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You can find joy at the bottom of a steep learning curve

A Bun Cha lunch at a restaurant in Hanoi.
A Bun Cha lunch at a restaurant in Hanoi. via Flickr

To anyone who knows my household, it’s clear who the chef is. Not me. But I found myself inspired by someone who does know his way around a kitchen.

Anthony Bourdain is a longtime chef who has also had several television shows and, most recently, is known for having lunch with Barack Obama in Hanoi. They ate Bun Cha (a dish with noodles, coriander and pork — delicious) at a small place near the center of town. Last month I went by the restaurant, where they now offer the “Combo Obama” of Bun Cha and beer.

Bourdain is promoting a new cookbook, so he’s on the promotion circuit. During one of the interviews he gave recently, he talked about his career and how he started as a dishwasher, which is probably par for most chefs who learn the value of the work ethic.

Then he made a statement that hit me hard:

“I still like being at the bottom of a steep learning curve.”

Many people find joy in becoming very good at their jobs and careers. They like the comfort of staying within that field or position.

I get into an odd funk if I do the same thing too often or for too long. I experienced it a few days ago (just before I heard Bourdain’s comment) when I realized I was very unexcited about something I was working on. Then I went into a meeting, feeling as though I was just dragging, as though I was carrying extra weight.

During the meeting, a new project idea came up, and we discussed how it might work. It involves a problem I never considered, in an area that is completely new to me, an area that needs some good thinking around it. We didn’t quite get all details settled, so much of it still needs to be shaped. But when I left the meeting, I felt 20 pounds lighter.

What was the difference?

I was stepping into an area that I knew nothing about, where I would have a chance to learn something new. I found myself thrilled at the thought that I’m at the bottom of a steep learning curve.

I’m lucky in that I often can choose the learning curves I want to step into. Change in organizations is often thrust upon us, with no choice about learning fast.

But when the opportunity comes up, at least for me, I’ll take the steep curve over the humming comfort of a job I know (too) well.