how to learn from failure in recipe developing

This  milk tea baklawa  took so much trial and error (emphasis on the error) before I finally came up with a reliable recipe, but I learned a lot along the way.

This milk tea baklawa took so much trial and error (emphasis on the error) before I finally came up with a reliable recipe, but I learned a lot along the way.

My husband and I were recently visiting Bob and Laura, our good friends from grad school, and one day while chatting about new challenges and projects, Laura introduced me to my new favorite concept: growth mindset. Here’s the general idea: if you’re in a “fixed mindset,” you assume that everyone is good at a few particular things, and the key to life is discovering unlocking those innate talents. With a fixed mindset, finding your passion is reduced to figuring out what you’re good at and avoiding what you’re bad at.

But with a growth mindset, you recognize that becoming good at something requires practice and patience, and that you can become better at something you’re not so great at, if given the opportunity to do so (see the note at the very end of this post for more on what this doesn’t mean*). And more importantly, with a growth mindset, you recognize that failure is not only perfectly fine… it’s actually a good thing!

This resonated with me, because I’ve been trying to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset for the last few years, and am really proud of the progress I’ve made. When I first started recipe developing, I would internalize every kitchen disaster as a personal failing, and when a recipe didn’t go right, I was annoyed that I had wasted my time and ingredients on an idea that would never even make it to my blog.

It didn’t take very long to realize that this was not a productive or healthy way of thinking, and that failure is essential to creativity. So after the first couple months, I decided I was going to think of every failure as a learning opportunity, and understand it as part of my creative process. But declaring this and actually believing it are two very different things.

I’m obviously not perfect, but after a few years of working at it, I’ve finally shifted to thinking of things in terms of growth. I still feel disappointed when things don’t go well, but I’ve learned to be okay with that feeling, while actively taking steps to learn from the failed experiment.

There are a few concrete things I’ve done to get to this point, which I’m going to share below. But before I get to that, I just want to say that there are a lot of other wonderful essays on the subject of kitchen failure, which you should absolutely read. This piece by Maggie Shi is positively life-affirming, and this post by a Couple Cooks is a nice reminder that it happens to everyone. And as Ashley C. Ford says, “You are more than the worst thing you've ever done.”

Oh, and to my non-writer readers: while I wrote this one with recipe developers in mind, you’re totally welcome to stick around, because a lot of this stuff is pretty universally applicable to anyone doing any sort of learning or creating. Or feel free to check back on Thursday for a chocolate pomegranate pie (eek! so excited to share it!).

my super cute reflective journal 💁🏽‍♀️…

my super cute reflective journal 💁🏽‍♀️…

… on a stack of very practical recipe developing journals

… on a stack of very practical recipe developing journals

how to work toward a growth mindset while developing recipes

Intending to focus on your growth and learn from failure is a wonderful step, but in my experience, it took a few concrete actions to really train myself to learn from disasters (and to learn how to be kinder to myself!). These strategies might not be for everyone, but they work for me, and I hope you find something useful to take away:

 

1. balance comfort with challenge, so you can grow on your own terms

The main question here is “do I actually feel like focusing on growth today?” Spend a second deciding whether a recipe is going to be easy to develop, or whether it’s going to be a challenge, and then spend another second deciding whether you feel up for a challenge today. Does it feel like a good day to try something new? Or are you not really feeling it? There’s no right answer, and you know what you need better than anyone else.

Don’t let fear of failure stop you from trying something new, but also don’t push yourself into trying new things when you don’t feel like it. You’ll learn a lot more when you’re actually in the mood to.

Also try not to develop too many challenging recipes in a row, because (in my experience) this leads to burnout. Easy wins are good for confidence and productivity, and there will be periods when you just need to execute rather than grow. There will also be periods when you need to take a break rather than execute. Pay attention to what you need.

 

2. while writing the first draft, think critically and learn all you can

The work that leads to growth can happen before, during, and after kitchen testing time, but the stakes are lowest right before heading into the kitchen. It’s easier to view failure productively before there are ingredients and kitchen time involved, so these days I spend a lot more time on the first drafts of recipes, compared to when I first started.

I have a recipe developing journal, where I take notes while researching recipes, and write first drafts. Once I’ve jotted down a bare-bones first draft, I type it up and flesh it out, and then bring it to the kitchen to test, edit, and re-test, until I’m happy with it (you can read more about this process in my post about how to research and write original recipes). Then I ask myself these questions:

  • What will the major challenges be while testing this recipe in the kitchen? What skills will I need to focus on? Do I need to brush up on any of these techniques before heading to the kitchen? E.g., if I don’t have much experience weaving lattice tops, I would watch a couple videos to make sure that my recipe explains the process clearly and accurately.

  • What are some ways things might go wrong? What do I need to learn to prevent things from going wrong? E.g., if I’m developing a recipe for toum, I know the biggest potential pitfall is the emulsion breaking, so I’d research and write up a list of techniques for ensuring the emulsion doesn’t break, and I’d make sure these are incorporated into the recipe.

  • Does my recipe look like other ones out there? Once you have your own recipe written up, it’s a good idea to do a few side-by-side comparisons, to see if anything seems off. You shouldn’t necessarily doubt yourself if yours is different (do I want my recipe to look like the other ones out there?)—it’s just helpful to see what other people are writing, to decide if you want to tweak your own ratios or techniques. Don’t forget to cite others if you end up finding help or inspiration in someone else’s recipe.

  • Is this recipe ready to take to the kitchen? Don’t give into perfectionism—a recipe will never be 100% ready to test, but you have to decide if it’s as ready as it’s ever going to be.

Do I always get it right after all this effort with the first draft? Absolutely not! These days, now that I’ve gotten much better at this, the first draft tends to be about 90% of the way there—a couple small things are a little wonky in the initial kitchen test. Then I tweak the recipe, try again, and usually love the second attempt.

But even now that things are running smoothly, disasters still happen. If they didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be learning new things. So here’s what I do after things go wrong in the kitchen:

 

3. keep a reflective journal for kitchen disasters

I go through a lot of recipe developing notebooks, and they’re not particularly special. But I have a second totally separate journal, which I use to work through kitchen failures: my reflective journal! Part of its purpose is to jot down practical notes like “needs 1/2 teaspoon more baking powder,” or “try 30 minutes instead,” but it’s above all a place where I think about what I learned, and what I can take forward with me.

My recipe developing journals are super utilitarian and cost like $1 each, but my reflective journal is one of those cute Anthropologie ones. You don’t have to buy a fancy-schmancy journal for this, but if you happen to have a notebook that feels too special to start using (journaling people—if you know, you know), I highly recommend using it for this purpose, because you need to re-conceptualize failure as something that you look forward to thinking and writing about, instead of something that feels like a chore.

 

4. ask yourself these questions, and write down your answers:

It takes about 20 minutes total to answer these, and it’s worth every second. At first, journaling was the last thing I wanted to do after disaster, but it’s helped me so much. These are the things I generally focus on, but don’t feel like you have to answer every single question, and feel free to use them as a general prompt:

How do I feel?

  • Engage your compassion. Try not to judge yourself if you feel awful about the day—just acknowledge how you feel, and sit with it for a second. Treat yourself with the same understanding you’d extend to a friend.

  • Maybe these things roll off your back, and you’re cool as a cucumber—that’s ok too!

What did I enjoy about the time I spent working on this?

  • Engage your sensory memories. Did you enjoy the feeling of kneading bread dough? Did you enjoy the food smells? Did you enjoy the walk to the supermarket?

  • Amidst the failure, did something small go right? Instead of thinking of the day as a waste of time, this reframes things and helps you understand your time as having both good moments and bad ones, all of which are worthwhile.

What went badly, and what would I do differently next time to fix it?

  • Engage your curiosity and problem solving skills to troubleshoot. Identify problems, and propose solutions.

  • If you have no idea how to solve a particular problem, it’s totally ok to write that you have no idea.

Exactly what do I need to learn between now and the next try?

  • Time to come up with a plan! What steps do I need to take to learn these new things? Is this a problem that will be solved by doing research or practicing, or both?

  • If I feel lost and don’t even know where to start, who can I reach out to for advice and guidance?

  • Should I try again right away, or do I need some time to learn something between now and the next attempt?

  • Do I even want to try again? Sometimes it’s ok to just shelve an idea forever. You can always revisit it if you feel ready later or change your mind.

What did I learn from all this? What can I take with me into the future?

  • What are some detail-oriented things I learned, which will help me in future recipes beyond this one? (e.g., “always use a little less cardamom than you think”)

  • What are some big-picture things I learned, that I can take forward with me? (e.g., “I hate failing, but that’s ok!”)

 

5. talk openly about this stuff and support each other

Talk about this stuff with your friends, colleagues, other food bloggers, etc. A lot of people confront this kind of challenge in their daily work—my friend Laura who I mentioned above is a computer engineer, not a recipe writer. Even if someone doesn’t work on the same thing you do, we can all learn from each other, listen, and relate.

You might learn a new strategy for dealing productively with failure, or you might just find solace in talking about this stuff with other people who understand. Reach out to other recipe developers and work on building a community of people who learn from, challenge, and support each other.

 

* A quick (but important) note: This concept can potentially be misused to say “everyone is capable of success, so if you’re not succeeding, you’re not really trying hard enough.” It’s important to remember that no one’s journey has the same beginning, middle, or end. Also, not everyone’s goals are going to be the same, and not every goal in life has to be about work. This post is about defining success for yourself, trying to figure out what goals you want to set for yourself, and focusing most of your energy on the journey that gets you there… and most definitely not about judging or blaming either yourself or others for what they are or aren’t doing.

These  eggs poached in grits  took so much troubleshooting, I almost gave up on the recipe altogether… then one day while journaling, I finally figured out what to do differently!

These eggs poached in grits took so much troubleshooting, I almost gave up on the recipe altogether… then one day while journaling, I finally figured out what to do differently!