Over the last decade, I’ve watched hundreds of cooking shows. It’s a matter of time before Martha Stewart demands UN sanctions for my stockpile of useless culinary knowledge. In reality, my own cooking is a malignant medley of boiled ravioli, lopsided omelets, and fresh veggies dying of embarrassment. So why do I torture myself with shows about food I can’t touch, taste, or feel guilty about? The answer will surprise you … and possibly change your life.
The proliferation of cooking shows, blogs, celebrity chefs, and their inevitable diabetes drug endorsements proves that everything is better wrapped in bacon. But cooking also taps into something more primal: it’s one of the last jobs that still does what most of us don’t — make things. In this sterile, white-collar world, where meat comes from ShopRite and homes are built by “guest workers,” cooking is the last physical job we can relate to.
In fact, we’ve become voyeurs to the exertion our lives no longer demand. Every popular series about jobs has some physical component — Deadliest Catch, Project Runway, American Chopper, Dirty Jobs. Not surprisingly, no one fetishizes typing, even if it’s done loudly and with gusto. Digital desk jobs feel empty because they are empty. They deprive us of the very things that make us human: our five senses and the satisfaction of tangible output. It doesn’t have to be that way. Quietly, our bodies have been plotting a revolution. Winning it will take heart, guts and possibly, bacon.
The job of cooking is a sensory Disneyworld. You dice colorful greens, experience warm gusts of goodness, and perform skillet symphonies. If all goes well, you’ll devour physical creations that leave lasting memories. At the end, every sense craves a cigarette and a nap.
My years at American Express felt nothing like cooking. Nudging lifeless rectangles in PowerPoint hardly felt like the plot of Bourne Identity. Sure, occasional meetings or wacky ties gave my eyesight a puny, cosmetic workout. But what about hearing? There was rarely any music and my boss was not Pavarotti. How about taste? I couldn’t lick anything at the office without ending up in HR filling out forms. And I can’t recall caressing anything more exciting than my Thinkpad.
When I went home, the world looked exactly the same. No stacks of cakes. No boxes of Xboxes. I found myself secretly envying mothers I worked with. We did similar work, but they got to produce the ultimate physical product — a new life. I had to continue roaming the digital jungle, wondering if my great-grandkids will need a body at all — or just a giant head and an iPhone finger.
I was not alone. One study found that office workers are fat, mental, and bored. Then, they self-medicate with booze and coffee. Do the math — we sleep eight hours and spend the rest sitting at work, in cars, on couches and toilets. Shouldn’t more nimble beasts be sautéing creatures this stagnant?
Our furry ancestors could taste if a plant was poisonous, hear the rustling of hyenas, and sniff out their next mate. Today, our senses are mostly recreational, but brimming with potential. Scents can make us happier, smarter, and less schizophrenic. Touch could make us better students and athletes. And music might help us learn Mandarin in time to serve our Chinese overlords.
Happy Makers, Sensors, and Helpers
When the National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago asked which jobs made people happiest, most of the top-10 occupations involved creating a product, engaging the senses, or helping others. Only two involved fondling a MacBook. Even disgruntled teachers wouldn’t trade their apple a day for your 401(k).
When job site CareerBliss compiled its survey of the most hated jobs, the list was dominated by well-paid techies, managers, and marketers who don’t impact the world in a physical way. Let’s hope Mark Zuckerberg is safe at home when Facebook’s programmers go postal.
Dawn of the Doer
If you’re suddenly aching to churn butter or build a teepee, good. It’s easy to surrender to the pretty lights on an iPhone. It’s easy to accept other people’s flawless creations. The harder path lies in understanding how that flawlessness was achieved. How did our steak or iPad get here? If electricity vanished tomorrow, are we back to foraging berries in loincloths?
We have a choice. We can use our amazing evolutionary gifts to create things we can touch, hear, and smell. Make it a chocolate cake, ice sculpture, or model car. But by all means, MAKE IT!
While you’re at it, teach your kids to make things. There’s no shortage of amazing projects and crafts. Give them Legos, pizza dough, or piles of lumber. Then watch their creativity blossom. You might want to be in the room when Little Sally revs up the circular saw.
Next time something breaks, fix it yourself. Take apart your old clothes or gadgets to make something new. Take a day to kill your own meat. You’ll either cherish what’s on your plate – or become a raging vegan. A publishing executive I know liked it so much he became a butcher. The confidence of knowing you can do real things will permeate every aspect of your life.
If you liked this, you’ll love The Economics of Happiness
I can’t guarantee your hobby will become the next Caterpillar or Cartier, but you might make the best damn pantsuit the world has ever known. Start while still at your office job. Not only will your passion make PowerPoint less pointless, but you might end up with a thriving business. The distance between idea and physical product is vanishing. Companies like Quirky and Ponoko could turn your fish trampoline sketch into the next Transformers.
Like the Yellow Brick Road, the path of the doer is lined with temptation, easy answers, and cowardly lions. At the end lies the wizardry of building things that engage our senses and the satisfaction of turning our passions into livelihoods…or formidable stocking-stuffers.
Naturally, you can start with food. It’s the most engaging raw material we have. The first bite will instantly reveal what our touchscreens have can.
(The original version of this post on HBR: Happiness Will Not Be Downloaded – Steve Faktor – Harvard Business Review.)