kept out of view of most of us, but this one almost goes without saying. We simply eat too much bread, and the two factors above compound the consequences of our indulgence. Cakes, cookies, crackers, muffins, biscuits… we eat enough to fuel our bodies for a marathon every day, though hardly any of us burn this many calories in a week.

I’m not a nutritionist or a dietician, though from personal experience I can see a few reasons why our consumption of these products has skyrocketed:

  • It’s easier than ever: When I was making bread by hand, I experimented with grinding the wheat extremely fine and sifting off all the bran, for use in pie crusts and other pastries. Setting the plates of my mill so close together meant that it took an incredible amount of effort to produce even a small amount of light, fluffy flour – the kind of flour that gives us more starch and less fiber, making it harder on our digestion. But nowadays hardly anyone grinds their own flour, so we don’t realize how much extra work is involved in creating the ingredients for that brownie or cupcake.
  • Food is subject to inelastic demand: You can’t arbitrarily make someone eat twice as much by cutting the price of their food in half. But food manufacturers have done something similar with modern processing methods: remove many of the nutrients from food, and people will keep buying and eating your product past the point of ‘full.’ Nutrients produce satiety, but the so-called ’empty calories’ in products made with refined flour just make us crave more.

The gluten-free versions of breads, cakes, and cookies are identical to those made with wheat. It’s just as easy to purchase a gluten-free cupcake as it is to purchase one made with wheat. The former doesn’t have gluten… but it has the same amount of sugar as the latter (and potentially even more), plus we’re asking the body to digest something completely novel. We’re just trading one problem (gluten) for another.

And though I cannot prove it, we may even end up eating more of these gluten-free treats than their traditional counterparts. Our bodies have adapted to digest the nutrients in wheat after they have been combined with butter, salt, and sugar. Try saying the same of a loaf made from potato flour, tapioca starch, and white rice flour. Completely different story, and we don’t know how these products might affect future generations.

Alarmist? Of course, but more than anything else I’d like people to be conscious of the food they’re eating and the business problem they’re trying to solve. You don’t have to do both in the same bite, but it matters that we all learn to trust our gut and look in the right directions: inward, to determine what our bodies have craved for thousands of years, and outward, to determine how we can perpetuate these foods for all to enjoy.

Again, gluten-free has seen such astounding success because it helps people reconnect: it’s a thin layer of mortar which bonds the bricks of community. But don’t stop with that one thin layer! There is an incredible business opportunity here for people who want to make real, good bread. All of us want it, and bakeries such as Farm & Sparrow, Tabor Bread, and The Mill are serving their customers with the real deal.

Real bread is hearty, toothsome, and satisfying. Brief germination of kernels in the fields was followed by the natural fermentation and leavening of the flour, which in some cultures lasted days. This removed anti-nutrients and unraveled gluten molecules even further. On top of this, real bread was usually consumed with a corresponding amount of real fat, which not only helped us absorb the nutrients present in the bread but also slowed the uptake of sugars into the bloodstream (I will share my thoughts on real fat in an entirely separate post). Perhaps most importantly of all, each of these steps contributed to the flavor of the final loaf – as anyone who has enjoyed a slice can tell you.

Manufacturers of gluten-free products have expanded across the country so quickly thanks in large part to modern technology. The products can be made quickly, which makes storage easy and enables massive centralization and streamlined distribution. For a product like naturally leavened, real bread – which can take up to three days from milling the flour to final product – existing methods of manufacturing and distribution would have to be adapted. In a very real sense, the companies which make gluten-free products are simply taking their cue from the makers of white bread 50 years ago. They created helped create the market they planned to serve. Many of us in America have no experience with real bread, so even if someone was making it on the same scale as a gluten-free product… who would buy it?

For starters… just about everyone who lives in Paris. The name of Poilâne has been synonymous with real bread for the past eighty years, though unfortunately it hasn’t made much of a dent on Americans’ eating habits. And Poilâne is only one of the most famous of these bakeries scattered around the world. There are businesses like Farm & Sparrow and Tabor in almost every country where bread has been a part the national diet.

Somehow, over the last few decades we have convinced ourselves that our food comes to us from far away, from people we do not know and will never meet. We don’t know how it’s made and most of the time we don’t ask what’s in it, we only want to be reassured that it won’t harm us.

There is a better way.

Today’s recipe is not something you can print on an index card, but rather a way of life. If you want to experiment with making real bread, you can start with Einkorn flour – which is about as far from most of the wheat grown in America as you’re likely to find. If you want to dig in and make real bread from seed to loaf, this is the book that explains it all. This is a big commitment, and if you want to do it right you need to invest in the right tools. This is the mill I used, and it’s still the best one available.

With these tools and a new perspective, I hope you’ll enjoy real bread for the first time. Though be careful (and I won’t be the last one to say it): no matter how good it smells, do not slice into a loaf of real bread while it’s cooling!

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Please note that some of the links in this post may take you to affiliate sites. To read my full Affiliate Disclosure please click here.

Key Sacrifices Which Lead to Success

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It’s all well and good to talk about specific examples of sacrifice in business. For every company like Grace Manufacturing (creators of the Microplane), there are many who go under or simply cease to exist. They never learned the value of sacrifice.

But what can we do in our personal lives? If we are presented with an opportunity for greater adventure and enrichment, what will we have to leave behind?

Comfort

Strip yourself of the notion that everything has to meet every one of your high standards before you make a move. High standards are goals, not preconditions.  In fact, the best reason to embark on an adventure is to achieve those awesome goals you set for yourself.

And remember that physical discomfort is the least of your concerns, and the easiest to overcome.

Time

After concern for comfort falls away, we have the responsibility to fill our days only with those activities that can help us achieve our goals. You’d be amazed how much time you can squeeze into 24 hours if you sacrifice things that don’t matter. (Hint: it’s way more than you thought). It all comes back to learning how to say No. We’re not just after opportunities for novelty’s sake, we need the right opportunities, the adventures that enrich us.

Any adventure in which you will be comfortable 100% of the time is not the right opportunity. They’re not worth sacrificing your time.

Your Self

This is where things really get personal. When I talk about the self, I’m referring to those aspects of our character we would rather not see when we look in the mirror. Our pride, our greed… anything that momentarily stimulates us at the expense of permanent fulfillment has to go.

We can fool ourselves into thinking we could work under any conditions, that we hold no biases, and that we would devote however much time is required – at any time day or night – to reach our goals. But if we still have pride we won’t achieve any goals worth reaching.

Remember that ambition is a vital part of the ego. Yet having a big ego with little ambition is like a giant beach ball that blocks out the sun. People with big egos overshadow everything around them, but they have no substance and their actions carry no force. If they sacrifice any part of themselves, they lose everything (that’s pride).

Instead, we want the reverse… something solid and stable but also unobtrusive….

Like a cannonball.

Sacrifice your comfort and submit to having a fire lit under your ass. It’s in your nature to leave comfort behind and fly to the target.

Let people underestimate you even as you exceed their highest expectations.

Your sacrifice makes you unstoppable.

Please note that some of the links in this post may take you to affiliate sites. To read my full Affiliate Disclosure please click here.

Say Yes to Sacrifice

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We saw yesterday how making time is infinitely better than finding time. As soon as you make time you’re already ahead of the millions who are continuously looking for it. Learn how to say Yes and No – and how often – and your sense of purpose will be fortified beyond all temporary disturbance.

But sometimes you need to make a major change. Sometimes you have the option to embark on an incredible adventure, yet in doing so you’ll have to sacrifice many of your perceptions. Think it’s safer to return to the same strategies over and over? It is our responsibility to produce the most lasting, positive effect on the world around us. If we’re only in it for our own enjoyment, it’s unlikely this will see us through the dark times.

For an example of this we need to turn to one of my favorite companies of all time: Grace Manufacturing Inc. Never heard of them? If you’re serious about cooking you probably have. They’re the manufacturers of Microplane Graters.

The story of how Microplane made the jump from the woodshop to the kitchen is incredible for its simplicity. The owners realized that they could expand their mission from “making incredibly sharp woodworking tools” to “making incredibly sharp tools, period.” They took one step towards a more general mission statement, made several changes to their marketing strategy and sales tactics… and now they’re ubiquitous in kitchens around the world.

Here’s the catch: to make this jump everyone at Grace Manufacturing had to say Yes to Sacrifice. They had to embrace what they knew best, yet at the same time look beyond the typical activities that defined their business.

And keep in mind that the company didn’t even begin with making tools for woodworking: they started out making parts for printers! The fact that their process produced extremely sharp edges was a side effect, not a goal. Though once they realized that they were in the “Sharp” business and not simply the printer parts business, it opened an entirely new world of opportunities.

Are you doing what you’re doing right now because it’s what you’ve always done? You may want to take a step back and reconnect with the unifying thread that runs through all your work. Even if you don’t quite fit with your current role, I can understand if you’re reluctant to re-examine treasured assumptions… we’re often more scared of the unknown. But if we don’t change at all, we’ll save our selves while we sacrifice everything else.

 

CEO Chris Grace said it best early in the company’s evolution: “We realized we were good at making sharp things. What can we make that’s sharp?” And when it comes to zesting citrus, you definitely need a tool that’s sharp. Got your Microplane? Great! Now enjoy this Orange and Poppy Seed Cake from Cookie and Kate.

 

For a deeper analysis of the principles discussed in this post, please read Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategyby Joan Magretta.

For a unique glimpse into the type of evangelists Microplane is creating – completely unanticipated by Grace Manufacturing 20 years ago – enjoy this recent profile of Ignacio Mattos.

Please note that some of the links in this post redirect to affiliate sites. To read my full Affiliate Disclosure please click here.

Finding Time vs Making Time

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This is one of those open secrets.

If you want to be an overnight success (and who doesn’t?), usually it means working through the night… for twenty years.  We aren’t born successful, we learn it moment by moment, day by day. The secret is saying ‘No.’

Now sure, if you want to be successful you need to pour out your heart when no one’s looking, without any hope of reward. You need to devote your life to making the lives of others better. Both of these involve saying ‘Yes’ a lot, even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts.

But just as important is No. The more times you say Yes, clearly the more people will expect you to say Yes, no matter what. And if you always say Yes, you’ll try to find time to do what matters.

If you’re always trying to find time to complete something amazing, it will never happen. Let me repeat that again:

If you’re trying to find time to do something, you never will.

Finding time implies that it’s something precious (true), that it’s hidden (also true), that it’s elusive (not quite true), and that if you just work a little harder at it, you’ll find all you need before too long (tragically false).

Our time on this Earth is a treasure, but where many people get stuck is thinking that serving others means Always saying Yes. If you’re stuck in Always, you won’t be able to find time. Always is like the house guest that never leaves. Few things last forever in this world…. except maybe our attachment to a few attractive, seductive, utterly wrong ideas.

Always saying Yes is one of those ideas. Guard against this with your life. If you want to achieve greatness, learn to say No. Only No is the key that can open the treasure of time.

Like any double-edged sword, learn how to wield Yes and No so you don’t cut yourself. No means focusing on what you need to do, at the expense of what others might want you to do. Always Yes means sacrificing what you need to do for what others think you should do, every time.

You just caught yourself saying, “I can’t find the time….!” I’m right there with you, and I still get cut when I draw that sword. But nothing great was ever created out of ‘found’ time. Great companies and great meals never emerge from great people finding time. They create time for something unexpected, something revolutionary, at the risk of everything that had come before. They did it by making time. Late night, all-night, early mornings, whatever it takes. And believe me, it takes resilience and courage… maybe even twenty years’ worth.

Make the time to do something great. The clock is ticking.

 

The first person to intentionally combine egg yolks, heavy cream, and large amounts of chocolate? Genius. They may not have gotten it right the first time, or the second, or even the thirty-fifth… But I’m so glad they made the time to perfect it. Thanks to Chow, now you and I can do the same.

Making It Easy

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This is a cautionary tale for web designers and those who love them.

Despite my efforts to change all my notifications to “paperless,” sometimes I still receive letters in the mail from large companies. Strangely, many companies still send out paper statements and notifications as a follow-up to identical notices they deliver through email. While I predict this phenomenon will fade away within the next five years, I’ll save that for another post.

My present concern stems from a recent letter I received from my health insurance provider. While I’d like to think I’ve got a good head on my shoulders, sometimes I still fall victim to poor design.

At the top, their letter said (and I paraphrase here), “You owe $270.” Fair enough. I recalled signing up for automatic bill-pay, but if they want to send me a statement saying I still owe money, seems like I might need to call in and ask someone to explain.

The next paragraph further down says, “This is Not a Bill.” “What a relief,” I thought. “So automatic bill-pay is working just like I planned. Glad I won’t have to call anyone after all.”

At the bottom of the letter was a tear-away stating, “Write here how much you would like to pay, and return it to us in the enclosed envelope.” Wait… first it’s a bill, then it’s not a bill, then it’s a bill again? So I visited the online bill-pay section of my health insurance provider’s website to learn more… and I was greeted with a notice that my account had been canceled.

At this point I was feeling baffled, confused, distraught, insecure… nothing like a leader. At the first opportunity I called one of their friendly representatives who explained:

  • The letter was simply a reminder that the $270 was deducted from my account according to automatic bill-pay. OK, that makes me feel better… but if you knew I was enrolled in automatic bill-pay, why send a letter postmarked before the withdrawal date (which is the same every month), saying that I owe $270?
  • The notice I received online, stating that my account had been cancelled, only referred to my online bill-pay account. My automatic bill-pay account was still active.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but if anyone else was greeted with the words, “Your Account Has Been Canceled,” on a website they know and trust, they would probably call in and ask for help. How many of this company’s customers are enrolled in automatic bill-pay? How many of them received a letter similar to mine? How many of them called in for help? Worst of all, how many of them missed the fine print and sent in a duplicate payment?

By this point I’m sure you can imagine the cost to this company rising rapidly. Trace this back to lost productivity from their call center staff (fielding calls from concerned customers) and their accounting team (reimbursing duplicate payments). All because of a confusing letter and an even more misleading website.

How many people were involved in this project to send out a letter to those customers enrolled in automatic bill-pay? Did anyone ever stop to think what actions people might take upon receiving such a letter? Did anyone review the online bill-pay web site to make sure that it would reassure people who logged in to check their account, instead of causing them even greater distress?

If you design anything, whether it be a website or a five-course dinner, envision every step of your audience’s experience without bias, assumptions, or hope. You can see how many points of friction there were in the letter above, and this was relatively minor. I’ve seen entire customer service departments brought to their knees because of one mistaken assumption from upper management.

Good design is not “nice-to-have.” It is essential for the life of your business. Good design is the invitation that welcomes your customers, the guide that teaches them, and the prize that rewards them. Poor design is just as bad as poor customer service: it leaves a bitter taste that’s more likely to be shared.

Create something that makes people want to come back for more.

 

Sometimes, though, a little bitterness elevates the entire meal. Enjoy this recipe for Sauteed Dandelion with Garlic from Mark Bittman, which can just as easily be made with Broccoli Raab. Personally, I’d go for his minced ginger variation.

Why Be A Leader?

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Yesterday I talked about the skills required to be an Excellent Leader, how balancing Decisiveness with Empowerment is the most effective way to inspire people towards focused action.

As I was writing yesterday’s post, I also started to think of the lessons I shared a few weeks ago, especially point #4 in the Rules of Engagement. If ‘Why’ is more important than ‘How,’ is more important than ‘What,’ then surely this ought to play out within existing business relationships. Specifically, an effective leader who successfully balances Decisiveness with Empowerment ought to have a clear sense of this chain of command, as clear as the law of gravity.

Today I’d like to share a few observations on the current state of Leadership, and how can we all take greater responsibility for its development in others and ourselves.

Place yourself in the shoes of someone who has just begun their career, or even a new entry-level job. Your ‘Why,’ ‘How,’ and ‘What’ are immediate and tangible. “In this job we do this, and we do it this way…” At this stage, the ‘Why’ is implied: “So you can keep your job.”

Can anyone ever hope to thrive as a Leader in this role? If you haven’t already, check out Simon Sinek’s video Start with Why. When we were just entering the workforce, how many of us started with ‘Why?’ Not many of us, unfortunately, and our senses of ‘How’ and ‘What’ were still immature. Did you ever question the ‘How’ and ‘What?’ If you’re anything like me… Constantly.

Now fast-forward a few years. You’re in a management role, responsible for the ‘How’ of a dozen people who work on your team. You train your team members ‘What’ is important and steer them to safety if they spend too much time with some ‘What’ that’s irrelevant. Your greatest concern? “How can I help my team be more effective, more successful, and more confident, in their work?” The rarified air of the ‘Why’ you leave to your superiors. They’re charting the course of the company as a whole, your role is to make your team the best it can be.

Yet once again, this is no way to lead. If we spend all day teaching ‘How’ but never share our vision of ‘Why,’ our team is doomed to mediocrity. People want to be inspired, they want their lives to have meaning and purpose. ‘How’ can briefly excite and ‘What’ can only stimulate, and we need a continuous injection of both at the right times to keep us moving forward in the right direction. If you don’t share your ‘Why’ and you falter even once on the ‘How’ or ‘What,’ the damage to your team will be insidious and irreparable. A job is not a math problem we complete in an exercise book. Anyone who attempts to reduce a job to a list of ‘How’ bullet points is asking for trouble.

At long last you reach the ‘Why!’ Finally, in a senior management role, now you have the resources and stability to consider the deeper questions, the direction of your career and your work. So this is what Leadership feels like!

Time out: This is not Leadership, and this progression from ‘What’ to ‘How’ and only much later to ‘Why’ will never produce effective Leaders. At this point we can make two key observations:

  1. Effective Leaders balance Decisiveness and Empowerment because they start with ‘Why.’ They take an extremely long-term approach, which includes the lives and goals of all the people they work with. Their ‘Why’ has deep roots, and goes far beyond the immediately tangible or quantifiable. They seek to bring out the very best in each member of their team. If their work was an airplane, Decisiveness and Empowerment would be the two jet engines on either wing, and ‘Why’ would be the rudder.
  2. If we want to be effective Leaders, we need to begin asking ‘Why,’ much, much earlier in our careers. If our current ‘What’ or ‘How’ doesn’t satisfy, speak up and demand a change. But if we’ve never learned to ask ‘Why,’ then we need to begin now. If your company’s ‘Why’ doesn’t line up with your personal ‘Why,’ that’s totally fine. Only when we never develop our own personal ‘Why’ does the tragic sequence above unfold.

Which leads to our most important point: we cannot wait until those around us are just starting their careers. If they haven’t formed their own personal ‘Why’ by this point, training them to do so will take a long time with no lack of challenges to overcome. But what does it look like if we start much earlier?

I related in an earlier post the challenges I encountered while practicing the French Horn. A few weeks prior to the episode I shared, I was playing a new piece which my instructor compared to Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. The reverent way in which she compared it to Rachmaninoff’s piece motivated me to listen to a vinyl recording in the library… after which I played it non-stop for the next six months. Every time I hear it, even now more than ten years later, it brings tears to my eyes.

That would have served quite well as my ‘Why’ for music. This is music that we need to share with our children before they can understand what it is. But this is not just about music. At a much deeper level it is about Leadership and becoming who we were created to be. It is about fulfilling our mission, our life’s purpose. No one can choose it for us, but as members of a community we can guide those less experienced to positive examples of ‘Why’ that have inspired us to change.

This is the real answer to the question posed in the title. Being a Leader is the only way to live a full life. It is the only way to inspire others. And it is the only way to develop ‘How’ and ‘What’ to their fullest potential.

 

You may ask, ‘How’ can I possibly follow up an exploration of the meaning of life with a simple recipe? If you want to inspire others to care for the earth and appreciate the food that helps us ask ‘Why’ in the first place, you need a meal that does far more than satisfy our base hunger. It has to nourish us deeply, and it has to be transcendent. Everyone has their favorite, and here is one of mine. Enjoy!

Again my deepest thanks to Simon Sinek for the inspiration.

How To Be A Leader

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All effective leaders are simultaneously Decisive and Empowering. What does this look like? Let’s examine the two extremes:

An individual might decide that they know better than anyone else how to manage an organization, or create a product, or guide a project to completion. They take control of the process and insist on making all the key decisions.

So what happens?

First, this takes a tremendous amount of time and energy, and they may come across as arrogant and selfish. Saying “I” over and over is not the way to inspire your team or convey your skills to superiors. If the individual is at the head of the organization or group, they may induce a sense of paralysis in the people who do the actual work. If everyone around you is always trying to guess what you would do instead of acting in the best interests of the whole, this is a recipe for disaster.

No one wants a disaster, so the real key to leadership must be Empowerment, right? So try delegating all your decisions and see what happens.

The opposite extreme looks like a lack of confidence, naked insecurity. Those around you begin to wonder, “He knows what to do, so why doesn’t he do it?” Or perhaps people are waiting for your guidance and direction. They have the skills, they have the will, all they lack is the way and the why. Empowerment is the bridge between Inspiration and Action, but it cannot exist in a vacuum.

An effective leader is Decisive and Empowering. Be bold, clear, and efficient with your decisions, but never miss an opportunity to show your appreciation for the decisions of another.

Which exposes the #1 fear of potential leaders:

Are you afraid you’ll be blamed if everything goes wrong?

Ready for the kicker?

You will be wrong. The more decisions you make, and the more you encourage others to acts independently, the more times you will be wrong. But neither of the extremes above offers a solution. The only solution is to balance these two and learn from your missteps, quickly. All leaders make mistakes, but only great leaders acknowledge them and earn the respect of their team for life.

 

Tell them you’re making tortillas for lunch, then follow along with Fine Cooking no matter what they say. Potatoes and eggs in a tortilla? Trust me: this traditional recipe is fantastic. Just be careful when you flip it over halfway through cooking, or else it could be a recipe for disaster.

Faceoff! 4Sphere vs Vortex Bladeless

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In my previous Faceoff post I pitted two foods against one another, and gradually worked backwards to contrast the two attitudes that produced them.

The foodies among you can skip to the end for your daily dose of delicious, because today I’m all business.

It’s not everyday that we’re presented with not one, but two alternatives to a renewable energy technology. Forget solar for a moment; many of today’s most fascinating innovations are happening in Wind Power.

I’d like to introduce you to 4Sphere and Vortex Bladeless. For anyone familiar with a ‘traditional’ wind farm, the design each team employs looks much more exotic and beautiful. It’s easy to make the mental leap from 1 to 2. “Since we’re so good at making ‘traditional’ propellers, why not simply make them really large and mount them 200 feet in the air? Who cares if they’re loud and expensive… you wanted wind power, now you’ve got wind power.”

But how can we go from 1 to 100?  Both 4Sphere and Vortex Bladeless answered this question in unexpected ways:

4Sphere: “What would happen if we tried to create a turbine that completely eliminated the primary problem facing current turbines? What would happen if we could entirely remove wake turbulence?”

Vortex Bladeless: “What would happen if we created a wind power system that turned the ‘problem’ of wake turbulence into an advantage?”

The contrast between the two teams’ approaches cannot be overstated, and yet their potential benefits are both remarkably similar and extremely promising:

  • Beautiful design, blends into any environment
  • No birds were harmed in the creation of this energy
  • Virtually silent during normal operation
  • Much lower cost compared to traditional wind turbines
  • Smaller geographic footprint per turbine

Oh, and did I mention that each design is beautiful?

No matter how important beauty may be, none of us will ever experience wind power generated from either 4Sphere or Vortex Bladeless unless we demand it. The real test is not whether you can go from 1 to 100, impressive as that may be. The challenge is going from 0 to 1. The timing has to be right, the demand has to be high, team members have to be right for each other… and the technology has to produce a benefit to the end user of at least 10x.

And yet, can beauty be counted towards that 10x benefit? Examples of poor design and even cruel design are almost too numerous to list, and sometimes I believe we’ve fooled ourselves into numb acceptance, thinking “that’s just the way it is.”

What’s most tragic is that we often accept ugliness in the products we use every day, unless the product looks so horribly bad that it generates bad press for years to come. Then it’s a black eye on a company’s bottom line.

Could ‘traditional’ wind turbines ever be considered a black eye? Is it enough that this is the current ‘standard’ by which all other wind power systems are measured? If we’ve convinced ourselves that traditional wind turbines are an A+, when objectively they’re really a C-, would we recognize excellence even if it came up and kissed us on the lips?

Here’s what it really boils down to: Who is the end user? If the end user is anonymous and located far away from the source of power generation, then ugliness doesn’t matter. If no one will ever see it, then who cares what it looks like?

But what if all of us are the end users? Both 4Sphere and Vortex Bladeless can produce power on the micro and macro levels, meaning you could install a unit in your front yard, at your child’s school, in your favorite park, even lining the roofs of buildings throughout your hometown. If we’re creating something that is designed to be seen every day, I propose that designing it to be beautiful is essential for our health and well-being. Make it something so attractive, something people will do anything to see, and suddenly building something ugly becomes much, much harder.

So who wins our Faceoff today? If 4Sphere and Vortex Bladeless gain widespread acceptance, we all win. How can you help?

  1. Crowdfunding for Vortex Bladeless begins on June 1st
  2. Follow each of them on Facebook here and here
  3. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT settle for poor design!

This is not a matter of “time will tell.” It’s up to all of us to tell power companies what we want and deserve. I dream of the day when I see 4Sphere and Vortex Bladeless units dotting the landscape across the country, when Wind Powder becomes decentralized and everyone can generate the power they need at cents per kWH.

The dream is real,  if we want it.

 

When I’m not dreaming of disrupting public utilities, I’m planning the menu for a party. And there’s no party food better than paella. Along with Vortex Bladeless, you can add  paella to my shortlist of things I love about Spain. Enjoy!

Dancing In The Rain

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A few weeks ago an epic storm blew through Kentucky. My wife and I lay awake the entire night as deafening thunderclaps shattered any thought of rest. Blinding bolts of lightning jolted us awake again and again for eight hours straight, and the house shook without end.

Arizona Monsoon Lightning 2012E

The next day dawned bright and clear, and the air was sweet. Groggy, we comforted each other after a night neither of us wanted to repeat. But then we realized…

We had missed the show of a lifetime! Instead of pining for sleep and cursing the storm, we could have gone outside to experience Mother Nature at her most spectacular. In the heart of the action, we both knew we weren’t going to get any rest, so why did we resist?

 

Let’s look at it from a business perspective. There are only two paths to success:

Dance in the rain. Make yourself open to wrenching, radical change. A tumultuous environment always holds the potential for incredibly positive results. When everyone else is running away from the storm out of fear or ignorance, fly into it and use those lightning bolts to fuel your rocket. Is everyone else claiming that a shiny new technology will ‘disrupt’ everything and spell ‘the end’ for traditional business? Seize it with both hands and leverage it on your own terms.

The way SumoMe is growing is a perfect example of this. The culture of ‘work’ is changing in ways no one would have guessed even ten years ago. We are witnessing a shift from work-one-job-in-one-place-forever to run-several-businesses-from-anywhere. The team at AppSumo is riding this rocket their own way, and I have no doubt that even if the underlying technology changes they’ll find a way to continue their success.

Preserve your strength for the next great opportunity. The other option may seem less scary but it is no less difficult: Ignore the commotion completely. Size it up, see it for what it is without bias or assumptions, and stay focused on your central endeavour. It’s easy to surrender to fear and distraction, but it’s more difficult – and more valuable – to recognize when these hold no purpose.

Doing one thing extremely well has served the McIlhenny family for over 140 years. Do you have any idea how many hot sauces are on the market? And yet they never lose sight of their core mission: keep it simple, keep it unique, and keep it appealing. Others may come and go, but that lingering heat lives on.

For any manager or leader of a company who has sought to avoid this dilemma, I have one simple suggestion: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you jump at every little noise or bright light, no one will ever know which of those jumps is the one that really matters. When your response to every change is a reaction, you’ll never be able to respond.

Don’t miss out on your chance…. to dance in the rain.

 

I shared a recipe for homemade hot sauce a few days ago, but if you’re going to put hot sauce on everything let’s make it something controversial. With a bottle of hot sauce nearby, it’s never been a better time to eat your greens. Enjoy these recipes for Creamed Spinach from Ellis Barnstable. If you need more reasons to love spinach, check out some of the pictures which accompanied the original article, from the talented Emi Uchida.

May The Weak Ask for Courage and The Strong, Restraint

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Sometimes the theme of an article comes to me first, other times it’s the recipe at the end that grabs my attention. This time it was the title that came to me unbidden.

In one sense, this is my idealized view of how companies recognize their liabilities and change course. If a company is weak, it can’t suddenly become strong simply by wanting it. I’m reminded of a quote by David Maxwell, former CEO of Fannie Mae. In Good to Great he states, “Of course, we had to stop doing a lot of stupid things…” Simply recognizing one’s faults is the first act of courage. Fannie Mae’s rise to success is shared throughout the book, a rise which began with this courageous attitude.

At the other extreme, if a company is so strong that it threatens to steamroll everything in its path, how does that help anyone? Employees will feel the tension, vendors will feel the pressure, and eventually customers will feel it too. Knowing that you’re weak and that you need to change or die is one thing. But when you don’t even know your own strength, how will you change? Good to Great includes many examples of egotistical, selfish, oblivious, and even tyrannical CEOs who, while they delivered temporarily impressive financial results, left behind crippled organizations.

I’m confident that this theme also holds true in our own lives, often with the two extremes existing in each of us simultaneously. How often do the weak ask for courage before anything else? If you’re like me, during times of weakness you ask instead… that whatever is revealing your weakness be removed, or erased completely. Which reveals an even deeper weakness.

And when we feel strong? Everything is right with the world, we can do no wrong… until we do. Often we don’t realize the effects our actions or words have on others until it’s too late, and sometimes not even then. Our shortcomings are on full display, when a moment before we thought that we could do anything we wanted without fearing the consequences.

When we ask for courage, we open the door to incredible healing and encouragement. When we fail to ask for restraint, we can inadvertently create incredible suffering and anxiety.

The key – whether in business or in life – is to ask for courage and restraint continuously, every moment of every day. Any challenge we face in work can only be addressed one moment at a time, and that’s exactly how often we need to sharpen both edges of the sword. Once you begin reading Good to Great; you realize that at no point in the rise of any of the Good companies did the CEO sit everyone down and say, “Now is the time when we must all ask for courage.” It happened gradually. As for the not-so-Good companies in the study, there were probably many individuals who asked themselves and each other, “Shouldn’t someone do something to prevent (tyrannical CEO) from running (company) into the ground?” But by the time you censor yourself it’s already too late.

This will never be a test question on an MBA exam, because courage and restraint are not keys in search of buried treasure. They are two edges of a blade we must wield in defense of our own fears and assumptions. Keep this blade ever at the ready, and you’ll never have to apologize for hesitating to do the right thing.

 

What dish could be more deserving of a sharp knife than Prime Rib? If you’re going to do it, do it right. Check out Simply Recipes’ take on this classic here.

Prime Rib Roast_compressed