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Dreams Come True: From Finding Your Thing To Work That Matters (in the kitchen!)

{This is the second-to-last installment of my Dreams Come True series. In my previous posts you can read about living in a tropical island paradise with Susan Stone, zombie author Max Brooks, overnight editor Jade Walker, cruise ship artifact rescuer Peter Knego, and midcentury pop culture expert Charles Phoenix.}

In this series, I’m writing about accomplished people who forged their own unique path to a thriving career. What’s special about them is that they were able to connect their essential selves to work they love. Over these last two articles I’m going to share their stories so you can see how they got to where they are. Their stories are inspiring – if they can do it, you can do it too.

For some people, like today’s subject, the path to their ideal career is not a straight line. They first fall into another, completely different, career where they find some professional success. But just because they’re good at it doesn’t mean it’s the right fit. Deep down they know it’s not right for them.

The big question for them is: what to do instead? They fumble with ideas until they discover something that gives them the spark of YES! But when that spark takes you in an entirely different direction, acting on that spark requires a big leap of faith.

Dreams come true

Let me introduce you to Ina Garten. Ina is a bestselling cookbook author and TV star.

It wasn’t obvious that she would end up in the food business. Even though she was interested in cooking as a child, her mother directed her to focus on schoolwork.

“I always wanted to cook when I was a kid and my mother used to say, get out of the kitchen, it’s your job to study, it’s my job to cook. My mother didn’t take it seriously, she just thought it was about getting dinner on the table. But I think I was always hungry for flavor. I always thought things didn’t taste good enough or they weren’t interesting enough and I think that’s why I wanted to cook.”

She didn’t study cooking professionally. She majored in economics, settled in Washington and worked her way up to the White House Office of Management and Budget, specializing in nuclear policy. While the work was intellectually challenging, she wanted to do something where she had more control.

“I was looking for something I could own. I’d hit 30 and I thought, government’s not me, I really want to have something I can wrap my arms around. At the time while I worked in Washington I used to buy old houses and renovate them. So that was kind of what I was thinking at the time, that I would go into real estate development. But in the middle of that, while I was thinking about it, I saw this ad for a specialty food store for sale in a place I’d never been [the Hamptons] and I went home that night and I said to my husband, I really have to do something else. And he gave me the best advice. He said, pick something you love. If you love it, you’ll be really good at it.”

“We drove from Washington to Westhampton the next day. I saw this little store and they were baking cookies and I thought, this is what I need to be. I felt it when I was there, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But I didn’t know anything about food, I’d never had employees, I’d never run a business. I really knew nothing about it. It was quite a leap of faith.”

That store was called Barefoot Contessa and, for Ina, it was love at first sight. But her start as a business owner was bumpy.

“The deal I made was that the woman who sold me the store was going to stay with me for a month and teach me how to cash out at the register, how to tell whether the brie is ripe, how to slice smoked salmon. I mean, I didn’t know anything. After the first weekend, I said to my husband, oh my God. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

“I went through one week. The next Sunday, the woman who sold me the store never showed up. I was in a panic. But it was OK. I knew how to do it. She taught me in one week the basics of what I needed to do and the rest you just go on intuition. The next day when I saw her she said, I decided you could run the store by yourself and I think you needed to know that.”

“The store was only open in the summer so I had the winter to regroup and figure it out. I decided that the first summer I was just going to do exactly what she had done. I was going to make sure it was as good as it could possibly be. It was really fun. I was energized. It was so different from working on nuclear budgets. It was exciting. When the store closed after Labor Day, I worked on new recipes and new suppliers. I did a lot to get ready for the next summer.”

Looking back on her experience of jumping into buying a store with no background in business or food:

“I think the thing we have the most trouble with is jumping into the pond. It’s very easy to stand on the side of the pond and go, I’m not going to go there…you never know what’s under the water. But you gotta just jump in the pond. Just splash around and figure it out when you’re there. Because you can’t figure it out when you’re at the side of the pond. It’s a journey – you jump in the pond, and you go, that’s really interesting over there, I’m going to go in that direction.”

The business became very successful – it grew from 400 to 3000 square feet and became a year-round destination. And after 20 years, she decided to walk away.

“It was time. I felt like I’d done what I needed to do there. I learned what I needed to learn. It was time to do something different.”

When she made the decision to leave the store, did she know what she was going to do next?

“Oh no, not only didn’t I know, I was terrified. For several years I’d been trying to figure out what to do next. I organized to sell the store to employees and I built myself an office above the store. I just sat there for almost a year with nothing to do. One day I was rolling out a thousand baguettes and running a specialty food store and the next day I had nothing to do and it was a horrible year and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone while you’re in the year. But the rest of my life never would have happened if I hadn’t done it.”

She kept going to that office, trying to keep busy and come up with a new idea. She read magazines, studied the stock market, thought about starting a bus company to the Hamptons. About nine months later, her husband suggested she stay in the food business but do it in a different way.

“People had asked me to write a book but I saw writing as a vey solitary thing, which is not me. So I thought, OK I’ll write a book proposal, send it to a publisher. I’ll never hear about it again. But at least I had something to do that day which was write the book proposal. I sent it off and about a week later I got a letter saying they’d be delighted to publish the book. And I was like, oh shit now I have to write the book!”

Her cookbook was published and became a bestseller. Then the Food Network came calling. Her show became a ratings success and won several Daytime Emmy awards. She continues to write and cook.

“I’m not trying to build something huge. I just want to do the things I love doing and I don’t want to do anything else. I want to have a life. I’m pretty clear about that. When I think about what I do, the first thing I want to be sure is, is it fun? If it’s not fun I don’t want to do it.”

Thanks to the podcast How To Be Amazing for inviting Ina Garten to share her story. Listen here.

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