Back when I was a Scout, I learned one of life’s most important lessons by way of a story from dated, semi-racist book that exuded the “Noble Savage” trope. The book was “Gospel of the Redman” by Ernest Thompson Seton (who was himself a former Chief Scout of the BSA,) and the story taught me that we all define happiness and success for ourselves. It was about a man selling onions.
The story went like this:
A man from the city is driving through a small town when he sees an old man selling twenty strings of onions at a small farm stand. He pulls over the car and walks up to the old man, who is resting his eyes and smoking lazily in the shade of his stand.
“How much for a string of onions?” The city man asks.
“Ten cents” the old man replies, barely raising his head.
Trying to sniff out a deal, the city man asks “How much for five strings?”
Feeling somewhat stonewalled, the city man feels an onion and says “These are a little smaller… would you take five cents?”
“Ten cents per string.” The old man croaks out, still barely lifting his head.
The city man grins and pulls out his wallet, sensing the opportunity to haggle. “How much to buy all of your onions?”
At this, the old man raises his head and looks at the young man with small, sharp, brown eyes. “I would not sell you all of my onions, young man.”
The city slickers eyebrows shoot up and he waves his wallet. “Why not? It’s supply and demand. You could cut me a deal for buying in bulk, or you could try raising your prices sensing demand. You could charge more for bigger ones and less for smaller ones. What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you here to sell your onions?”
The old man looks up and him placidly and shakes his head. “No, young man- I’m here to live my life. I love this town. I love this little stand- I built it myself after the one my parents built fell down. I love when my friends come by and we smoke and talk about our families. I love when the women come by with blankets to sell, and I love smelling the food they cook in the market with my onions. If I sell you all of my onions now, I lose the life I love for the day… and you can’t afford that.”
What Is Your “Win Condition?”
If you are my age (an elder millennial,) “success” for you may or may not be defined by the markers your parents had:
- Big bank account
- Big house
- Fancy car
- A Boat or two
- A C-Level title at whatever company you work for, or owning your own business.
More often, what I’ve found is that our markers of being successful or having “made it” are considerably more humble- paying off our debt, living without roommates, being able to go out to eat without checking our budget and sweating bullets, making a wage worth our labor, etc.
When your markers of success are comparatively small, it tends to be the little things that make you happy too. Most folks who live with those bigger markers tend to realize that too late in their lives. It’s never too late to dream bigger, but it’s often too late to realize you’d have been happier with smaller.
A Good Week for the Black Hat Baker
I make no secret that my dreams of success are arguably very humble. I want to travel extensively, learn as much as I can, and earn money baking and writing before settling down somewhere to open my own bakery and just be “Matt the Baker” in a small town, and share a head full of stories. What does “winning” look like for me? I can tell you what it looks like for right now.
I love teaching. I love the opportunity to share and demonstrate what I know in the kitchen and teach it to eager minds. Lately we’ve hired a new baker who graduated from culinary school but found herself working in a series of grinding, unrewarding, and frankly miserable positions where she couldn’t learn, wouldn’t grow, and found herself dreading each day. I’ve spent time in jobs like that too, and I told myself “When I run a kitchen, it’s gonna be the kind of kitchen I wanted to learn in. No negativity, no mistreatment- kindness, patience, and ability to teach for those willing to learn.” This week, after two weeks of training, she turned to me and said “I’ve learned more in the past two weeks from you than I have in the last two years since I finished culinary school.”
I am running a kitchen with the exact culture and effect I always wanted. WIN.
Stepping out of the kitchen for a moment to see how the the pies in the case are fairing, I catch the eye with the customer at the register. He says “Hey! Are you the baker?!” I tell him yes, and he asks for the best way to transport a dozen hazelnut macaroons safely from Portland to Hawaii.
He explains that the cookies transport him- they remind him of trips he took to Italy where he and his wife would watch little Italian nonna individually making and wrapping amaretto cookies. I tell him about how I was inspired to make them because of the almond macaroons I’d get as a kid on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore.
My baking and recipes are successful not just because they are good, but because they evoke happy memories in the people that eat them and improve their mood. ANOTHER WIN.
The next day, my boss and I deliver a sampler tray to a venue that is interested in contracting us for their frequent events and weddings. I am not a good salesman, but my boss invites be along anyway to answer production questions, describe the pastries we offer and lead times we need. A short while later, the coordinator comes back and says “Ok, I feel so full because I just had one of everything. Those cookies are AMAZING. Can you do ___? What are you working on in the future? I need to stop by myself to try the full-sized stuff.
My baking has brought the company I work for a new client and myself increased success and notoriety? ANOTHER. FREAKING. WIN.
If you don’t care about having a giant house, stop working to have one.
If you don’t care about owning a fancy car and spending a months rent on jewelry and clothes, stop working toward that right the hell now.
Work toward the things you actually WANT. The things that actually make you feel happy. You choose your “win conditions.” Work towards them, not the ones you think you are supposed to have.