There are few organically inspirational things in this world. Products, establishments, services, these things are not inspirational. It is the story behind them — the people
behind them — that move us to be better versions of ourselves.
The first time I visited San Francisco’s The Mill, it was to edit an early draft of my novella. I was in between jobs at the time and committed to completing this endeavor that I started eighteen months prior. Having just received feedback from my hired and peer editors, I was feeling especially insecure. With feedback like, “It starts to read like a high school exercise in making writing ‘interesting,'” and “Like listening to your girlfriend talk about her work problems,” I was having second, third, and fourth thoughts not about my novella but about my pursuit of writing as a hobby. Maybe I’m not as good at writing as I thought I was. This book is shit. (Note: Not “the” shit. Just shit.) Maybe I shouldn’t be writing publicly.
The self-deprecation continued as I waited outside in a line fifty people deep.
Once at the barista, I ordered my regularly programmed skim latte. “Anything else?” he asked. The intonation was different. It wasn’t like other coffee shops, where they ask it out of obligation and are already running your credit card. It was a knowing one. You’re going to want something else. He looked at me, then looked at a mini chalkboard on the counter.
I cringed at the cost, then reminded myself I was going to be there a while. You basically need to rewrite this thing. I ordered a slice.
Filled with an anxiety sent up from my stomach to sit on my epiglottis, I sat down with my draft, a latte, and my expensive slice of sea salt-sprinkled, honey-drizzled, almond butter toast. Before I did anything, I took one bite.
It didn’t change my life. It wasn’t the best food I’ve ever sunk my teeth into. But that crisp-crust, moistened-middle, almond-goopy bite went down so smooth that it washed my anxiety down as if it owned the place.
It made me happy.
I’ve been to The Mill a dozen times since then to accompany my toast with a good book, good company, or good writing time.
Last Tuesday, I stumbled upon an upcoming event by The Mill’s lead baker, Josey Baker, at the library. Though the establishment is unarguably my Happiness Enabler and I was definitely going to attend (I am a sucker for new authors), I was nervous about it.
The most off-putting quality of “craftspeople” is their ego. You respect them for their talent, but you despise them for their self-aggrandizing claims. It’s like going to the museum with that “artist” who who feels obligated to critique every single artifact. Or going to dinner with a “foodie” who chews everything twenty-one times while commenting on each new flavor she tastes or invents in the process. I just want to punch them.
I assumed Josey would tell us about how he was destined to be a baker. And given his last name, that claim would actually be scientifically accurate (Implicit egotism explains how we are attracted to self-associations and research has explored how this translates into our make life decisions that share beginning letters or syllables with our names). I prepared myself to hear him say, like we hear so often, that everyone else, from bakers to mass producers, was doing it wrong. How he was born with some innate bread truth. He would use floury language to tell us how he was changing carbs and disrupting the Wonderful bread industry that we know so well.
On Thursday evening, seated in the front row, I clutched his book, skipping past the presentation in my mind to think about the bread samples and book signing that would follow. The event started, and Josey had me at, “Hey guys.”
|When Josey bar-tended, people came for bread, not booze
“Hey guys. Thanks so much everyone for coming to this. I’m still getting used to the fact that the people who come to these things aren’t just people I know anymore.” The element of surprise that people actually care about what he was creating, that twinge of sustained insecurity from his amateur days, and most importantly, a genuine gratitude of people’s support — here was an artist with whom I could completely connect, who I could immediately respect, whose story promised to inspire.
Josey’s introduction included a second surprise: He started baking four years ago. Four.
To me, this is the single most important part of Josey’s story.
There is a wide misconception that to be passionate about your craft means to have an innate skill or unmatched expertise. But as Josey’s story goes on to demonstrate, it’s not expertise but happiness that you must prove with any craft. That’s what drives persistence and a desire to improve.
Josey began baking when a friend gave him a sourdough starter (because, San Francisco) and told him to try it out. Making this first loaf made him happy. That’s it. And so he stayed at it.
As he continued baking, Josey started giving away loaves to neighbors and coworkers so he could bake more. Soon, people insisted on giving him a couple bucks for the loaves and that’s when he realized he had something. Working at UC Berkeley at the time (writing children’s books!), Josey started a bread subscription. He finally quit his job to be honest with himself and to use his bread to well, put bread on the table.
“I had this naive idea that my job could be something I loved.”
There were signs of his success along the way (like when people came to the bar at which he worked to get loaves of bread) and a “this is it” moment in November 2010 when a whole bunch of people wanted bread for Thanksgiving.
“Looking back at those Thanksgiving loaves, I can’t help but think how crappy they look,” he joked while showing us a picture, “but given the look on my face at the time this photograph was taken, it’s clear that was not at all what I was thinking at the time.”
When you pursue your happy-craft, you’ll stop and celebrate your successes along the way. Even when you know you can be so much better, even when you’re aware that there are people who are better than you, your personal victory will merit self-appreciation.
Though his path wasn’t an easy one, Josey, to an external eye, has finally “made it.” He can look back on this 2010 loaves and chuckle at their elementary form. But even today, he and his bakers (who he insists are better, more experienced bakers than he) pursue their curiosity by experimenting with different techniques and recipes.
“Everyday, we are trying as hard as we can to make the bread better than the day before. And we don’t always do it but when you do, you want to do it again.”
That is an artist. That is someone who appreciates his craft and is relentless pursuing the heart of it.
I share this story because it presents a freshly baked view on that trite advice to “pursue your passion.” It’s about finding something that makes you happy and wanting to become better at it because that makes you happy. It’s not about claiming expertise or forcing your craft on anyone else, but about doing it for yourself. It will be tough and people may hate you for unrelated reasons, but if you do it with a happy passion, admirable humility, and inspiring philosophy, you will find yourself with a never-ending-line-out-the-door group of supporters.
|I took a lot of notes. On my phone. In the front row.
Josey ended his talk with a few words about his recently published cookbook, which he wrote for the beginning baker: himself. He still sees himself as a beginning baker. At the end of the day, he wants every reader’s first experience to be encouraging. “Your first loaf is not going to be the best bread in the world. Try to make a good loaf, and if you like it, you’ll want to make it better,” he encouraged.
My novella was my first loaf. A lot of people hate it and a handful of people think it’s a good read. I knew then and I know now that it’s not the best book in the world. There are so many things I want to be different about it. But you know what? That’s what makes me happy. That’s what drove me to complete a second manuscript (a children’s book!).
Forget making money for a second. Drown out the overconfident diatribes of experts. Determine what brings you simple, homey, happiness. That is your bread. Now figure out how to put some butter on it. Go make it better.