“You know what I’d like for dessert tonight?” I asked my mother one morning as I hovered over a bowl of cereal.
“Does it look like I’m taking orders?” Mom replied with a smile. I was twelve at the time, so I wasn’t completely blind to social graces. I knew that it wasn’t polite to demand a favorite dessert and now I suspected that treating Mom like a waitress taking orders was tactless as well. But I really wanted something special.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just was wondering what it would take to have a plate of homemade cream puffs sitting on the dinner table tonight.”
Mom walked over to a shelf that contained cookbooks, grabbed one, returned to the counter where I was perched, placed the book in front of me and said, “Think of it as a chemistry project.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked—wondering if I was in trouble but didn’t know it yet.
“You spend hours tinkering with your chemistry set, heating chemicals in test tubes, mixing compounds in beakers—to no real purpose—and you do it for fun. How different is that from making cream puffs?”
Completely missing the point, I replied, “To no real purpose? Don’t you remember the time I used my chemistry set to cook up a concoction so stinky that one whiff of it paralyzed the flies that were walking across the kitchen window? To remove the frozen pests from the glass, we had to flick them off with a Popsicle stick. How cool was that?”
Unhappily, this retelling of events wasn’t getting me any closer to cream puffs, so I asked, “Who’s the lady on the book?”
“She’s Betty Crocker,” Mom explained, “and she’s about to become your new best friend. She’s written this entire book of formulas, complete with methods for working with cooking tools. Turn to the section on baking, find the formula and steps for making cream puffs, write up an ingredient list, look up the section that teaches how to work with dough, I’ll fetch any ingredients we’re missing, and a couple hours from now you’ll be sliding your first tray of cream puffs into the fridge.”
Up until this point in my cooking career, my entire food-preparation experience had consisted of blending milk with Bosco. And I hadn’t always done that right. Cream puffs seemed miles out of my league.
Spotting my defeated look, Mom explained, “You’ve been reading for seven years. You’ve been following directions with your chemistry projects and plastic models for at least three years. Inside this book, Mrs. Crocker gives you what you must know and do to make almost any dish. You simply need to read and carefully follow her directions—the same way you would when mixing up a smoke bomb. Only this time you won’t be paralyzing flies, you’ll be creating a fine French pastry.”
Finishing her speech, Mom helped me get started on the project and then quietly watched. She stepped in occasionally to help with a new technique, but mostly she let me read and follow instructions. She wanted me to discover for myself that I could open a book, follow the directions, and produce something that would make me proud.
Later, as I sifted powdered sugar onto my finished product, Mom called around the neighborhood and set up a game of bridge. When her friends arrived a couple of hours later, she asked me to serve the cream puffs. Having a natural sense of timing, she said nothing about who had made the dessert until one of the neighbors exclaimed, “Why Melba, your cream puffs are heavenly!” Mom paused for effect, called me back into the room, and casually said, “Kerry, Mildred thinks the cream puffs you made are heavenly.”
“Thank you.” I politely responded.
“You made these?” the women said in unison. At first they couldn’t believe it, and then they couldn’t stop complimenting me. I was an overnight sensation.
“Well,” I responded, “I guess I can read and follow instructions.”
By the end of the year, Betty Crocker and I were making chocolate cream pie, blackberry cobbler, and all sorts of delights. With each new success, I came to believe that if an expert cook wrote instructions, I could follow them. Better still, I didn’t merely gain confidence in making cream puffs, or even cooking in general. I became confident that if I put my mind to it, I could learn skills that had once seemed out of reach.
Twenty-two years later, I gave a presentation to a group of corporate executives who were in the middle of selecting a training program for their company. It was my job to explain to the executives what they should demand from the program they would eventually purchase. This was my area of expertise. I had studied it for six years.
“But none of the programs we’ve examined fit the criteria you’ve just given us,” one of the decision makers said as I brought my presentation to an end. The entire group nodded in agreement. And then someone asked, “Can you make us a training program that meets the standards you’ve suggested?” My business partner looked at me with an expression of, “Are they nuts?” (After all, we had never actually designed anything before.) Meanwhile, I mentally ran through the skills required to design the training, calculated what my partner and I could do (or learn to do), surveyed a list of specialists who might work with us, took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I believe we can.”
And then we did it. Over the next year we designed the very training program our client had been seeking. It wasn’t easy. We fell on our faces several times—but we got back up and ultimately got it right. It wasn’t long until I saw my career not as a fixed playing field, but as a doorway that opened onto all kinds of intriguing skill sets. I learned to perform dozens of tasks that didn’t remotely fit my original job description. And since I always collaborated with others, learning wildly different jobs led to not only a diverse and exciting career, but also to cherished friendships.
Now, I realize there were hundreds of events that contributed to the moment I said that my business partner and I would be able to do something we had never actually done yet. Chief among them was the day I learned that “I can read and follow instructions.” Teaching me this was one of the greatest gifts my mom ever gave me. I suspect the same has been true for you—someone has helped you discover how to help yourself, and it has had a huge impact. Plus, I bet when the time arrives, you’ll pay it forward. One day, you’ll lean over your ten-year-old daughter or niece while she installs an app while you offer up only an occasional piece of advice. As you finish you’ll say, “See how easy that was? I knew you could do it.” Your ten-year-old mentee will think you’re referring to installing the app, but you know better. You’re talking about her ascent to the Presidency.
Oh yes, and one final note. Should you find yourself in need of someone who can paralyze flies, I’m your guy.