If at first you don't succeed, redefine success

Yesterday I typed the following phrase into google: “What should I get a PhD in?” You would think that the fact at I had resorted to consulting the Oracle of the Google to determine my next life phase would have given me pause. But no. (The answer was psychology by the way, an interesting possibility…hmmm…)

A few weeks back I attended my 10 year college reunion where I saw my multi-talented classmates who are all well-entrenched in their noble (and not so noble) careers. What I was struck by, though, wasn’t how accomplished everyone was. What surprised me, nay, knocked my socks off, was how many conversations were rooted in the same underlying belief: I don’t stack up. Somehow this collectively overachieving group is made up of a series of uncertain individuals. Let me show you.

“Nope, no kids. Still single.” *sheepishly averts eyes* (Pediatrician)
“This is “Joey.” He’s 4 and a half. I don’t see many other 4.5 year olds around here. I guess I got started early.” (P.s. The kid’s name is not really Joey - no one names their kids after Friends characters anymore…) (Registered Nurse Practitioner)
“I have 3 kids. I’m such an outlier. I mean, did you see the survey statistics. Like only 1% of our class has 3 or more kids.” (Neonatologist)
“I’m glad I moved a few months ago or else I would have had to come to reunion and tell people that I’ve lived in the same apartment since college!” (Financial manager)
“No, I have to stay put for at least 2 years for the sake of my resume. I’ve been jumping around too much.” (Facebook manager)
“I’m at Stanford hospital. Still bike through here every day; I guess not much has changed.” (Emergency medicine physician)
“I’ve had the same job since graduation. I guess I’m a one trick pony.” (Google Executive)

We were taught to climb. Excel in high school to get into a top college. Distinguish yourself in college to get a job that will get you to grad school. Do stand out work at your job so you’ll get quickly promoted, tapped for management. But we weren’t ever really taught to stop and consider the finish line. How would we measure success?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret I have discovered recently (with the help of a few glasses of wine and conversations with my fellow we-can-have-it-all-but-what-do-we-actually-want millenials). If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success. It’s true about life and it’s true about food. 

I’m not very good at making mistakes (see here and here for my progress). But I’ve recently discovered if you redefine your goal so your failure is actually a success of sorts, they are much easier to make.

Such was the case with the rice pilaf risotto I made a few weeks back. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the lucky ones, as I have a family of friends who live within a mile of me who I’ve known since pretty much forever (and who, incidentally, stole the Swedish fish with me in these days). We gather regularly for shared meals, usually championed (and cooked) by our matriarch of sorts, the one who’s able to wrangle three young boys, the biggest garden in all of Ballard, five chickens, a sewing room, and knit herself clothing on a regular basis. She’s also probably the best cook I know.

We all come from a rich food tradition of island potlucks, homemade jams, and garden pesto, so the stakes are pretty high (the last person who showed up to a meal with prepackaged contribution hasn’t been invited back…).

Looking for a way to contribute to the main course of roast harissa chickpeas and chicken (believe me, if she had a recipe I would share it with you) and spying some pistachios on my counter, the idea for a pistachio-apriot-rice pilaf appeared in my head. (Do recipes just appear in your head or is that a weird thing I do?) I’d never made rice pilaf before, and beyond a visual on the pre-packaged, pre-spiced box we used to get as a kid, I’m not even entirely sure I knew what it was. 

I glanced through a few recipes and then just dove in without much of a plan. Sauté some onion, toast the rice in olive oil, add chicken stock, salt and pepper, and cook. For all my love of cooking I have never, ever been able to master rice. My grandmother and mother both make perfect rice. I used to make boil-in-a-bag. I eventually graduated to a rice cooker, but stovetop rice seems to forever elude me. 

This time was no exception.

While doing double duty of catching up with a friend over a glass of Pinot Noir and trying to keep an eye on my ill-fated pilaf, I set the timer and crossed my fingers. When I finally lifted the lid at the ominous buzz, it was a soupy mess. And I was going to be late. I turned the heat up (bad idea) and left it uncovered so the water would evaporate faster (another bad idea). When I finally got enough liquid cooked out that it looked edible, I stirred in the apricots and pistachios and walked into what I feared might be the last time I was ever invited to contribute to a potluck. 

It looked nothing like a pilaf. But I discovered somewhere in the six blocks between my house and dinner that it looked an awful like risotto, and that’s what I would call it.

If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.

Rice pilaf with pistachios and apricots

Here’s a version of what I was trying to make. I can offer you no promises about how it might turn out…

1 cup brown basmati rice
1/2 onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
2 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

Heat olive oil in a pot. Sauté onion until it begins to brown. Add tumeric and uncooked rice and cook until it starts to turn translucent (about 3 minutes).

Pour chicken stock over rice and onions, add salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. 

Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until all liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender. Add the apricots and pistachios. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve immediately.

I usually don’t like it when people share quotes, as I mostly just gloss over them and assume that they come from some Inner Revelation the sharer has recently undergone which is not at all relevant to me. But these two are at least relevant to my recent revelation, and I think might perhaps hold interest for some of you… (And I put them at the end so you can just skip them if you are also not a fan of force-fed quotes).

“To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endue the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Make the Ordinary Come Alive

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself. 

-William Martin