Thursday, July 24, 2008

Good Enough Opportunities

A few weeks ago I watched an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and the show had me in fits. For the uninitiated, Ramsay is a famous chef and TV personality with restaurants all over the world, who swoops into troubled eateries and saves them from financial and culinary ruin. Ramsay’s style runs somewhere between foul-mouthed drill sergeant and exasperated life coach. With a little cleaning, some blunt advice, and a whole lot of free publicity, Ramsay usually manages to turn the restaurant around.

Not so with Piccolo Teatro, a tiny vegetarian restaurant in Paris, which was the subject of the episode that made me crazy. The restaurant was bleeding money, yet it appeared that no one was making any effort at all—not even with Chef Ramsay standing by and pointing out the problems. The cook was goofy and unprepared. The restaurant’s only waitress quit the second Ramsay criticized her. The owner, the worst offender of all, was lazy and had no authority. At times, it seemed as though she cared about saving her restaurant, and then she’d do something like stay home all day (without informing anyone) because she said her cat was having kittens. Instead of making an effort, she was full of excuses.

Despite revamping the menu, hiring a young, talented new chef, starting a lunch service and making the restaurant profitable again, even Ramsay couldn’t save Piccolo Teatro. When he returned to Paris a few weeks later for a follow-up, he discovered that the owner had closed the restaurant.


It seems inconceivable that someone with so many great opportunities, with a road map to success spelled out explicitly, would just throw it all away. I can’t begin to speculate as to her reasons for giving up, but I do know that some people are so afraid of success or failure that they’ll sabotage every opportunity that comes their way, sometimes without even consciously knowing it. I truly believe that what separates successful people from the rest of the pack is not talent or money or connections—it’s hard work, perseverance, and most of all the ability to seize opportunities, no matter how small.

When I moved to New York City from a small town in Maine, I hardly knew anyone. I was 22 and timid, largely unfamiliar with city life, and had no connections. I had just enough money to last in New York but a few months. I knew my time was limited there. I also knew that if I went back home right away, my chances of having a career in the publishing business would be zip. Back home, I had been offered a great position in sales by someone who had seen me working at my summer job. The offer included a car and a great salary, and the security of being in familiar territory. All I had to do was say the word and the job was mine. The problem was, this opportunity didn’t coincide with my goal of working in publishing and becoming a writer. I was scared to be in New York, but the thought of giving up on my goals—without giving it a real try—was even scarier.

I made a promise to myself that whatever publishing opportunity came along I would take it, no matter what. It didn’t have to be a perfect opportunity, just a good enough opportunity. I didn’t have resources to wait for something perfect, which may or may not have materialized, anyway.

I found my first job through the New York Times’ classifieds. The position was for a file clerk in the accounting office of a small literary agency. It paid very little. I wasn’t sure I could handle the accounting they wanted me to do. It wasn’t a perfect opportunity (or so I thought at the time) but it was good enough. Jump in first, I told myself, and figure out the rest as it comes. I had nothing to lose.

I wasn’t there but five months when I co-worker told me about one of the agency’s clients—a company that packaged book series for teenagers. She told me they needed ghostwriters. That’s all I needed to hear. I asked around and got more information about the process. I made a phone call. I wasn’t really interested in writing books for teenagers, but I was interested in writing, period. Good enough.

Within a few weeks I had my first ghostwriting contract and was writing at night in addition to my day job. My income doubled and I was leading a comfortable existence in New York. Soon I was writing, building valuable contacts, learning everything I could about the publishing industry, and writing books along the way. Good enough opportunities turned out to be perfect opportunities. I ended up spending six productive and fun years in the city, and used all that I learned along the way to get my first adult novel published.

And as far as Kitchen Nightmares goes, the episode did end on bit of a bright note. Even though Piccolo Teatro closed, Gordon Ramsay saw tons of potential in the young chef he had hired for the restaurant, and offered her a new job in one of his own kitchens. I’m happy to say that she jumped at the opportunity.


Taryn Simpson said...

What a great blog...I stumbled upon your blog when one of my Google alerts went haywire at the mention of "Ghostwriter". I'm one of those ghosts and have been writing for Clients for a few years.

I'll definitely keep up with your blog. In the meantime, please check mine out. I'd love to hear your thoughts...Congrats on your new novel!

Taryn Simpson

Stephanie Doyon said...

Thanks, Taryn! Congratulations on all your accomplishments and success.

Patrick said...

That's a terrific story, Steph - I didn't know you'd walked away from a "golden opportunity" to follow your writing heart. It's really remarkable how writers have to reject that security to move forward, and I'm very glad you were strong enough to do so.