Dec 14, 2022

A Lesson from Beautiful Christmas Cookies in How to Grow Your Career

A Lesson from Beautiful Christmas Cookies in How to Grow Your Career

A Lesson from Beautiful Christmas Cookies in How to Grow Your Career

Nathan King

A friend of mine makes incredibly beautiful cutout Christmas cookies. The same type of cookie that I've made every year with my family look nowhere close to these. The colors are amazing. The textures unique.

When I see them, I am instantly delighted. There is something miraculous about edible art. I want to make cookies like that. I asked her for advice and began to take steps: I ordered new and unique cookie cutters, watched YouTube videos, bought supplies.

When I began to make them, I realized I was totally unprepared.

Making beautiful cookies were way more involved than I had anticipated.

For one cookie, I had envisioned a Christmas tree with three different shades of green: a darker hue covering the lower third of the tree, a lighter green covering the middle third, and a sage green covering the top third.

The process was so daunting and time consuming that I abandoned the idea and settled for a single color.

That's it. Your average Christmas cookie.

The truth is, we are delighted by the work of others. It gives us a special feeling. But for truly impressive work, we can't imagine the work they put into making something: it isn't even worth it to us.

My friend had spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars developing her decorating skill. Before she had ever created a single, beautiful cookie she had:

  • Spent dozens of hours mixing flour, sugar, butter

  • Washed dishes hundreds of times

  • Thrown many batches of cookies in the trash

  • Doubted she could do it

  • Wiped down counters and cleaned up sticky icing ad nauseum

  • Lost sleep making cookies into the night

No one asked her to do it. No one wanted her to. But that is what she did.

The Miracle of Tedious Preparation

In his blog post, “Embrace the Grind”, Jacob Kaplan-Moss eloquently describes a similar scenario with a magician learning to perform a magic trick. We think the trick is what we see when we open a plastic-wrapped box to find a card that we selected from a stack. How did it get in there? In reality, he points out, "the trick is all in the preparation."

You will be fooled by a [magic] trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.

With a magic trick that results in a card a participant chooses being found in a box wrapped in plastic, no one can imagine the effort it took to unwrap the box, put the card in, and then wrap the box in plastic again.

Similarly, with those cookies, I was amazed by my friend's decorating because she had spent more time, money and practice to develop a skill than I was willing to even dream of.

For those of us who have selected professional directions that begin on a low rung of the corporate ladder, we often have a similar experience. We want more than the uninspiring tedium we are handed in our first job: more responsibility, more money, and more freedom. We see those in positions senior to us, and we can’t compute how they are there and we are further down:

"I can do that."

"He's not even that good."

"They're taking advantage of me by giving me the grunt work and I should go find a job somewhere else."

What we don't see is the shelf of notebooks of the detailed task tracking that the manager had filled out. We don't pay attention to the countless Saturdays that the accomplished subject matter expert spent answering emails. We never notice the rising leader going through next week's calendar on a Friday evening, appointment by appointment, diligently noting what needs to happen next while others are at happy hour.

We only see a human being, with strengths and weaknesses, just like us.

And we can't imagine that in a work environment at an average company that anyone would embrace such tedium. It’s invisible to us, hidden by our disbelief.

What Makes Us Choose Tedium

It is often said that we should do what we are passionate about. One well-known example is what Jim Collins wrote about in Good to Great. As part of the Hedgehog Concept, he argued that we should focus on areas where we have passion, ability to make money, and natural talent.

But one trap is to confuse passion with excitement. Passion comes from the latin pati, to suffer. Excitement comes from eating a beautifully decorated Christmas cookie someone else suffered to make.

Instead of asking ourselves what we are passionate about, a better question to ask is: what are we willing to suffer for?

When we are in the middle of difficult work, we notice it is painful, and we want it to stop. But one signal of preparation is pain. It could be that stopping the pain also stops the important work whose fruit is professional growth through significant outcomes.

Putting something in the world that matters, whether it is a beautifully decorated cookie, or a management style that creates an incredible experience in a staffing business, will require suffering, and it will need to be something that you are willing to suffer for.

Remember Purpose Amidst Difficulty

When we are experiencing the stress and/or tedium of the preparatory work required of doing something significant, we forget the purpose of what led us to begin. We lose sight of what we were willing to suffer for. Our minds begin to prioritize finding something to do that isn't as tedious. For some, that is basic procrastination like checking social media, chatting with co-workers about anything unrelated. Others commit more sophisticated work avoidance like completing an expense report or answering emails – these tasks feel like progress, but they really avoid whatever difficult task lies ahead.

The worst outcome is to assume that because the job is hard, because it is not glamorous, it is evidence of the leadership or the world conspiring against you, fueling a negative energy that threatens progress entirely:

  • "I'm smarter than them"

  • “If they want me to do x, they need to pay me more"

  • "I'm going to go find another job because this is unfair"

When that point of view takes hold, when we correlate the tedium that accompanies any worthwhile effort with somehow being held back, we become barriers to our own growth.

Instead, identify what inside of you is so compelling that you can commit to it, no matter the suffering required.




I help leaders and teams achieve clarity and alignment so they can reach their potential


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