As fate would have it, around the same time my family decided to start a week of Italian cooking two days ago, kicking it off with a remake of one our favorite Marcella Hazan recipes and vowing to go through more of her cookbooks, the legendary author had passed away in her Longboat Key, Florida home. I was unaware of this at the time, and it was brought to my attention by one of you in the comment thread, which I appreciate very much. It seems fitting, and beautiful, that while she was departing this world, her life work was being enjoyed thousands of miles away. That’s the kind of legacy we all should desire.
There is a nice obituary of Hazan in The Los Angeles Times. There is also this touching story in The New Yorker called Marcella Hazan Changed My Life that I encourage you to read.
I thought it might be useful to focus on some of the lessons we can learn from this remarkable woman’s life, especially after I shared with you the fresh pasta with butter and sage sauce I made from her cookbook today for lunch. She long ago made it into my file system under the “Hall of Paragon” case studies I keep, focusing on the things I want to emulate. For a moment, I’ll let you take a peak into my notes to explain why I find her story so compelling. It should come as no surprise the affection I feel toward her, despite having never met her in person given her legendary cookbook remains one of the few things I tell you to buy, without reservation, every chance I get. My standards can sometimes be exacting and Hazan exceeds them every single time. Also, many of these lessons were learned elsewhere, and have been expanded upon in my other writings, but reinforced by Hazan’s model.
1. Don’t Let Your Job Title Determine Your Career
Marcella Hazan had doctorate degrees in biology and natural sciences. She was a scientist. She was a rationalist. And yet, her greatest mark on the world had nothing to do with her original career. It was her passion for good food, and sharing it with others, that inadvertently changed the way Americans ate. In the process, she helped create countless memories at dinner tables across the world. The word “amateur” should not be derogatory. Some of the greatest discoveries in medicine, astronomy, engineering, biology, and other disciplines came from amateurs. Some of the greatest symphonies were written by amateurs. Throw yourself into something you find interesting.
2. Opportunity Is Often The Result of Staying Busy and Doing Your Best Work Even When No One Is Looking
Marcella Hazan was discovered and given a platform by the famous New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne. That never would have happened had Hazan not wanted to do something productive with her spare time and began teaching a cooking class. One of her students raved about her to Claiborn, a man that Hazan didn’t know from Adam. The rest, as they say, is history. The lesson is clear: Talent without effort won’t get you anywhere. You have to put yourself out there. It’s La molesse est douce, et sa suite est cruelle; the “we who thought and acted” concept, and all that. You must do something. And if you’re going to bother to do it, be excellent. Otherwise, why waste your time? You only have 27,375 days to live, anyway, if you’re lucky.
3. You Have To Sell Something
I’ve said it to many times to count, but people don’t seem to understand on an intrinsic level that nothing happens until something is sold. Hazan took the time to write the more than half dozen books she had under her name and she sold them. She took the time to organize cooking classes and she sold them. Short of gifts, buried treasure, and legal judgments, cash, goods, or services only change hands when something is sold. Even if you work for a regular job, you are selling your time and skills. Almost all economic activity involves sales of some sort. If you think it’s a dirty word, or concept, you’re going to have an unnecessarily difficult time in life. Often, this is caused by insecurity or social anxiety. Get over it because the rewards are worth the discomfort. Or don’t and be content with the scraps you have.
4. Invest Your Time In Something You Love
When you invest your time in something you love, not only are you going to enjoy it more, you’re going to find it easier to outcompete others because, to you, it isn’t work. When they want to go home, or focus on something else, you’re still obsessed. Passion can often overcome differences in raw talent. And if it can’t, you’re still having a blast so there’s nothing lost.
5. Simplicity Is Beautiful and Elegant
Keep it simple. Great things happen when you take a fundamental concept and execute it flawlessly. This is true in cooking, where Hazan often used recipes with only a handful of ingredients that would turn out a final product on par in excellence with the most difficult haute French cuisine. This is true in business, it’s true in relationships, it’s true in investment management, it’s true in nearly every aspect of life. Part of the reason comes from a mental model in engineering – breakpoints. The more moving parts or ingredients something has, the more opportunity for a single one to fail, increasing the probability of overall complications on a system level.
6. Make Converts of Your Followers So They Pass on the Message
One person alone may serve as the tangible representation for a school of thought or an idea, but it takes a lot of other people to disseminate and implement it. To put it more directly: Never forget that it wasn’t Jesus Christ who converted the world to Christianity, it was countless nuns, priests, friars, missionaries, cardinals, and others in the Catholic church over the first thousand-and-a-half years.
7. Create a New Market
The biggest rewards, the most accolades, and the largest recognition often go to the handful of people who bring a new idea to a culture. When Marcella Hazan taught Americans to cook Italian, the idea of Italian food was a joke. It was SpaghettiO’s and Chef Boyardee. As has been said, it consisted of cheap plastic, checkered table cloths, and some sort of pasta drowning in a red sauce. That was it. When Howard Schultz brought the espresso and cappuccino model to the United States, coffee had been in decline for generations. It was thought of as an “old person’s drink”.
It doesn’t have to be this way – you can also achieve all these things by taking existing ideas and executing them better than everyone else (e.g., Sam Walton) – but it’s a powerful model if you can get an insight before others.
8. Pragmatism Over Purity Except Where Morals Are Concerned
A near instant solution compared to a long, complex process for barely more utility? Go with the former. Focus on what matters. It’s closely tied to the mental model of Pereto’s Law of Distribution, the so-called 80/20 rule. For Hazan, that meant,”Difficult pasta shapes? Buy boxed. Focus on the sauce.”
9. Be Clear and Precise
Clarity in your communications and precision in your measurements can avoid a lot of life’s troubles before they happen.
10. Be Yourself
Marcella Hazan was famous for her love of Jack Daniels, while others were sipping on expensive red and white wines. Stop trying to please everyone else. If they only like you because you conform to their expectations, they’re not the types of folks you should want in your life in the first place. It may get you odd sideways looks, but if it truly makes you happy, order your steak well-done and put ketchup on it. Give up the lucrative career you hate for something that makes your heart sing. Turn down the “smart” marriage proposal and go after the person that you want to sit next to for the rest of your life. Nobody else in the world can be you as well as you can be yourself. Only you can determine the acceptable point of intersection on the trade-off axis of your personal opportunity cost. You have to own it, otherwise you’ll waste it and it’s game over before you ever started.