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Would You Eat Mushrooms With Caramel Sauce?

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Would You Eat Mushrooms With Caramel Sauce?

The other day I met up with a colleague for breakfast at a seaside cafe. I ordered scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, which was tasty. My colleague’s food arrived a bit later – she ordered pumpkin toast with braised kale, roasted mushrooms and a poached egg. I thought it looked amazing, and I even started to feel a slight regret about my own order. But it only took a few seconds for my colleague to reveal the truth. After just a few bites she put down her fork, saying, “This is not a good dish. It has the wrong combination of flavours.” I tried a small bit, and agreed – there was something quite unpleasant about it. Those roasted pieces of mushrooms were sitting on an overly sweet toast and were smothered in caramelised sauce. Not exactly gourmet food, according to the Australian (or European) taste.

Preparing simple, flavoursome food is not particularly difficult. Even those with very basic cooking skills can pick ingredients that enhance each other’s flavours and fix a dish that is enjoyable enough that you actually want to continue eating it after the first two bites. You may wonder why the chefs in that cafe have failed with such a simple task. Couldn’t they distinguish between savoury meals and desserts?

Nevertheless, we tend to make the same mistake over and over again, in the context of our work. We choose the wrong ingredients for what we’re trying to cook up – only this time we are not talking about eggs and mushrooms, but the ingredients of effective work such as the physical environment and the tools and technologies we use.

Imagine you’re trying to come up with a new innovative solution to your client’s problem. In order to stumble upon a good idea, you need to be able to empathise with your client’s problem, think outside the box and not worry too much about the nitty-gritty details of implementation – at least initially. Therefore, you’re most likely to succeed when you place yourself in an environment and use tools and technologies that stimulate expansive, creative thinking.

Many people have their best ideas in nature, in cafes and bars, libraries and art exhibitions, or other places that stimulate the senses and the mind. Others are at their creative peak in mundane situations like sitting on the train or walking in the street, watching the world go by while allowing their minds to wander. When a good idea pops into their heads, they may pull out a notepad or a napkin to jot down their thoughts. You might have your own unique ways of getting your creative juices flowing. But one thing is certain: I’m yet to meet a person who finds that they are most creative while sitting at their office desk, in front of a screen.

The essence of analytical work.

Now imagine this other scenario, where you need to write up a technical report, packed with numbers and charts, for a tight deadline. Marveling at the clouds or hanging out in buzzing cafes probably won’t help this time; it’s more likely that you will feel distracted in these kinds of places. What you need is an environment that helps you focus, and where you have all the tools available for getting the details of that report right. That place doesn’t need to look cool and inspiring and it may not even need to be wonderfully comfortable. It just needs to allow you to concentrate on the task ahead of you. An old-fashioned work desk in a quiet, low-key office space might do the job. Really.

I believe this is common sense. But sometimes it’s just too easy to sit down in front of a computer screen when we need to do creative work. And sometimes it’s too tempting to choose funky places for any sort of work, including complex analytical tasks. (Perhaps this is how I got invited to a training session about Australian accounting laws that was held in a room which had mood lighting and which was furnished with black beanbags and coffee tables. I honestly can’t remember much of what was discussed there about administrative legislation.)

Enjoy what you create.

If you’re not one of those people with weird taste who eats schnitzel with jam, you wouldn’t settle for sprinkling sugar over your savoury breakfast just because the salt dispenser was too hard to reach, would you?

The good news is that it really doesn’t matter what your taste is like. All that matters, is that you enjoy what you create – whether it’s about food or about work. So, when it comes to choosing ingredients for getting things done, I encourage you to take a moment and think:

  • What kind of outcome am I trying to achieve?
  • How much focus, critical thinking, inspiration and creative thinking do I need to employ?
  • And what spaces, tools and technologies have the right flavours for helping me get into my flow, to do what I do with ease and excellence?
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