A Decade of Baking — and the 12 Lessons it Taught Me About Living with Extraordinary Passion.

Dough

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?

I did.

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.

 

T-Bag Mad Nuts

(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.

Bread.

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?

Wrong.

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.

I was offered my dream job — working under the tutorship of Jeffrey Hamelman, Director of the King Arthur Bakery . . . one of the finest bread bakers in the world.

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.

Cheers!

(Photo by Chiot’s Run at flickr.)

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Comments

  1. Nijaz Sedic says:

    Looks like you miss it more than you’re willing to admit, T-Bag, old buddy, old pal.

    • I’m willing to admit that I miss baking. The feeling has been slow in coming, but it’s hit pretty hard recently. It’s no surprise really. It goes back to what I was saying about passion. It it’s true passion, it doesn’t ever go away. Changes maybe, but never goes away.

      Cheers Buddy!

  2. Absolutely loved this! I smiled the whole time, then was mad when you passed up the opportunity, of course I immediately went to the link, it’s In Vermont. I know you said you were afraid of failing but WOW, WTH!? Then became teary eyed because I flip flop with my own passion and today was one of the bad days. This was such a great post, and the cartoons, keep em coming! Maybe you should bake bread on the side. I’d be your first costumer for that sourdough! -Carmen

    • Thanks Carmen. I still get mad at myself for that one too. WTH indeed! That’s why I put it out there. I’m not the only person ever to turn their back to their passion. There are many reasons people will choose a different path from that which they love . . .

      But none of them are very good.

      And don’t sweat the bad days Carmen, they’re going to happen. You just gotta keep on with relentless persistence. Eventually, your path becomes clear.

      Cheers!

  3. Thanks Trevor for this. I’ve never made bread that needed to rise before–only banana bread–but I definitely felt it translated over to my passions and obsessions as well. I really miss my ‘healthy’ obsession with stand-up paddling right now but am trying to find other outlets for it–like swimming indoors regularly and organizing a screening of a documentary on local Hawaii surf girls.
    ;-) Thanks for blogging and look forward to your sourdough someday.

    • Thanks Shiuan! It’s great that you are finding ways to live your passion without actually being out there in the surf. That’s what it’s all about, staying true to our path . . . even if we occasionally stray from the trail.

      I should probably heed my own words and start baking again. There’s no excuse not to make some fine sourdough here at home. Hmmm . . .

      Cheers!

  4. Baking might just be cooler than blogging, Travis. I was a baker’s assistant once, and nothing personal, but he was the grouchiest, hardest to work with person I’ve ever worked with. I stayed a few months and found another job.

    This post is great. I like the comparisons you make. So are you now as obsessed with blogging as you were baking?

    • I believe what you say about those grouchy bakers. I’ve known a few (some might say I was even one myself). Something about working in front of a hot steamy oven all day. I dunno.

      I *am* just as obsessed with blogging as I was with baking. It’s all I do really. If I’m not writing then I’m reading blogs, reading blogs about blogging, or commenting on blogs. Along with all the other stuff that takes up a blogger’s day. I even bought a couple blogging books to help me get started when I first went live with this thing.

      I absolutely love it. The passion is here. I won’t blow it like last time.

      Cheers!

  5. Funny you mention this. I can honestly say I’ve never heard so much about bread as I have the past few weeks. Found a video on youtube about a baker and his passion for bread. You guys have some awesome talent and passion.

    Love the way you connected the art of bread to art in general. These lessons apply to many of us, regardless of our arts. Thanks for sharing and I hope you get back to baking soon. :D

    Here’s the video if you care to see. Pretty awesome: http://youtu.be/4zaRznrc6ig

    • That video was awesome Jared! Thanks for sharing it!

      Actually, Chad Robertson was one of my bread baking heroes when I first started. He was an often featured baker in “The Bread Builders,” which was far and away the best bread book at the time. That book, and Chad in particular, were a huge influence on me.

      Chad was the baker I wanted to be.

      And he’s come even further since then. I had no idea that he had written a book. I’m getting that ASAP!

      Back around 2000 or so, I attended the first Brick Oven Baker’s Conference in Sausalito (just north of San Fran). Many great bakers were in attendance, including the authors of “The Bread Builders.” Chad was scheduled to be one of the featured guests. He was half the reason I shelled out my hard earned dough (damn, there go those puns again). When he was unable to attend I was crushed. And not in a gay way. OK, maybe a little in a gay way.

      That video made my night! Thanks again Jared.

      Cheers!

  6. I had no idea you were a baker. That’s one thing I would LOVE to learn how to do. I have fond memories of my grandpa making his own bread. I’ve never been able to recreate it on my own.

    • That sounds like a great memory Lisa. No one can bake quite as well as the old timers. There’s no shame in not being able to match his bread.

      Baking is all about feel. Intuition. Attention. It takes years to develop those qualities. And that’s IF you’re spending 8 hours a day baking. If you’re just the occasional home baker, it will take much MUCH longer. Better start practicing.

      Cheers!

  7. Great post! I think following your gut and learning from mistakes are so essential when it comes to success and greatness.

    • I agree Dan. They’re really the heart and soul of achievement. Meaningful achievement, that is. Simply prioritizing those two traits will take you far. And once you add the power of Persistence into the mix you become limitless. Unstoppable.

      Cheers!

  8. Your post is great. Our ideas are the same. It is not about bread, it is about passion and calling. Unfortunately most young adults and college students are stumbling through life looking for ‘it’. I wrote Hired ‘Right’ Out of College to help young adults do the hard work of discovery and uncovering their gifts and passions. Once this is accomplished the scary, twisting, turning road up ahead becomes straighter and easier to navigate.
    Thanks for this post, I hope it spurs many to contemplate what their calling in life could/should be.

    • Hi Garrett. When you are young, looking for “it” is a tricky task. You are likely to have many false starts. You might even find yourself several years down a mistaken path before you realize you took the wrong turn.

      But with their youthful enthusiasm, those who do find the right path can really make a difference . . . and find tremendous fulfillment.

      Cheers!

      • Trevor – you are exactly right. The key is looking! Finding what we don’t like is equally important. Learning what we like and don’t like is best accomplished by having many diverse experiences. One day you tried baking bread and wow! The key is you were busy with a purpose. Many are not actively looking. The latest study shows the average kid in the UK born today will spend 1/4 of their lives in front of a non-work related screen. It is more difficult to ‘bump’ into your gifts when you are not engaged in the discovery process. Mind you, I am not saying recreation and downtime are bad things, just that a steady diet will give you a bad case of career indigestion. :)

        • The only way for kids to find their passion is to get out there and actually live. A lifetime spent in front of the TV or computer is not likely to do the trick.

          Experiences are what point us in the right direction. People point us in the right direction. Fun. Joy. Inpiration.

          These are the things kids need to experience in order to find what matters to them. Half a day spent texting just ain’t gonna cut it. But with youthful enthusiasm, all it takes is a little nudge to get the ball rolling.

          Cheers!

  9. Trevor, I did not realize you were a baker. That is so cool. A baker that lives in a barn in Vermont. You are one of a kind my friend.

    Good lessons. I’m curious, is there something about being a baker that you hope to accomplish one day? I mean – what is the holy grail for baking bread?

    • When I first got into baking my holy grail was to own my own small bakery. A little place with a wood fired brick oven and a small clientele. I just wanted to be able to bake my own bread, however I liked, and share it with the few people that might appreciate it. I even envisioned writing books on bread baking.

      So long ago.

      Unfortunately, I let bitterness creep into my life and my once-dream became just another unlived failure. That’s how I saw it back then anyway. Though I no longer bake these days, I’ve been itching to get back at it.

      Thanks for your kind words Aaron. When you put it that way it does actually make me sound like one of a kind.

      I can accept that.

      Cheers!

  10. Wow, Trevor. I did not know there were life lessons to be learned from baking! I love it when valuable advice can be found through unexpected sources. I have to keep in mind that I may burn a few loaves myself before I make it perfect. That’s perfect inspiration, thank you.

    • Hi Vincent, I find that there are valuable lessons to be found in most everything in life . . . we simply have to look. Sure we can learn from spectacular failure, or grand successes, but we can also find meaningful lessons from the little things in life. The world can teach us in many ways if we remain open to its lessons.

      Cheers!

  11. A really enjoyable article.

    How could you spare us the yeast jokes though? Those were probably the best ones.

    I found myself nodding along to obsession is passion and that the world takes everything too seriously. You’ve certainly done a great job of transitioning from baker to blogger. Excellent content.

    • Thanks Stephen! That means a lot to me. Back then I didn’t even know what a blog was (I was pretty much in the dark until I actually started this blog). Maybe I’ll save the yeast jokes for another time . . . they were certainly some of the dirtiest. And I won’t even tell you what we did with the pumpernickel. I’m sure you can guess anyway.

      Cheers!

  12. Nicely written, honest and very wise post. I could scent the aroma of freshly baked bread while reading and I loved it!
    You can never have success without failure. But you CAN fail if you never try to succeed. – so true and so inspiring :)
    I am sure that next time you will take the chance!

    • Hi Ani, thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you liked the article. I do miss the smell of freshly baked bread, and hearing the crackling of the loaves as they cool on the bread racks right after coming out of the oven. But you’re right, next time I WILL take that chance. That I can guarantee.

      Cheers!

  13. I loved this one Trevor – guess I can’t get enough of the bread either! :-) Talk about ancient and wholesome though – sages have been using bread as a metaphor to explain things for thousands of years (or rice cakes, varies by location). We understand all those truths of life way better in story form than in fluffy declarations out of context.

    Part of what you need to really love something is to get those life lessons out of it. I used to be an artist. Similar lessons. Like how you never get to decide what you’re drawing – the pen will kind of take it’s own course, and you can either go with it or screw it up trying to change it. I gave art up too. I’m still not completely sure why, although in all honesty I think it was because I wanted to be something else. And all my best decisions have been spur of the moment.

    Great voice, great writing, great insight, great living.

    • I know exactly what you mean by the “pen will kind of take its own course.” I use to get that same experience back when I was heavy into playing the guitar. I never learned to read music or music theory or any of that stuff. My bad.

      But I could still make music.

      Just not like that. I would just fiddle around until I had a good riff. I’d just keep playing it over and over with new variations every now and then. Then I’d mix in some other riff that’d been sitting in the back of my mind for months, and then another, and soon enough . . . a song was born. I never consciously “made” a song, it just sorta grew into itself.

      Of course, they may not have been any good, but I liked ‘em and I made them for me.

      There are definitely a lot of parallels between things like art, music, bread baking, and life. I think it’s the aspect of creation. After all, we create our life as we go. We don’t always have a clear plan (or any plan for that matter), but we make what we can with what we have at the time. And often times, the fewer our tools, the more creative we’re forced to get.

      I’m glad you were able to relate to this post. Thanks Morgan!

      Cheers!

  14. Dale Rogerson says:

    Wow another one that made me cry. Number 10 did me in. I’m 49 fucken years old and still haven’t *EVER* gone for *ANY*thing. This past year I’ve been struggling with my existing life. I have been feeling the strongest urge to just get away from it all. Just say fuck it, I’m out of here and I’ll figure it out as I go along! I’ve been working for 30 years in an office and I hate it more and more every day. For years I’ve convinced myself to believe that it is important for my family that I continue this life-sucking job because I have good insurance and a decent salary while my husband is self-employed and has none (insurance)…. meanwhile, I’m slowly dying of boredom and dreaming of doing something that I enjoy (cooking and writing).

    I’ve spent lots of money on coaches and classes (that I’ve yet to really start or finish) because in the back of my mind is the mantra: I’m not good enough. Who do I think I am. I’m being irresponsible…. I don’t have the support of my husband – he doesn’t believe in me – and I’d convinced myself that he was right.

    Well no more. Thanks, Trevor

    • I say go for it Dale. Cast your fate to the wind, as they say. Or “Fuck It,” as you and I say. Because you can never get your lost years back.

      Never.

      They’re gone forever.

      But you CAN turn the rest of your days into one amazing fucking adventure. So long as you’re willing to take a chance, put in the work, and stick with it through thick and thin. If it’s something you truly love doing, then success must follow. It may take time and sacrifice, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

      And number 10 did me in as well. I went back and reread my post after reading your comment Dale . . . it’s fucking scary just how relevant my words actually were. Considering where I’m at now, I can see I was clearly talking to myself. Convincing myself really. No wonder I dreamt about baking for a month straight after reading this. How could I not?

      I’m glad this post has inspired you. And I wish you the best of luck in whatever endeavors you pursue. I’m sure you’re gonna rock it!

      Cheers!

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  1. [...] heck do you suppose McDonalds became so successful? I mean, why would you spend a few hours baking delicious bread rolls and mincing some beef to make a perfect burger when you can get it in less than 5 minutes [...]

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