embracing weakness man repeller
How Embracing My Weakness Transformed My Career
08.29.19
In my twenties, when I was a food reporter at The New York Times, I threw a lot of dinner parties in my one-bedroom apartment with its closet kitchen. After one such party, I went to wash my copper saute pan and discovered it was stuck inside my steel saute pan. I yanked on the handles to pry them apart. I got a flat-head screwdriver and tried to wedge it between them. No luck. I could have called my super, or taken it to a restaurant supply shop, but who has time for that?

 

I could hear there was a bit of water and sauce in the bottom pan. And this gave me an idea. Sometimes when you boil water, turn off the heat, and place the lid on top of a pot, the lid becomes suctioned to the base so forcibly you can’t pull it off. But if you re-boil the water, the steam punctures the seal and the lid lifts off effortlessly. I figured I could apply the same logic here—if I put the pans on the stove and brought the water to a boil, the steam would loosen the top pan.

I set the Russian dolled pans to heat on my tiny stove and called my mother to chat. During the call, I bent close to the stove to write a note on the countertop, and just as I stood up there was a BOOM. The phone was knocked from my hand as the copper pan shot up, took a large chunk out of my ceiling, and landed in the middle of my living room. My face, chest, and arms were sprayed with boiling-hot sauce water. My poor mother was left wondering what happened while I yelped in confusion. A neighbor took me to the emergency room, where I was treated for second-degree burns.

My instincts were correct—I got the pans apart, all right. But I almost killed myself in the process. Had the pans exploded a moment sooner, the heavy copper one would have hit me in the head. The headline would have been irresistible: “Food Writer Killed by Own Pan.”

My life has been blessed and plagued by two strong and strongly-related traits: instinctiveness and impatience. (I’ll call them “the two I’s,” because I’m too impatient to type both out a bunch of times.) I have my dad to thank for these qualities. A fan of fast cars, he was so well known for speeding on the interstate that when I took my driver’s test, the administrator said, “I hope your dad didn’t teach you how to drive.”

Once, when he built a bar in our garage that he planned to take to my brother’s college dorm room (an interesting parenting choice), he hammered his thumb. The next day at work, he could no longer stand the throbbing, and instead of going to the doctor up the street, he went to the body shop, borrowed a drill, and pierced through the nail to relieve the pain. He loved telling how the blood shot out of his nail like a geyser.

I took on his fast driving, his bluntness, his inner fire.

My dad was a born go-getter. A few years after he and my mother used all of their savings from his job as a car salesman to buy the dealership, it burned to the ground. Rather than wait for the insurance process to run its course, or even for the building to stop smoldering, he rented a trailer and opened for business the next day, selling any cars that hadn’t burned to a crisp.

A few years later, during the late ‘70s oil crisis, when the car business was in a downward spiral, he saw what was coming well before his competitors who couldn’t conceive of a decline in the power of American cars, and started selling BMWs, a car no one in Scranton, Pennsylvania, had even heard of. When the economy shifted, Americans started buying imports, and my dad looked very smart.

I was the last of four children, with a five-year gap between my older siblings and me—otherwise known as the mistake. By the time I came along, my dad had more time to appreciate parenting, and despite his intense sexism (women were “gals” who were good at doing laundry), he always encouraged me to believe I could do whatever I wanted to. He celebrated my aggression on the basketball court and my push to get things done, whether it was designing a sports mural at my school or balancing three summer jobs.

I took on his fast driving, his bluntness, his inner fire. The two I’s were guiding forces for both of us. The tension is that while they could cause problems (and sometimes bodily harm), they could also be a magical duo.

Amanda Hesser by James Ransom/Food52

After college, I spent a couple of years cooking in Europe, and found myself attracted to food writing, which seemed romantic and fun and way more appealing than grueling work in a restaurant kitchen. The only challenge was that I’d never written anything other than letters to my family. While in France, though, I discovered an old gardener and decided I should write a cookbook with essays about him—instinctively I knew it was a good story and an original idea. Most people would have paused to take some writing classes or get a bit of professional experience first. Neither occurred to me, because I was already 22, so obviously I was falling behind. If I waited, the good story might be lost. Figuring out how to write the book itself was, to my mind, the small stuff.

And so I wrote a proposal and faxed—yes, faxed—a bunch of agents, and within months, I was a forthcoming author with a book contract. The Cook and the Gardener won the Best Literary Food Writing award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and is still in print more than 20 years later. Impatience and instinct work! I told myself.

I continued barreling forward anyway, pissing people off in new ways.

Except when they don’t. Fast forward to when I had become a bona fide writer and food reporter at The New York Times. Instinct and impatience aren’t always valued at corporations where change happens by gradual consensus. I wasn’t good at managing up, and in my youthful, um, zest, I found the bureaucracy suffocating. (See Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, in which she described me as “frighteningly ambitious.” It wasn’t an unfair assessment.)

When an editor from the NYT magazine approached me to create a new column, I faced a dilemma. I worked for the newspaper, and while one might think that writing for a slightly different part of the same company would be no problem, at the Times, back then, it was. I had an idea to write a blog-like column (pre-blogs) about my life as a food writer and my relationship with my boyfriend. Instead of going through the corporate rigamarole of trying to get my editor on board and possibly getting shot down, I just went ahead and wrote the column.

The column was popular, but me? Not so much. At least in my boss’s eyes. My instincts were right about the column, but now, with time, I regret skipping the tedious but purposeful communication work, which would have preserved my relationship with my boss and surely my reputation among colleagues.

I continued barreling forward anyway, pissing people off in new ways. I moved to the magazine and became its food editor. I was good at coming up with ideas, but I had a hard time with writers who didn’t do what I’d envisioned, and I would often rewrite them rather than taking the time to work with them. When you’re a writer, you’re observing doers. When you’re an editor, you’re coaching the observers of the doers. My two I’s had led me up the ladder to become an editor, but I was two steps away from where I really belonged—doing.


The two I’s are classic traits of entrepreneurs, and eventually I embraced this ingrained part of who I am. I left the Times in 2008 to start a company, and spent the next year immersing myself in the start-up world. My original idea never took off, but I had plenty of takeaways—like that my professional pedigree could get me far, but my lack of technical and business expertise left me vulnerable to those with less faith: investors.

When my co-founder, Merrill, and I came up with the idea for Food52, to create the brand for people who believe food is at the center of a well-lived life, it was clear to us that we were onto something. But I realized that the improvisational approach I shared with my dad played better in Scranton, where college degrees and careful communication—he had neither—carry less currency. There were many nights when I studied business school websites and toyed with the idea of pausing for two years to get an MBA.

The irritating part of accepting your flaws is that you often wonder who you might be without them.

But my gut told me I would be doing it just to check off a box for someone else. As with my first book and that magazine column, I shrugged off the more measured approach in favor of instinct and action. Ten years later, Merrill and I have built a significant business.

Now that we have a large team, I’ve come to appreciate people who manage up and have learned to take time to build consensus. The two I’s still rear their heads, like when I tried—impatiently—to solve the problem of too many meetings by telling our senior leadership team that they could reduce the frequency of their weekly one-on-ones (who wants to talk to their boss every week?!). The suggestion was received as if I’d dumped a steaming turd on the conference table. Later, I learned my recommendation had sounded more like an edict than I’d intended. These days, I try to take note and assess before I act: I could have road-tested my meeting idea by asking a few people first, or presenting it as a question rather than a statement.

The irritating part of accepting your flaws is that you often wonder who you might be without them. I’ve speculated what the path would have looked like had I gone to business school. Perhaps we would have raised money more easily. Or it would have made supporting our finance team more effortless. But equally, I think Merrill and I would have missed the right moment for our idea, or for working with each other. In the end, my instincts tell me I made the right call. But you still might not want to ask me to reignite your furnace.

Amanda Hesser is a food writer and cookbook author, most known as the former food editor of The New York Times Magazine and cofounder and CEO of Food52.

Graphic by Madeline Montoya.

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