Just Do It: Living Without Fear

My husband and I usually sit down to an easy sitcom at the end of the day while we eat dinner, to unwind from the day and get in a little laugh before we have to do the not-so-fun things, like washing the dishes or cleaning the bathrooms. Lately, though, we’ve been on a Food Network kick.

We watched a season of The Next Food Network Star, which was fun. We laughed about Russell’s culinary sin revolution and Rodney’s incoherent babblings about pies, and salivated over Bobby Flay’s Ancho and Honey Glazed Salmon with Black Bean Sauce and Jalapeño Crema. Once it was finished, Netflix asked us if we wanted to watch Season 3 of Worst Cooks in America.

Why, yes. Yes, we did.

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If you’re not familiar with the show, here’s how it works: two chefs (this season, Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay) recruit some of the absolute worst cooks they could find and, after assessing their baseline skills, divide them into teams. The teams compete in various challenges during several intense weeks of culinary boot camp, and at the end of each week one person from each team is sent home. The last person remaining on each team cooks a three-course, restaurant quality meal for a panel of culinary rockstars, and whomever wins that challenge gets $25,000 and a full set of Food Network kitchen equipment.

The first few episodes are filled with jaw-dropping shenanigans. I found myself shouting at the television in frustration:

“What do you mean, you’ve never touched raw meat before? What a baby, I can’t believe she’s crying.”

“You can’t tell the difference between onion and fennel? Do you not have a nose?”

“How are these people alive? Seriously, how have they been feeding themselves?”

“ARE YOU REALLY GARNISHING WITH SAFFRON DO YOU KNOW HOW EXPENSIVE THAT IS OH MY GOSH.”

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As the series progresses, though, the cooks who were sent to audition for the show for things like vanilla fried chicken and cajun curry catfish start producing more elevated products. In less than three months, they are able to create food that would be at home in a fine dining restaurant. They are. . .well, they’re much better cooks than I am, at that point.

Last night, we started on a new season of the show, so we were back to the episodes filled with people who had no clue what they were doing. And I noticed something. Almost every single contestant was sabotaging themselves before they even knew what the challenge was. Before the clock had even begun to count down.

“This is too hard.”

“I can’t do this.”

“I’m stupid in the kitchen, there’s no way I’ll be able to. . .”

You know what I noticed? The people who keep perpetuating this attitude for more than one episode, the people who chose to react to the challenge by flipping out and just standing there hyperventilating instead of at least TRYING to get things done–they are the ones who get sent home. And it’s not because the challenge really was too hard. It’s not because they really couldn’t do it. It’s not because they really were stupid.

It’s called living in fear. I know a little bit about this, because it’s how I lived until about five years ago.

I have always been a good student. Most subjects came to me naturally, especially the humanities. Languages, history, theater, music–these are the things I excelled in without even having to try. Science and mathematics, on the other hand, were harder for me to grasp. If I ever received a B, it was in one of those classes.

Instead of just admitting that I needed to work a little bit more, though, I took the easy way out. I found that I liked chemistry all right and I understood it, so I ended up taking it two and a half years in high school.

When I came to college, I took chemistry again, along with introductory biology. I sat in the back of the classroom and usually didn’t pay attention. Like, really didn’t pay attention. A shameful amount of not-giving-a-crap. I made an A in both classes.

I had to take one math class, so I signed up for precalculus with trig–the same class I’d just taken in high school–because I knew I could make an A. I showed up to class regularly only so I wouldn’t miss a test or a quiz and propped myself up in the back corner, usually reading or doing homework for another class. Again, I made an A.

Not once did I stop to consider that maybe I wasn’t bad at math and science, they just were a little harder for me to connect with and I preferred other subjects. I just fell into to culturally acceptable narrative–“Math sucks!”–and never looked back.

I really regret that now. I wish I had pushed myself when I had the chance, when that full ride scholarship afforded me the opportunity. I wish I had taken physics and geology, both of which sound interesting and exciting now. I wish I had pushed myself into taking Calculus. I wish I had considered minoring in a hard science.

But I was too afraid. I was the girl who enjoyed writing and learning about history, the girl who actually liked conjugating verbs in Spanish. I didn’t think I could be anything more than that. I sold myself short, out of fear.

There were actually a lot of things back then I was afraid of learning. Budgeting. Paying bills. Driving a stick shift. Finishing a book and publishing it. Ironically, cooking. None of it was fun, all of it was terrifying, so I chose to stick my head in the sand. At one point, I was convinced I’d never get any of it down.

Then I met the man who is now my husband. There was a lot of kicking and screaming along the way–literally and figuratively–and to be honest, I really wonder why in the world he stuck with me as long as he did. But slowly and surely, he coaxed me into learning all the things I feared, and then some.

Then, I had no idea how much money I had, or how to use it. I overdrew my checking account more than once, and usually over a stupid, low dollar transaction. I never wanted to talk about money, because the topic made me defensive. Now, I habitually save my receipts and help log them in our spending spreadsheet. I check our online banking statement at least once a day to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. Together, we have crafted a savings plan that we stick to. We have regular, level-headed family financial meetings that end with high-fives.

Then, I barely understood what a stick shift was. Each teaching session ended in tears, and most likely with him wondering what in the world he was going to do with this sloppy, emotional mess of a human being he’d decided to make his wife. Now, I drive a stick shift almost exclusively, and have since August 2014.

Then, I would look at all the books on my shelf and tell myself I was not capable of finishing anything of length or worth. Now, I’m well on my way to finishing my third novel for publication.

Then, the idea of touching raw meat made me want to die and I could only handle one dish at a time. Now, I cook all the time. Fancy things, even. Like this!

Right: Crust and cream cheese filling per Julia Child’s recipe, toppings my own. Fruit is nice, but chocolate and toffee are better. 🙂
Center: Steaks with Smoked Paprika Butter and Gnocchi with Primavera Vegetables. Christmas dinner, and also the first time I managed to cook a steak without completely murdering it.
Left: Salmon with bacon fig salsa and pan roasted herbed potatoes. The first time I’ve manned three saucepans at once without something burning. (If Chef Anne or Chef Bobby is reading this, I know I need to work on my knife cuts.)

Learning how to shed my fear, roll my sleeves up, and learn to do things, even–no, especially–if they were hard, has absolutely changed my life. I have never felt so confident, so capable, so in charge of my own life, as the moment when I realized I can learn how to do anything as long as I’m willing to work hard and listen to others with more experience.

Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay–and all the other chefs who have participated in Worst Cooks, past, present, and future–are doing much, much more than teaching their recruits how to cook. They are teaching them independence. They are helping them shed the shackles of willful ignorance. They are pushing them ever closer toward the borders of a fearless life. And for this, they deserve all the awards.

Do you have an unrealized dream, taunting you with its perceived impossibility? What is it? What do you want to do? What do you want to make? Stop thinking about it. Just do it. Just do it. Life is too short to stay safe and quiet on the sidelines.

I’ll let Joss Whedon take us on out.

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