Chang's takes on handling success, coping with failures and getting past hubris are very insightful lessons that hold true even in non-culinary professions. In a book without any food recipes, Chang's life recipe was the highlight for me.
I thought it might be interesting to adapt 33 rules for becoming a chef to my own career as a software engineer. This is a list that the 20 something, freshly minted engineer (me!) might have benefited from.
Disclaimer: I am very much a WIP, so I am hoping to come back to this list to re-align myself from time to time.
But first, the cover art. I am a sucker for clever ones and this was one of the more interesting ones I have seen.
A person pushing a peach up a hill, Sisyphus style (Momofuku means Lucky Peach in Korean), is a theme that continues throughout the the book. Part 1 of the book, aptly titled "Up the Hill", is a chronological description of Chang's early life and how Momofuku came to be. Part 2 is called "Down and Back Again" and it is a mishmash of various subjects.
Now for the rules.
Rule 1: Being an engineer is only partly about writing code
Do you love debugging code someone else wrote? (David Chang asks "do you love washing dishes?"). Are you OK with doing not-so-bleeding-edge work in the interest of pushing the needle for the customer? That is the North Star. Everything else is in service of this.
Rule 2: Don't worry about not studying everything in school
Being an engineer is signing up to be a lifelong learner. Pick up a book, find a more experienced engineer willing to explain stuff to you, watch videos - frame "I don't know this" as "I don't know this yet". "Yet" being the operative word.
Rule 3: Study Shakespeare instead
It is not enough to learn how to code. Build a diverse set of skills. Writing a good email, giving a good presentation and helping a peer are all skills worth building. Steve Jobs said it best – "trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future".
Rule 4: Look around, travel
the your world
Don't be held back by your current job. Explore other jobs in your company, other teams, even other companies. Goldilocks's story applies to life as well – find something that fits your idea of a good job. Know that this will change through the course of your career.
Rule 5: Fight for the job you want
Don't assume people will notice you and how hard you work. Go forth, ask for work, be prepared to "audition" and prove yourself. Chang says, quoting Magnus Nilsson's example:
"Sometimes getting your foot in means wedging it in."
Nilsson showed up at the door of the restaurant he wanted to work in every single day for months, asking for a job until they finally granted him a chance.
Rule 6: Come prepared
Grit often makes up for lack of talent. Aim to be the most prepared person in the room, even if you are not the most talented.
Rule 7: Everything is mise en place, including you
Mise en place is a proxy for being ready. Get organized, have a schedule. Often, the side effect of being disciplined in your life is becoming disciplined at work. This is a virtuous cycle.
Rule 8: Develop a new relationship with time
When you commit to a date, deliver on that date. Say what you do and do what you say. People value consistency over unpredictable flashes of brilliance.
Rule 9: Learn by doing
Volunteer for tasks, even when you don't know how to do it. The can-do attitude will build your confidence as well as show your commitment to your work. As you learn, document your learning and make it easy for the next person.
Rule 10: Make a great family meal
a.k.a Make your peers shine. Be a positive influence at your workplace. Review other people's code diligently, help them with debugging and share in some of their workload. These are good-faith acts that go a long way. Do not look at this as a quid-pro-quo situation. Be generous without an expectation to get anything in return. Be a good citizen.
Also see family meal.
Rule 11: Choose the harder path
Don't take shortcuts, learn to do hard things the hard way. You always know when you are cutting corners. Know that others know it too – even when you think they don't.
Rule 12: Become a master sandbagger
Learn how to cut corners. Learn how to "hack" – this is a critical skill when time is of the essence. "Gets shit done" is in some situations better than "Gets shit done perfectly".
Rule 13: Embrace paradox
Know when to employ Rule 11 vs. Rule 12. You don't get to blindly follow rules even on this very list. Get comfortable with trade-offs and paradoxes.
Rule 14: When you're in the weeds, stop
Having a cool head is a prerequisite to solving hard problems. Sometimes shit will hit the fan, there is no way around it. If everything is smooth all the time, you're not pushing yourself hard enough. When you think all hell is breaking loose, step back and take a few deep breaths.
Rule 15: It is okay to quit every day
Sometimes work will suck every ounce of your energy and you will want to quit. Give yourself permission to feel this way. There is no perfect job, there is no perfect boss. Know that everyone is human, trying to do their best. Regroup and start anew.
Rule 16: Be the glitch in the Matrix
Don't chase what the crowd is chasing. The only opinion that counts is yours. Money and fame are both side effects of your satisfaction at work.
Rule 17: Don't edit in your head
Don't give up on ideas without trying them out. As Chang points out, there are bad ideas, but all ideas are worth chasing.
Rule 18: Apply guardrails
Chang puts this very well:
"Come up with best- and worst-case scenarios that represent complete success and irredeemable failure. Aim for the former, don't let yourself slip past the latter, and avoid spending time thinking about what happens in the middle".
When you screw up, it is probably not as bad as you think it was. When you think you did great work, it was probably just OK. Temper your extremes.
Rule 19: Copy, don't steal
Don't make work a zero-sum game. It is possible for more than one person to be working on challenging problems. Instead of competing for the same project, try to see if you can replicate the good parts and bring them to your own project.
Rule 20: Start a cult
Believe more deeply than anyone else. Constantly questioning if there are greener pastures elsewhere – better money, better work, better boss, better co-workers – will prevent you from giving your 100% to your current job. Believe that you have everything you need to succeed and go from there. Sometimes it does not work out – but it will not be because you didn't try hard enough.
Rule 21: Immerse yourself in all the awful, boring shit
"There is no substitute for burying your head in minutiae."
Details are important – take the time to learn. Having surface knowledge is not enough. Dig deep – it helps you build better mental models and avoid dumb mistakes.
Rule 22: Pay for what you can get
Invest in getting better at your job – whether that is paying for courses, good tools or books. Learn the difference between expense and investment.
Rule 23: You are your best publicist
Your work will speak for itself. No amount of bluster or talking up your work will be beneficial if the underlying work product is crappy. Take the time to do a good job, even when no one is watching. You are putting your name on a work product – make it count.
Steve Jobs's quote summarizes this best:
“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through."
Rule 24: Always plan for the worst case scenarios
Nurture a healthy skepticism about results. Plan for when things don't go your way. This will help you better estimate the effort and time needed to get your work done. (helps with Rule 8)
Rule 25: Know your weaknesses
You cannot be the best at everything you do, you might not even be the best at one thing you do. Don't be intimidated by this. Don't be afraid to admit it and ask for help. Conversely, have a growth mindset. Everything can be learned. Being objective about what you don't know is the first step.
Rule 26: If a fast-food manager can control their temper, you can too
Everyone has bad days. Do not let it affect your "API interface" with your co-workers. You don't have to pretend to be happy all the time, but you don't have to make other people unhappy just because you are.
Rule 27: Reject prior success
Don't be complacent. Every day is a new day. Earn your keep – every single day. Don't rest on your past achievements. An excellent junior engineer does not make an excellent senior engineer by default.
Rule 28: What worked in the past won't work in the future
As you progress in your career – you have to learn, unlearn, solve harder problems and navigate challenging situations. Don't live in the past, don't stagnate.
Rule 29: Every
dish failure is a crime scene
Every failure needs some forensic science. Take the time to understand what went wrong. Figure out how you will not make the same mistake again. Beating yourself up is not useful, learning from your missteps is.
Rule 30: If life is a nature documentary, we are the wildebeests
Like a wildebeest at the watering hole – be aware of what is happening around you. Ignoring problems will not make them go away. Whether it is abusive relationships at work, ethically questionable practices, discrimination and sexism. Speak up, don't be a victim.
Rule 31: Keep your eyes on the prize
Never forget why you are here. If it is to do meaningful work that makes a difference in the world, remind yourself that this is the North Star. Everything else is secondary – titles, money, influence.
Rule 32: Employ the buddy system
In Chang's words:
"As you become successful, you will see that the only path of any value is to stop short of the peak and make sure you're not alone at the summit"
Pay it forward, help out a co-worker, coach a junior engineer. Several people contributed to your success, so try to be one of those people for someone else's success.
Rule 33: Save something for the swim back
Also known as live to fight another day. In the moment, circumstances feel like a "do or die" situation. But rarely anything ever is. Remember Rule 31.
Bonus: "Saving for the swim back" has so many interpretations on the internet. The line itself is inspired from Gattaca