I may be a cool blogger these days, but for 10 years of my life I was just a humble bread baker. Not an “I work at the Wonder Bread factory” kind of baker, but an honest to god professionally trained artisan bread baker. You know . . . French baguettes, Italian Ciabatta, hand crafted sourdoughs made with natural starters. That kind of baker.
The real deal.
In those 10 years I made a lot of bread. And looking back on those days, I see that I learned a lot of lessons about life as well. Some of which were pretty profound.
Like how to live with Passion.
They say bread is the staff of life. I don’t know about all that, but what I can tell you is that baking bread is the stuff of life. Corny, but true.
So here are 12 of the lessons I learned about passion during my days as a baker. Maybe they can help you live with more passion as well.
1. Follow Your Gut – It will always lead you to your passion . . . so long as you don’t let your head interfere. Passion and purpose are not the same thing, but they are closely entwined. They cannot be separated. If you lose one, you lose the other.
I decided to become a bread baker in the spur of a moment. I had just graduated tech school with a certificate in computer aided drafting, and a bright career path as an architectural drafter all lain out before me.
Then I saw a monk on TV baking a loaf of bread. Robes and everything.
That’s all it took.
I was fascinated. It seemed almost mystical. I had to make a loaf myself . . . a loaf that failed to rise and turned into my very first brick (but not my last).
It made no matter. I was hooked. I felt it in every bone in my body. Bread. That was my calling. And I dropped everything I had gone to school for in order to pursue it.
That was passion.
2. Obsession IS Passion — Obsession. Passion. The two are the same. At least, when it comes to your calling. I was about as obsessed with bread as one can get. I read and re-read every book that existed on the subject. Even obscure and hard to hunt down translations of French texts.
When I wasn’t baking bread I was reading about it. Or I was creating recipes. Or I was experimenting with the properties of gluten. Or I was trying to cultivate the perfect starter.
The point is, I was living my passion. People thought I was obsessed. Who bakes bread all day then goes home and plays with dough and starters? Who works 60 hours a week in the bakery then spends his weekends in front of the oven baking even more bread?
There was no separation between work and play. I called it passion. Others called it obsession.
Whatever it was, it was the happiest I’d ever been.
3. You WILL Be the Butt of Jokes – It’s all good. Embrace it. Revel in it. Let it happen. It simply means you are loved. Respected, even.
Bakers are the cruelest of friends. They will tell you the hard truth, without a thought to spare your feelings or pride. But they are also the most knee-slapping elbow-ribbing group you could ever hang around. It becomes impossible to distinguish the insults from the jokes. They are one and the same.
If you’re really special, they may even make a cartoon of you.
I was special.
(Comic by Nijaz Sedic. Here’s another one.)
Someone actually did eat my damn nuts.
Should you ever reach such lofts that you’ve earned yourself a nickname, well, don’t get too big headed . . . it’s sure to be unflattering, if not downright obscene.
Mine was T-Bag.
Such insults are endearing. And they’re the price you pay when you find your passion.
4. You’re Going to Burn a Few Loaves – It’s inevitable. No matter how great a baker you are, no matter how many times you’ve baked the same bread from the same oven, you WILL burn a few loaves.
It simply can’t be any other way.
The burnt loaves are just the cost of all the loaves you got right. It’s part of baking.
You will achieve nothing in life if you’re unwilling to burn a few loaves.
Bread must be baked or it cannot be called bread. Just as life must be lived or it cannot be called life.
5. Enter the Zone Daily – The zone is that place where time seems to disintegrate. It becomes meaningless. All that matters is the present. What we are doing right then and there.
We’ve all felt it. We’re in the zone when we’re shooting three-pointers left and right. We’re in the zone when we’re delivering that speech, playing catch with our boys, making love.
For a baker, it happens when we’re kneading a loaf. Or when we’re baking out the oven. Everything else becomes irrelevant. Just white noise. Your entire world narrows to just the bread and the peel upon which you bake it out with.
The zone only happens when we are engaged in something meaningful. If you’re living with passion, you will find that something each and every day.
6. Life is Just a Pun – In this world, we take things too seriously. Every dip in the stock market signals the next Great Depression. Every political scandal is cause for a lynching. And every natural disaster is just the first sign of a pending doomsday.
Yeah. We need to lighten up.
We should be able to joke about our lives. Even our passions. Nothing is too sacred. Finding the humor in what we do is just as important as loving it.
Baking is no exception. So I’ll suffer you a few of the worst baking puns I’ve heard in my day.
- Why are bakers so temperamental? It’s easy to get a rise out of them.
- How can bakers be so wealthy? Because they’re rolling in the dough.
- Do you knead anything?
- Today must be a Challah day.
Ugh. Reliving them makes me groan. And I even spared you all the yeast jokes. But if what you’re doing doesn’t intrinsically lend itself to humor (however bad), then you may want to rethink the path you’ve chosen.
7. Your Hands Tell the Tale – What story do the hands of a baker tell?
- Calluses. On the outer knuckles. From rubbing your hands along the side of the steel bowls as you pull hundreds of pounds of dough from the mixer.
- More calluses. On the palms and along the thumb and fingers. From the friction of the peel as it slides through your hands with each pass as you bake out the bread.
- Splinters, deep and grown over. The price paid for working with wooden peels, benches and proofing boards.
- Scars. From the many cuts of the blades we work with day in and day out.
- Nimbleness. Skill. Developed from shaping thousands upon thousands of loaves.
- Strength. Developed from those same loaves.
Passion will always leave its mark on those who live it. What story do your hands tell?
8. Make Something Wholesome – Natural life-giving bread. What could be more wholesome than that?
While my view on the health effects of bread may have since changed, back when I first started baking I was enthralled with the idea that I was creating a traditional staple. Something that sustained human life for centuries.
Just the word conjures up images of down-home goodness. I felt I was a part of that goodness.
We all need to find our “goodness.” It may be your family or church. It may be hand crafted furniture. Homemade pies. An organic garden. Your local chapter of the Boy Scouts.
Whatever it is, make sure it’s wholesome. Add value where you can. Make it a part of your life . . . because these are the things that make life worth living.
9. Good Bread Rises Slowly – Mix some flour and water, add a touch of salt, a package of instant dried yeast, and throw it into a proof box at 110 degrees. Twenty minutes later you have a loaf ready for baking. That’s how we do it right?
At least, not if we’re trying to make good bread.
What separates truly good bread from the rest is a long slow rise. It requires patience, but the end product is worth it. Is it any surprise really? The best things in life are always the ones that require time. The ones that mature.
A beautifully veined wheel of Roquefort.
A wee dram of Single malt scotch from Islay.
A well worn leather jacket.
The same is true in life. The good things take time to mature. Love. Friendships. Community.
Don’t rush these things. They need to develop with time. You cannot reap before you’ve sown.
10. Take a Chance – When I fist started baking, I dreamed of one day apprenticing to a world famous master baker.
And when the opportunity finally came, I chickened out.
My excuses were plenty. But excuses are bullshit. The real reason I turned him down was fear. Fear of the change I would have to make. Fear of what it would mean to actually walk that path . . . the question I would have to ask myself.
Do I have what it takes?
Instead of discovering the answer, I ran from the question entirely. I threw away the greatest opportunity that life had ever shown me. I dumped it right in the fucking trash.
Don’t do that to yourself. Better to find out if you have what it takes, than to be left wondering for the rest of your life.
11. Dreams are What You Make of Them – They can be the visions that guide us to our greatest passions. To a life of fulfillment.
Or they can be pure fantasy.
It’s up to you.
You cannot live passionately if you’re not pursuing your dreams on one level or another. It’s our hopes that fill us with that fire to live. It’s our dreams that inspire us to our greatest efforts.
If you’re not chasing after your dreams, you better ask yourself why. It was only many years after that I admitted to myself why I refused my golden opportunity. I was afraid of failing. Failing at what I truly loved.
So if you take only one thing from this article, then take these words. They come from a one-time baker . . . a man who turned his back on his own dreams:
You can never have success without failure. But you CAN fail if you never try to succeed.
12. Trust the Magic – Bread is magical. You throw together a few ingredients, worthless on their own, and suddenly the dough comes to life. It may take awhile before you begin to see it . . . those first little air bubbles . . . the dough slowly creeping up the sides of the proofing bowl. It may come in kicks and starts, but eventually it will rise.
It gains momentum. It becomes damn near uncontainable.
Passion is the same.
Life is the same.
Life is meant to be lived passionately. It may take awhile for that passion to rise to the surface, but it is there. It sustains us. Without it you cannot live. Truly live.
So listen to your gut. Chase your dreams. Be willing to burn a few loaves.
Know that you’ll fail before you ever succeed.
Then take that chance anyway.
Because magic is in you. Passion is in you.
You need only let it rise.
(Photo by Chiot’s Run at flickr.)