Early in my culinary career, I wrote a lot about learning to stay in “the eye of the storm.”
While the frenetic choreography of a working kitchen spun around them, I admired the chefs I saw on TV who seemed to be standing at the center. Iron-spined, stoic, even serenely directing the motion about them to lead their teams through a successful service. I admired the ones who didn’t scream or berate their staff (even then, I knew it was impossible to manage others if you couldn’t manage yourself.)
At the time, I described it as a lot of things. I called it wei wu wei, dignity, patience, and simply confidence in themselves and their team. Years later, I learned with was all those things, and it was something one could learn and train themselves in– equanimity.
Equanimity Is NOT Indifference
Equanimity is best described as emotional composure, poise, and balance. It’s choosing to react the same way whether whatever happens is bad or good.
It’s easy to assume that equanimity is the same thing as indifference, passiveness, or the suppression of one’s emotions. They all look and feel the same on the surface, but in truth each of these descriptors is demonstrating a lack of equanimity.
Indifference is retreating from negative situations into despair and saying “Whatever, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Passiveness means avoiding conflict and denying one’s own comfort and boundaries. “Just let it happen. Get it over with. Whatever.”
Both involve the suppression of one’s emotions and trying to convince yourself that something doesn’t matter to you when they really do.
When one has equanimity, you still feel your emotions- you just acknowledge and manage them.
A person with equanimity isn’t indifferent or passive. They might have a desired outcome or situation that isn’t happening, but they accept life on its own terms and act accordingly rather than giving in to despair or rage. “The situation I wanted didn’t happen? Fine, what is the current situation and what can I do to fix it?”
Cultivating equanimity takes work. I’m definitely still working on it as a way to help manage my anxious and depressive behaviors. It involves self-knowledge, mindfulness, and the kind of effort that comes from sitting alone with your thoughts for long periods of time. This is not easy to do if, like me, your mind is not exactly a nice place to be.
Even if I never truly master Vulcanesque levels of unshakability, the self-knowledge is still worth it if just to improve my metacognition and learn how to navigate the “bad neighborhood” parts of my psyche a little better.
More applicable to the kitchen life, though, is the fact that “confidence” is just what we call equanimity when we see it in others.
A classic goalsetting/self-knowledge prompt is “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
That sounds a lot like confidence, doesn’t it? “Of course I’m going to succeed at ___. I’m friggin’ awesome!”
Equanimity changes the question a bit. “What would you do if it didn’t matter if you failed?”
We can only dream, right? We live in a world of cause and effect. Our actions have consequences and we often have to deal with them. Failing (often/sometimes/generally/depends on how you look at it) comes with negative consequences that we want to avoid. How can it not matter?
Of course it matters– you’ll probably have to fix what went wrong or try something else. What would you do, though, if you resolved that you were going to respond the same way whether you succeeded or failed? What if the possibilities of success or failure carried no emotional weight with you?
“I succeeded? Good, everything worked like it was supposed to. Next.
I failed? Okay, so I gotta fix it. Let’s move along.”
When you decide that you will accept the possibility of failure (which is GOING to happen if you try long enough and hard enough), you lose your fear of it. With fear no longer affecting your actions, you act more confidently, likely leading to a better outcome. All from saying to yourself “If it works, great. If not, I’ll try something else.”
Equanimity is the knowledge that whether what I want happens or not, I will keep going. That is confidence in a nutshell.
Equanimity is not turning off or retreating from the world. It’s not suppressing or denying our emotions and boundaries. In truth, it’s quite the opposite- we accept the world as it is and choose not to let it shake us. We do not “turn off” so much as stop letting every action and event have control over us.
When we cultivate equanimity, we choose to react to the bad and the good the same way. We don’t attach ourselves to one outcome or live in fear of the other. We may still feel joy or fear, satisfaction or grief, but then we let it pass. We carry on.
When you decide that failure will not affect your emotional trajectory, you lose your fear of failing and make decisions with a clearer head and better balance. This is what we call “confidence.”
So, what would you do if it didn’t matter if you failed or not?