The last several days I’ve been working through the hours of interviews I conducted on the road, editing reviewing and editing transcripts, and sending them out to people for review and editing and approval.
This has been work I’ve done my entire scholarly and professional career. When I was researching my senior thesis, on electrical engineering at MIT between the world wars, I spent many nights sitting in my summer rental on the edge of the MIT campus, listening to interviews on a cassette tape, transcribing them on a typewriter (a couple of the interviews are in the MIT archives). This is what I did instead of hanging out.
It’s slow work, but it’s essential. Reviewing the transcripts let me get reacquainted with conversations, identify those parts that I’ll later want to quote, and look at the overall structure of the conversation to see if there are themes that people bring up that I hadn’t noticed before.
Of course, they’re all answering questions that I ask, but it’s also important to listen for the things that people bring up on their own. Given how much of my work relies on interviews, this is a step I can never afford to ignore.
Fortunately, I recently stumbled on a new transcription service called Otter.ai (I believe they’re located somewhere here in Silicon Valley).
Otter is pretty good at identifying specific words (though it does make systematic errors, particularly when it’s dealing with Scottish or English accents), but it struggles with sentences, and paragraphs are hopeless. But I don’t think these are flaws in the program; rather, it reveals is how people hardly speak in sentences, and almost never speak in complete paragraphs. I have to decide where one thought ends and another begins, and make a decision about whether to start a new sentence, or create a new paragraph. That’s all editorial judgment on my part; rarely is it something signaled by the transcript itself.
The good news is, the interviews are as detailed as I remember, I managed to get good recordings of all but one (damn 2 GB card), and so it’s all worth that’s worthwhile, and will go a long way to letting me finish what feels more and more like my most important book yet.
I’ve been terribly remiss in blogging, because I’ve been on the road since the end of September, appearing at a couple events and doing research for my next book, on how companies move to 4-day weeks without sacrificing productivity or profitability.
It’s been a spectacularly useful trip, if rather long. It started with several days at the FOLIO literary festival in Óbidos, Portugal.
Óbidos is a little medieval town, complete with big walls and a castle, and is a wonderfully intimate location for a literary festival.
After that, it was up to Scotland, where I interviewed companies in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time there as I would have liked— I always love Edinburgh, and think I’d really like Glasgow if I got to know it.
From there, it was on to Copenhagen.
Copenhagen is another of my favorite cities, though it’s beauty is more domestic and functional than dramatic: it’s beautiful because everything is so well-designed and proportioned, not because it aims to knock you senseless.
By now, the trip is looking like the worst solution to the traveling salesman problem ever proposed!
Finally, it was back to London, with a brief overnight in Gloucester.
I did a ton of interviews with company heads and employees at companies that are now running 4-day weeks, mainly by figuring out ways to make their work more productive, so they’re working 30- or 32-hour weeks rather than 40 (or more).
I also put in an appearance at the SOMNEX sleep tech show in Shoreditch, which is a neighborhood I’d never before visited, and which is really great.
The place is, as one of my colleagues put it, the world’s biggest Instagram backdrop, and is filled with amazing street art.
I think I could do a talk consisting of nothing but images of graffiti, posters, and signage from around Brick Lane Road.
It was a terrific trip, and I got a tremendous amount done (which I describe in detail to my newsletter readers). But after almost three weeks away from my family and dogs, I’m glad to be heading home!
The Washington Post has an article on two new studies looking at physician burnout. One looks at burnout among young doctors, while the other underscores how challenging it’s been to study the phenomenon.
The first study surveyed a group of young doctors in their last year of medical school, and again during the second year of their residency. “Along with a host of demographic questions, the doctors were asked to rate themselves on two statements: ‘I feel burned out from my work’ and ‘I’ve become more callous toward people since I started this job’.” Here’s what they found:
Nearly 50 percent of young doctors in training programs called residencies reported burnout symptoms at least one day a week. And a large number said they felt they had made a mistake in choosing a subspecialty, such as pathology or anesthesiology, or even medicine in general as a profession….
Overall, 45 percent of residents reported at least one symptom of burnout — such as exhaustion — at least once a week, while 14 percent reported regret over career choice.
The second study started out as meta-analysis of previous research on physician burnout.
But after gathering 182 reports involving 109,628 physicians from 45 countries, they determined that the definitions of burnout and the study methods were so disparate that it was impossible to draw any conclusions.
The second study underscores just how difficult this problem has been to identify and address: when you can’t even agree on a definition of burnout that makes it testable, it becomes a lot easier to not take it seriously.
September 20, 2018 / askpang / Comments Off on “I need you to be great for 48 hours, then I need you to go and forget about this:” Ben Shewry on changing the culture of cooking
Ben Shewry talks with food journalist Lisa Abend at the 2018 MAD symposium about becoming a chef, and fighting back against the culture of overwork and harassment:
He starts talking about going to work at Attica around 13:40. At 18:20, Abend directs the conversation toward the changes he’s made in hiring practices; the big impact of having everyone give talks about themselves; the challenge of making it possible for people to come forward with problems; and shortening the hours (from about 37:30).
Here’s what Shewry says about shorter hours (I’ve taken the closed caption transcript that’s automatically generated by YouTube, and cleaned it up a little):
Lisa Abend: …Has it affected quality? do you feel like you’re a less lesser restaurant at the level of cuisine because of it?
Ben Shewry: No I think I mean we’ve— we are working at most 48 hours in the kitchen or less in the front of house at most 45 hours or less— that’s across four days in the kitchen, so they have the staff has three days off. [applause]
I mean the quality is better than ever. Like there’s just no comparison you know? What I’m asking for– I’m not talking about being all lovey-dovey and being soft as some people have have accused me of. You know, that’s not what it is. It’s like, I don’t need 48 hours, I need an elite 48 hours from you, you know? I need you to be great for 48 hours, then I need you to go and forget about this, and have a great life, and concentrate on some stuff that’s good for you. Have breakfast with your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your wife, or you know— like, whatever. Like I don’t care. Please just don’t– don’t be here.
And at the start of this we literally had to police it. Like I’m there first, same time as Carly, and we see in the camera staff coming like two hours before their shift. Literally we have to go out there and say, “Go away!” Like, “You can’t be here! You know, like, your shift is not starting so please— go away, have a coffee, I don’t care.” And so it was a really big cultural shift for them as well, because they never ever work like this, you know? They— they always sort of— Everybody subscribes to this, “You’ve got to do the hours,” you know, “You just got to do the hours, otherwise you’re not hardcore,” you know, which is such nonsense! What about if you did less hours, and you did them a lot better, you know?
I think there’s something in that, and there definitely is something in that at Attica. That’s how it is, and the food is better than it was. But the culture, particularly the environment, the atmosphere, is like the best of all time, you know.
And that’s not to say that– I’m not sitting here saying well we’re perfect, and that, you know, we live in a bubble, that we aren’t affected by everything the same as you guys are affected by… But the culture is excellent, you know, and and people are, like, genuinely happy and they can do things. They can get a haircut, you know?
What becomes really clear is that the transition to 4-day weeks is part of a much bigger set of changes that he’s made to the culture of restaurant since buying Attica in 2015. Abend does a fabulous job in the conversation of showing how the drive to shorter hours is, for Shewry, part of a bigger effort to create a more humane and empathetic and creative workplace: that fundamentally, if you want to treat people well while also demanding a lot from them on the job, you have to let them have their own lives in exchange.
There’s also some very insightful stuff about gender, working hours, and working conditions, and how reducing hours– and more broadly, making a more humane culture– makes it easier for women cooks to do their work and also manage family obligations.
Sherry’s impatience with the idea that you have to be an abusive person to be a creative genius– or that genius gives you permission to be terrible– is palpable, and hard-won.
Cooking at elite restaurants is one of the most creatively and physically demanding jobs in the world. You’re constantly experimenting with new combinations of foods, looking for unusual and imaginative juxtapositions; reinventing ways of preparing familiar dishes; even developing new cooking methods (hello sous vide!). They have to turn creative breakthroughs into viable products: they must take something that took weeks to develop, and turn it into a dish that can be prepared by chefs on the line, night after night. Their work is open-ended: the quest for new dishes and ingredients and ways of cooking never stops.
Cooking also demands perfection, minute after minute, day after day. It’s physically and mentally exhausting; you’re working in a high-stress atmosphere. The industry gives a lot of power to chefs who are visionaries, and some of them use that freedom to be imaginative, inquisitive, curious, and perfectionist; others just turn difficult, demanding, and even abusive. It’s also a field that has more than its share of burnout, substance abuse, and other problems.
So it’s been fascinating to discover that some of the best restaurants in the world have recently started implementing 4-day weeks, hiring more staff to give cooks and staff more time off, and limiting working hours. In this episode, I draw on talks given by Maaemo chef Esben Holmoe Bang and Faviken chef Magnus Nilsson at the 2017 Food on the Edge conference in Galway, the explore this trend. It’s a fascinating part of the story of shortening working hours, and a real inspiration.
Somehow I missed the pun “putting the REST in ‘restaurant’.” Oh well, the moment has passed.
September 15, 2018 / askpang / Comments Off on “It was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love… because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken:” elite restaurants are taking rest seriously
A few months ago, I came across an article about an Edinburgh restaurant that shifted to a four-day schedule. A couple days ago, I saw the article again in my notes, and thought to myself, I wonder if there any other restaurants adopting shorter hours?
I wrote a little bit about Ferran Adria and his legendary restaurant El Bulli in REST, and restaurants are an interesting case study for me because of the working-class yet elite culture, the long hours, the perfectionist workaholism, and the demand (among a certain kind of restaurant at least) to be constantly innovative. (Other people do such a great job of talking about working moms and families, I have to stick to my lane, which seems to be Nobel and Michelin star winners.)
Anyway, a little bit of digging turned up a very interesting fact: there’s a global movement among restaurants to shorten working hours.
The mechanics are different than the other companies I’ve been studying, in part because the restaurant industry is so extreme in its work habits. The environment can run to the difficult, exploitative, and abusive, which makes it easy for people to be exploited. Kitchens at elite restaurants are demanding, competitive places, and competing over how long you can work is common. There’s a long history of elite chefs essentially being educated in kitchens– Jamie Oliver, Noma chef Rene Redzepi, and Attica chef Ben Shewry all left school at 15 and went to work– and the assumption is the more you do and the more hours you work, the steeper your learning curve.
As a result, six-day weeks and twelve-hour days are common. So moving to a five-day week or a 48-hour week may not seem like a lot, but among chefs it’s pretty radical.
Not surprisingly, you see the trend most clearly at elite restaurants, which are already known for reinventing cooking and dining, can sell out their reservation books in minutes (yes, there are people who will arrange a vacation to Denmark or Sweden around a dinner at Noma or Fäviken); but they’re also places that can have even more extreme cults of personality– the celebrity chef is now part brand, part genius, part viral TED talk– and attract sous chefs who want to launch their own careers, so they could just as easily make exploitation and long hours central to their business model.
But you also see it as less well-known places, like Edinburgh’s Aisle, the Raby Hunt in Darlington, Sat Bains in Nottingham, Enoteca Sociale in Toronto, and Model Milk in Calgary– a mix of places that have solid location reputations, and ones with a Michelin star or two.
The subject of working hours also got onto the agenda at Food on the Edge 2017, a Galway Ireland conference about the restaurant industry. Here’s Esben Holmoe Bang talking about how his Oslo restaurant Maaemo (one of the restaurants that people organize vacations around) moved to a three-day workweek:
They started shortening the workweek after labor inspectors got on their case about working hours (they made the mistake of accurately accounting for their hours, rather than being as creative with their accounting as they are with their cuisine), and went to a four-day week. At first, Bang says, “I was very nervous, because I think cooking is about connecting to what you do. And if you’re not there, you’re definitely not connected to what you do.”
But he quickly saw that
They were happy when they walked through the door. They were energized, excited. And we said, Wait, wait a minute. Maybe we’re onto something here.
Interestingly, some of his employees were skeptical, especially when they moved from a four-day week to three days: they said, “Look, we travel to come to Norway and work this restaurant… What’s the point if we were only going to be here three days a week?”
But they all discovered that there were benefits:
If we thought they were energized on the four day, on the three days were looking like ******* Duracell rabbits coming through the door. You know, they were coming in, guys were coming in full of energy, wanting to crush it every single day….
So we started making sure we organize trips to farms to this to go out to visit fishermen travel around Norway, because most of our staff travel to Norway from somewhere. So we started doing trips, kill some reindeers, drink some reindeer blood, you know do all those things…. The staff had time to do it. And they wanted to do it because we try to do it before and the people work five, six days a week. And they say right on your day off, man. We’re gonna say let’s go milk some cows, man…. So now, there’s this, there’s this hunger for more, which I think is amazing.
Not only did they have more energy on the job, they also had more opportunity to do things that taught them about Norway and Norwegian culture and cuisine– which is really important when you work at a restaurant that sees itself as reinventing a region’s cuisine.
More broadly, the experience has made him rethink some of the basics of the culture of cooking:
I think it’s a crazy notion that we, as cooks, focus so much on sustainability, but we kind of forget ourselves in it….
I can’t, you can’t, I can’t demand of people to like, forget their lives, basically forget who they are, and all they can identify with is this dream that I created, basically, you know what I mean?…
All I want to say is this obsession of ours, let’s make it healthy guys, you know, let’s not kill ourselves in the process. Let’s make sure we can last the long run. Let’s not do our five years or 10 years, or whatever it is, and then we got back problems, or we got psychological problems so we have to stay out of the business, which happens so much. Let’s try and see if we can make this business sustainable for ourselves.
The next day, Magnus Nilsson, the founder of Faviken, talked about how he reduced working hours at his company by growing the staff:
Nilsson talks about his own desire to have a more balanced life than some chefs, but I thought this part, where he talks about realizing that they had to change how they worked or everyone was going to burn out, was really striking:
Karin and Jesper, who were the people who’d worked longest with me, they were beginning to see problems with the way we ran our business. We saw that it was just not going to be able to continue the way it was, partly because we didn’t want it to, because we wanted another part of life as well, but also because it wasn’t sustainable with the staff. It just wasn’t.
When we really decided we had to change, and we had this meeting where we sat down and tried to visualize where we were going to be in 5 years, none of us, none of the three people who mattered most to faviken, could see ourselves working at faviken, the way did then five years down the line. That’s when we really understood that we had to change.
It started from kind of selfish reasons— we wanted to make change for ourselves, to better our everyday life and our existence— but we quickly realized that running a place like Faviken, it would be a terrible thing if you ran a profitable business where you exploit your team in order to make it better for yourself to the degree we wanted to do. [ed: This is a stunningly Nordic perspective; in America, we would call this attitude “everything they teach in business school.”] So we kind of turned it around and said, all of the changes we wanted to do they have to apply to everyone, they have to be the same premises.
We really felt it was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love, and that we were pretty good at after having trained many years, simply because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken, and that we really couldn’t affect in the way we wanted to.
Nilsson also talks about the creative benefits of this approach. He compares Faviken to the sushi restaurant in the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and how Jiro dedicated himself to perfecting a very specific kind of food– essentially mastering a well-known way of preparing food. This, Nilsson says, isn’t how he cooks, and he needs a different kind of life to do the work he really wants to do:
Creativity is the subconscious human process when our minds put bits and pieces of what we have with us together into new combinations that might prove useful somehow. And if you isolate yourself, and you limit yourself, and limit the amount of impressions that you can take in, then naturally the toolbox for creative combinations and new things to happen will be smaller. And I felt that aside from the human side, i didn’t want this to happen either.
To create the kinds of surprising new dishes that he’s famous for, in other words, he can’t just stay in the kitchen; he needs time to do other things, like work in the garden and travel.
The idea that serious chefs will use their extra time to do things that help them learn about food, or broaden their knowledge, and that saner hours can make them better chefs, is also echoed by Ben Shewry, the head chef at Attica in Melbourne, Australia. (This New York Times article explains what makes Attica special.) He talks about moving to a 48-hour week in an Instagram post in 2017:
We’ve built the restaurant on the values of questioning everything, EVERYTHING. This year I feel we took a major leap forward in the development of our culture by putting the young men and woman who work in our kitchens on a 48 hour weekly roster. 4 days on, 3 days off.
Are the old ways of flogging yourself and having no life outside of the kitchen right? In my opinion no. Do I regret working the hours I have? No, however there wasn’t another option.
Changing the roster structure to accomodate the fact that cooks are humans, not machines and indeed can have lives as well has been cathartic for not only the team but also the business. We get an elite 48 hours out of each one of them and all of our cooks can work on multiple sections at any given moment, becoming multi skilled in the process.
It might sound like an odd thing to say but many Chefs don’t learn how to cook properly at fine dining restaurants. You get stuck on a section, you pick a ton of herbs and plate tons of beautiful looking food but often you don’t get into the real depths of cooking hard. It is very important to me that our cooks to leave here with the ability to cook properly.
So this is a really positive development, and I hope to see it spread.
(And yes, I took a screenshot of the tweet rather than figure out how to embed it. I’m in a hurry. Don’t @ me.)
This brings to mind William Davies’ excellent work about the weaponization of positive psychology (and wellness and yoga) in the workplace, and how the idea that you should “do what you love” can easily be turned against you by unscrupulous or manipulative bosses, and can lead people to take risks that are very unlikely to pan out, or make career and work decisions that are unwise. It’s a pervasive idea; according to some critics, it’s even what drives Pixar movies.
One problem is that passion, and even ability, don’t guarantee success. Even in a completely meritocratic system, if there are more people who are capable and qualified and passionate about their work than their are jobs, some people are never going to get jobs. The academic job market is a perfect example: there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone who is super-qualified, would do a great job, and happily do it for the rest of their lives. Passion doesn’t change that, and enthusiasm doesn’t make up for the disadvantages you have if you’re changing careers or don’t have well-cultivated professional networks. (However, belief that you should be passionate about your work can discourage women from working.)
Just as there may be more qualified people than there are positions for them (whether this is in the professions, or in the culture industry), so too is there a lot of great work out there that’s competing for readers’ and listeners’ and viewers’ attention. It’s easy for fabulous work to get buried, or never given a “fair” chance at finding its audience. Sometimes it takes ages for work to be recognized. And there’s always more coming.
When I was in London this summer, I made a habit of going into bookstores and looking for copies of Rest.
I was lucky to find them prominently displayed in some bookstores (Waterstones was especially good about putting it where readers were likely to stumble across it), but I was also struck at HOW MANY BOOKS THERE ARE IN THE WORLD. You’re lucky anybody ever reads you.
Another problem is that it often assumes that creative work is a kind of titanic struggle involving unruly, chaotic forces. Call this the “agony and the ecstasy” model. In order to do good work, you have to allow yourself to be taken over by muses that are likely to disrupt, and possibly destroy, your life. In the end you might survive, and you might be famous; there’s even the very remote chance that both will happen.
But “doing what you love” doesn’t have to mean living without boundaries, or entering into a race between creativity and self-destruction.
One of the big lessons I learned from the people I write about in Rest is that some of the most successful, ambitious, and creative people work hard to put boundaries around their time and their work, and I sense they do this partly out of self-preservation, and partly out of strategic calculation. They recognize that they could enter that arms race, and some in their earlier lives did work that way. But lots of them recognize that their creative drive could just as easily drive over them as make something new.
They also calculate that they’ll be able to do better work, for longer, if they don’t treat love and passion as things that have to be unruly, or impulsive. They treat love of their work as a river, not a flood— that is to say, a source of constant energy, rather than something that could drown them.
Daily routines, rituals for starting and stopping work, and especially periods of deliberate rest play a critical role in channeling that energy. They make it possible to stop work, because you don’t have to worry so much that if you do you’ll lose the next good idea. They have the added benefit of creating more time and more opportunity for having good ideas, for actually becoming more creative and having a more sustainable creative life.
Learning to not take rejection so personally, or other setback so personally, is another important kind of boundary-setting. Indeed, as I’m discovering, it’s just as essential.
We think that the publishing industry’s business is to manufacture and sell books. And yes, it does that. But from an author’s point of view, what the industry mainly does is manufacture rejection.
You know those stories about how Melville or JK Rowling got dozens of rejections, or how Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was read by twenty editors before finally being accepted? That’s the norm. When we were selling The Distraction Addiction and Rest, I got dozens of rejections.
Ultimately, though, all the rejections put together don’t matter as much as the one yes.
In fact, selling a book is like dating. Yes, you get tons of rejections, people who don’t think you’re right for them, and probably a few jerks. But they’re not as important as the person who says yes.
And maybe that’s an important lesson. Loving your work is like being married. Neither relationships nor creative lives (which is another kind of relationship) are sustained by impetuosity and impulse and self-destructive behavior. Both require a passion that is strong, but also steady. I think everyone can intuit that a couple who stays together for fifty years is more of a success, and has to develop and draw on different resources, than one who spends a wild weekend together then splits after a huge fight.
Putting boundaries around your passion for your work doesn’t indicate that you’re not serious. It shows that you care. It shows that you’re in it for the long run.