Our heads swiveled a fast and simultaneous quarter turn toward each other, eyes meeting under raised eyebrows, identical bemused smiles on our lips. The grade of the class valedictorian in the Culinary School Professional Chef’s program had just been announced, 94.2. My grade had come in the mail a few days before, 94.09. I was salutatorian .My husband whispered, “Perfect! You tied for first and don’t have to give the speech!” The rest of the ceremonies continued in a happy blur of additional awards, of newly bestowed diplomas and toques. I basked in the proud smiles of my husband and daughter, the warmth of our mutual achievements with my classmates .It was a wonderful day, the culmination of one of the most physically grueling and mentally challenging endeavors I have ever undertaken. Culinary school is a young person’s game and I am young only in spirit. I leaned in, I gave it my all, and here I was graduating with high honors. Perfect, right? Wrong.
One of the simultaneously most encouraging and discouraging things I’ve found in my life is that I am still learning about myself. It is discouraging because I really would have hoped I would be further along in some of these areas by this point. I mean, really! But I suppose more encouraging than not because we do seem to be able to learn, in baby steps, new things in all these new adventures. My life lesson came here; I spent the two weeks following my euphoric graduation depressed, even shamed for not having come in first . I could tell my instructors expected I would, and I knew my food was consistently good. I let them down I thought, I let myself down. If only, I thought, I hadn’t been on a train stalled for an hour on the way in to my final practicum, the “creative”, and my carefully packed ice cream component of the dessert hadn’t begun to melt in spite of the ice packed around it, destroying the texture…. If only my portfolio grade had been one percentage point higher,i f only I had done this, done that. I was torturing myself with “what if” scenarios .
Hold on, I thought, clearly there is something here I need to stop and try to understand. How could I let such a richly rewarding year turn into so much dross simply because of not, by the slimmest of margins, for that matter regardless of margins, being the “best”. Why does this matter so much? Why is external validation still important at all at my age? Shouldn’t I be past this?
My husband thinks it is because my mother always demanded excellence in everything I did. I’m not sure that is exactly right but it was certainly true that a gold star accomplishment gave me a temporary safe harbor in my tempestuous upbringing. There was no such thing as “good enough” actually being good enough, it wouldn’t make me feel safe in her love, even though I probably was. Her love just didn’t feel unconditional to me, it felt like a prize to be won . I think it has to do also with my natural temperament, having to prove myself, to myself…over and over. But here is the thing, I am a grownup, no one can keep me feeling safe but me and I am the most qualified person to judge the worth of my work.
And I think, finally, I get it now. I think, finally, I can relax. I think, finally, I can be happy for good enough. Scratch that, I ,finally, can be more than happy, I can be deeply grateful.
I am , in the end, proud of my hard work and accomplishment. And I am absolutely loving putting all that I have learned, all my heart into the meals I am making for my family and friends …and this, and only this was what I wanted to do , it is good enough.
And I sure hope I have this one down now, because the next life lesson is almost certainly waiting just around the corner …