My wife and I are both good cooks, but we have long had two very different styles. I am great with recipes. Give me a good recipe, no matter how complex or time-consuming, and I’ll take it into the kitchen and come back out with something delicious. I love the measuring, I love the timing; if something is to be “finely sliced”, I take care to cut it into translucency; I know and pay attention to the differences between folding, blending, and mixing. I find it very gratifying to trust the recipe — to accept that if I simply follow the directions exactly, then, even if a particular step doesn’t seem to make sense as it is being carried out, in the end the sauce will gel, the crust will rise, the alchemy will work, and we will all enjoy a scrumptious treat.
In contrast, my wife is a great improviser. She can start with boneless skinless chicken breasts — the culinary equivalent of elevator music — and then forage through the refrigerator and spice racks and come up something jazzy and appealing. She doesn’t need a recipe — she can follow them, sure, but often she’ll abandon them halfway, like she would a wheezy jalopy, impatient to go at her own speed or to veer off the established route entirely.
As a result, my wife never makes any of my signature dishes, because those are the ones whose recipes are so exquisitely precise that there is not much room for improvement. (It turns out Julia Child did know what she was talking about.) Instead, my wife frequently surprises the family with spontaneously luscious concoctions — many of which we’ve only had only once, since she doesn’t keep a record of what she is creating while she’s creating it. Occasionally one of her creations will be a dud, but that’s the price of experimentation.
My duds are the result of experimentation, too, but at the recipe-choosing stage, not the cooking stage. Without my wife’s intuition for what combinations of tastes work well together, I have been known to blithely try out recipes just because the ingredients sounded interesting, misplacing my trust in the recipe and ending up with something perfectly cooked and yet perfectly inedible. (My children still won’t let me forget the corned-beef-in-apple-juice I tried several years ago.)
The approaches that my wife and I take to cooking reflect our personalities. These approaches are also mirrored in the way many people approach their jobs and careers. Sometimes people are great at following recipes. Give them step-by-step instructions for a particular job task and you are going to get a good product in return. Or lay out a promising career path for them — such as college, law school, on-campus interviewing, big firm, partnership — and, trusting in the recipe, they will grind, stew, and chill to get to the finished product. There’s a certain comfort in knowing exactly what steps to follow, and a certain satisfaction in being rewarded for following them smartly. But if they’ve chosen a bad recipe — or even a good recipe for a dish it turns out they don’t like — they may be left with something hard to swallow.
Some people are better at improvisation, both in the short and long term. They are confident enough to start with just an idea of what they want to end up with, and the knowledge of what they want to use to create it. They may be impatient with established processes, even in the face of assertions that these processes are the best and most efficient; thus they run the risk of taking longer than necessary to perform a particular task, or perhaps not advancing as far over time in their careers as those who stayed on the beaten path. But they might instead create something entirely new — a more effective way to accomplish a goal, or a unique position that combines all the qualities they savor.
Of course, the best cooks — and this is an ideal I like to think my wife and I are approaching from opposite directions — make decisions based on both instinct and experience. They can imagine an end product they will assuredly enjoy — maybe something traditional, maybe something original — because they know enough about what they like, and how ingredients interact in the real world. They are not afraid to rely on recipes — that is, proven methods they and others have used before — and they are wisely confident enough to know when to improvise.
So, too, in our work and our careers: often the best route to success comes from trusting our guts, from recognizing our own tastes and acknowledging what we are willing to stomach, while at the same time accepting the recorded wisdom of counselors, authors, and others who have toiled in the career kitchen as valuable explanations of how to make a living — not necessarily what living to make.