Podcast #12: Challenges=Opportunity & Mentoring w Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese & Denzel Washington
It was October, 2013, and Danny Bowien had just received word that his Manhattan restaurant, Mission Chinese, had been shut down by the health department for an array of violations, including an infestation of mice. Overwhelmed, embarrassed, and worried about his employees, Bowien, a rock-star rising chef, didn’t know what to do. It was then that his phone rang. René Redzepi, the chef behind the world’s best restaurant, Copenhagen’s Noma, and Danny’s close friend, said, “Chef, are you ready? They’re coming for you. They smell blood. You’re hurt, you’re wounded and they’re going to come for you.”
But those weren’t Bowien’s only worries. At the same time, he was in the midst of opening the Lower East Side taqueria Mission Cantina. The health department issues distracted him, and he canceled a crucial research trip to Mexico. He opened Cantina before it was ready, and the reviews weren’t good. Even Redzepi sent him an email saying his tortillas needed an upgrade. After a stretch of being celebrated by peers and customers alike, the once-rising chef was faltering.
Redzepi coached Bowien through his challenges, telling him, “Everything’s going to be okay, but you’re going to need to handle this. You’re going to be fine, but you just need to focus.” This encouragement, combined with tough love from another close friend, chef David Chang, founder of Momofuku, spurred Bowien into action. Despite resolving his issues with the health department, Bowien shuttered the original Mission Chinese and set out to start over in a newer, better location.
Bowien came to terms with his adversity and the realization that it had been his own fault. “I got swept up in the whole thing,” he remembers. “Doing events everywhere, getting flown all over the world, not being in the restaurants enough. At the end of the day, my time is best spent in the restaurants. This is what got me here.” He retrenched, focused, went back to giving the kitchen the benefit of his considerable energy. He gave up alcohol, once his regular companion. The challenges that once could have destroyed him instead were compelling him to rebuild; a stronger, better Danny Bowien would make a stronger, better Mission Chinese.
After a year-plus of hard work, Bowien reopened Mission Chinese in 2014. The original restaurant had sported a beer keg on the floor and was thrown together and cramped. His new location was more civilized, maintaining the edgy, creative energy people expected from him, but through a more refined expression and ambience. The reinvented Mission Chinese is like an artist’s work later in his career—self-assured and polished. He’s now spending long hours in the kitchen when he’s not with his family, focused on his craft and his fatherhood, not his fame. Danny had become an experienced creative. And it shows in the results: the new Mission has snagged three stars from New York magazine, two stars from the New York Times, and is consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants in arguably the top restaurant city in the world. Just as important, the reborn Mission Chinese is flourishing, with more business than it can handle.
Danny Bowien transformed his challenge into an opportunity.
There are different types of challenges—the ones you choose and the ones that choose you. The key is to embrace them both with the same fervor and positivity. Most of us have similar reactions as those experienced by Danny Bowien when we encounter a challenge we perceive to be negative: panic, anxiety, fear. Thoughts of bad outcomes—worst-case scenarios—become overwhelming and paralyze us. Robert Downey Jr. explained it best when he said, “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want to happen.”
But you can shift your perspective and realize that the word possibilities inherently means multiple outcomes are in play, both good and bad. Remind yourself that challenges are just as likely to become opportunities or gifts. Whether they’re one or the other is greatly determined by your perspective and approach. If you zig when everyone else zags, remaining positive and proactive while others panic, challenges quickly transform into opportunities to rise. A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when a person or organization unknowingly causes a negative prediction to come true because they expect it to. By making self-fulfilling prophecies positive, you use the power of affirmative thought as a tool to continuously positively impact your reality.
Understanding Your Biases
People only see what they are prepared to see.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Navigation systems such as Google Maps and Waze have changed our lives. No matter where you are in the world, if you have cell phone service, you can figure out how to get where you’re going and avoid obstacles on the way. While the reliability and accuracy of these services increases daily through machine-learning and mapping, so too does a condition known as navigation delusion, which occurs when an individual chooses to use their navigation, starts driving, and then willingly does the exact opposite of what the system recommends. I regularly watch in dismay as many of my most-respected friends, family, and business associates openly disagree with their navigation systems. For some reason, they believe their directional knowledge and instincts are superior to a machine designed specifically for that purpose. This isn’t one of those situations where human ingenuity surpasses the ability of the computer, and as expected, the results are the same 99.9 percent of the time: traffic gets worse, they arrive late, and they end up saying, “Why didn’t I just listen to the navigation?” And what happens next time? They do the same thing all over again.
This is a perfect example of biased decision-making preventing flawless execution. We’re constantly rationalizing, convincing ourselves to do things that aren’t in our best interests. It’s a flaw in our operating system, an impactful, unconscious form of self-sabotage. I get irritated when someone chooses to disagree with the navigation not because of the delayed arrival but because they knew the path with the highest likelihood of success, of flawless execution, and still chose a different road because of their bias.
Biases are defined as natural inclinations or prejudices for or against people and things. We all have them, and they affect all the decisions we make.
For example, you’re interviewing two candidates to join your team. One of them is less qualified but more personable. The other is more qualified but less personable. You consider both candidates, and despite knowing the more qualified one will do a better job, you choose the more personable one. In this case, your biases led you to make a worse decision. It’s well documented that most people hire the person who’s more personable over the one who’s more qualified. And that’s exactly the reason you need to understand your biases. Most people don’t, and it leads them to make bad decisions, decisions that don’t unlock their potential. But if you understand your biases, you’ll be one step closer to making decisions that enable flawless execution.
Let’s say in the beginning of your career you started a business that failed. That failure led to financial struggles and some real emotional trauma. A couple of years later, after you’ve recovered, you’re offered another entrepreneurial opportunity. You’re super-excited, get the investment together, and decide to move forward. Then, as you’re reviewing the contracts, fear sets in. You begin to panic, thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Now you don’t know if what you’re doing is correct. The deal is good, you want to move forward, but you’re afraid. Is that fear real? Yes. Is it healthy? Yes. Should you base your decision on it? No. As author and tech-marketing expert Seth Godin says, “Being aware of your fear is smart. Overcoming it is the mark of a successful person.” That fear is a bias in your head; it was born of your previous trauma, and you need to recognize that while it’s an evolutionary trait—there to protect you—functionally, it has no relevance to your likelihood of success in this situation. You must make decisions based on the facts, not your personal biases.
Patterns and Handicapping
While there’s no perfect way to recognize your biases, the best way to start is by analyzing the patterns in your life or business. Look at your business history—if, for example, you notice that during the last two economic downturns, your business struggled more than your competitive set, that could mean you’re biased toward taking on too much risk, or potentially that you’re making decisions driven more by ego than good business sense. Clearly not flawless execution. If you continue making those types of choices, the odds are you’ll end up negatively impacting yourself both personally and professionally. If you recognize and change this pattern, you’ll almost certainly improve your results. Recognizing patterns will improve your likelihood of success.
A couple of years ago I joined a football pool with some of my closest friends. While I knew much less than them about football, I joined for the camaraderie. That feeling lasted until I heard the buy-in for the pool was $2,500 per team. The site we were using to manage the league had an advertisement for a guy named Dr.Bob, who claimed to win 51 percent of the time. I looked at the league history and realized no one had ever cracked 45 percent. So I decided I’d buy his picks for the season and use them as my own. I had limited football knowledge, which meant I had no real personal bias for or against his selections. That gave me a real advantage over my highly biased friends, the “experts.” And it paid off. Following his picks instead of my own led me to share the winning pot three seasons in a row.
I promise you, non-biased decision-making pays off in the long term.
We all have these types of patterns in our lives—repeated actions that hold us back from achieving the results we desire. Most often they’re the result of experiences we (or our organization) went through at an early age and formed our outlook, opinions, and habits. While these factors made us who we are, the goal is to accentuate positive habits and diminish negative ones. Basically, you need to handicap yourself. For our purposes, that means understanding your own level of skill and then diminishing any negative attributes or biases by recognizing them and maintaining vigilant self-awareness to help you succeed.
Think of yourself as Michael Jordan in the second half of his career. As a young player, Michael’s physical attributes—specifically, his ability to jump and his quickness—made him nearly impossible to guard. Michael could get to the rim whenever he liked. Later in his career, his physical dominance diminished; therefore, he had to rely more on his jump shot, defensive skills, and knowledge of the game.
While his competitive fire never waned, he needed to handicap himself by accepting brutal facts and adjusting his game. The how behind his flawless execution evolved. I’m sure Michael recognized a pattern at some point; maybe he was being stopped more going to the basket or his body couldn’t handle the physical impact any longer. Whatever it was, he needed to find another way to execute. He did, and that’s one of the many reasons he’s the greatest of all time, not just another good player.
Creator’s Formula: Flawless Execution
The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.
Viktor Frankl was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, in 1905. From an early age, he was fascinated with psychology, which led him to study psychiatry and neurology alongside famed psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. His studies were centered on suicide and depression. In 1928, he organized a program to counsel high school students, and in 1931, for the first time in years, no high school student committed suicide in Vienna. This accomplishment got him an invitation to Berlin, where he oversaw the suicide-wing of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital, treating thousands of patients with suicidal tendencies. In 1938, he was prohibited from treating “Aryan” patients due to his Jewish heritage, so he started overseeing neurology at the Rothschild Hospital, the only facility to which
Jews were still admitted.
In 1942, Frankl, his parents, his wife, and his brother were arrested and sent to the Thereisienstadt concentration camp. During the next three years, Frankl experienced four concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He continued to practice psychiatry in the camps, making efforts to address the hopelessness of his fellow inmates. In 1945, Frankl was liberated and returned to Vienna, where he was informed that his entire family had been lost except his sister.
Despite his grief, he returned to his work, using his experiences and observations from the camps to develop a new approach to psychological healing. Frankl named his method logotherapy, founded on the belief that, “It is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.” He documented his insights in a book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which went on to sell millions of copies around the world.
Central to Frankl’s theories was this concept: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This first-principle truth lies at the essence of what it takes to unlock your creative potential in the world today.
Let me attempt to simplify:
Your life is a series of situations, good and bad.
You aren’t defined by these situations; you’re defined by how you respond to these situations.
A life, a career, a relationship is the compounded result of your responses over a period of time.
Think of it as a scorecard, with little boxes monitoring your responses: good, okay, and bad. Your goal is to maximize the positive responses and minimize the negative ones. As Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In your response you have the ability to define yourself, to allow your best self to shine through. The best tool to enable yourself to do that is dispassionate evaluation—to take that moment between stimulus and response to step back, analyze the situation without emotion, and to flawlessly execute without letting negative emotional biases affect your judgment.
In all scenarios, both personal and business, the party that controls its emotions and biases rises.
The idea of dispassionate evaluation may sound counterintuitive, since this book is about valuing emotion as a tool to help you connect with your purpose and share that purpose with others, but it’s important to understand that emotion can impair our ability to flawlessly execute. Dispassionate evaluation requires that you look at the situation objectively, eliminating feelings related to your biases, so that you can clearly assess the practical positive and negative impacts of that decision.
For example, let’s say you have an opportunity to make a movie you’ve been working hard on for two years. There’s a deal with a big studio to make the movie, and it will involve that studio giving you lots of feedback and guidance on the artistic direction of the film. You immediately react negatively to the idea that they’re going to have a strong say in how your movie is made. You fear your voice is going to be lost in the process, and you are angry and frustrated. But…this is your best chance to get the movie made, it will lead to incredible career growth, and it will further your opportunities in the filmmaking field. At this point you need to take a step back, breathe deeply, and make a dispassionate evaluation.
Is the executive in charge known for being difficult and intrusive, or patient and helpful? Are there other studios likely to step up as well, or is this your only option? Do you have an advocate at the studio with enough clout to help you protect the project? If the film ends up being poorly received, will it prevent you from getting more movies made, or will the credit outweigh any negativity around the film?
While you may have concerns that can push this decision in one direction or another, the bias here lies with your ego and desire for control. If you put aside your fear and other emotions, you will be able to assess the opportunity realistically. It may become clear that moving forward, whatever the challenges, is worth the risk. In this simplified scenario, your potential career growth outweighs your short-term loss of control. But if you allow the negative emotions to drive the process and make a passionate evaluation, you’ll likely end up making the wrong decision—or even if it’s the right decision, you’ll be less prepared to manage the difficulties when they do arise.
Let’s look at one more example. You work in sales. For over a year you’ve been working on a deal that’s days from closing. You need the sale to happen to reach your quota and achieve your bonus. The client comes back and completely changes a key term. You are furious; after a year of working on this deal, how could your counter part even suggest something so egregious and insulting? So what do you do? Well, you could blow up the deal, tell your counterpart to f*ck off and go to hell. What would be the result of that? Complete negativity. The end of the deal, the end of the relationship, no commission for you, and a missed quota. Or you could take a deep breath, remove your emotions from the situation, perform a dispassionate evaluation, and calmly and strongly respond to your counterpart that the change isn’t reasonable, especially at such a late stage in your dealings. You ask what their concern is and look for a way to address it without conceding to something onerous or walking away
in anger. In this scenario, you’re leaving all options open for the deal, yourself, and your financial well-being. If they want the deal, it will happen in some form; if not, you gave it the best chance to happen and can walk away without regret (at least about your own actions).
Dispassionate evaluation is a four-step process:
Step One: Pause, take a deep breath, and think. I highly recommend meditation or yoga, but quiet contemplation works as well.
Step Two: Recognize which negative emotions and biases are present, then remove them from the decision-making process. Acknowledge them and set them to the side.
Step Three: Perform an analysis of the situation that focuses on how each potential decision will impact the desired long-term results for all key stakeholders.
Step Four: Move forward with positivity, generosity, and respect for all parties involved.
This simple four-step tool may be the most valuable part of this book. By performing this simple analysis, you can remove the most prevalent negative aspects of your personality and amplify your most positive traits. The result is a supercharging of your ability to reach goals thanks to the compound effects of good decision-making, the foundation of flawless execution.
Mentors, Coaches, and Trusted Advisors
Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someonewho had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.
You may have noticed a number of the life stories we’ve been discussing have featured mentors and advisors sharing wisdom, pointing the way. Rick Rubin’s role as a music producer certainly involved advising and coaching as he worked with artists to manifest their creativity. Danny Bowien, in his time of crisis, was helped by the insights of his friends and fellow chefs René Redzepi and David Chang. Michael Bonadies and Harry Bernstein mentored me. Harry had his own mentors. Even Michael Jordan, and another world-class athlete we’ll encounter soon, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, were aided by two of the greatest sports coaches in history: Phil Jackson and Bill Belichick, respectively.
And one of the great gifts a mentor, advisor, or coach can bestow on a person trying to make the most of their talents is enhanced self-awareness.
Being self-aware is having a conscious knowledge of one’s character, feelings, motives, and desires. While many of us fancy ourselves self-aware, the truth is that most of us are not. And no matter how many exercises, therapist appointments, and meditation sessions we partake in, we probably will never be as self-aware as we would like. This is because we are inexorably blinded by our ego and internal monologue.
We see only what we want to see.
The surest way to consistently and effectively neuter the destructive power of your ego is to have a mentor, coach, or community of trusted advisors who can provide you honest, non-biased feedback and guidance. These people are the real mirrors of your behavior, the ones giving you the truth that a standard mirror cannot. For example, how many times have you looked in the mirror and thought, I don’t look good, I look fat, my hair is not right. Newsflash—this has nothing to do with reality. It has everything to do with your internal monologue. When and if you quiz a good friend, life partner, or parent about your observation, inevitably they respond, “What are you talking about, you look great,” or “Change your pants, red is not your color.” The same applies to finding the right job or managing a conflict with your coworker or spouse. The point is a trusted advisor provides invaluable dialogue and grounded feedback that helps calm your inner monologue, enhances your understanding of the truth of who you are or how you are acting, and gives you the tools to manifest your best self.
To honestly see ourselves we must be able to look through the eyes of another and trust what they see. Flawless execution is simply not possible without this type of feedback. While many of us have experienced the benefits of a positive individual in our lives, more often than not it is by accident. You
ended up in a high school class with a teacher who cared a little more. Or you had an aunt who really took the time to nurture your love of music. Or you had a great boss who helped you grow as a manager. Without a doubt these types of relationships help you flourish, but I believe we need to flip the engagement of mentors from passive to active. The counsel, feedback, and support of the “right” person is so crucial to raising the level of your execution that leaving it to chance is unwise.
Your full potential will not be realized without the assistance of a series of mentors, coaches, and trusted advisors. You must actively pursue and nurture these relationships.
While approaching potential mentors may sound nerve-wracking, I promise you’ll be gratified by how people respond to your requests. First off, most people are flattered when someone asks for their counsel because inherently it means they have achieved a level of status. Secondly, whether they realize it or not, you are giving them the greatest gift imaginable. There is no better path to fulfillment than being able to help another. So if they respond positively, the mentor will probably end up getting more out of the relationship than the mentee, and if they respond negatively, they are probably not at the level of consciousness you want in a mentor.
There is no harm in asking and I guarantee more often than not you will be happy with the response.
The realization of your best self and your best work will involve dozens of people. Of those individuals that nurture your talents, provide opportunities, or just give you sage advice, there will be a handful that unselfishly invest their time and energy in you. Find these people and hold on to them with all your might. They will be invaluable to your process—and more importantly, to your life. The right mentor will help you do what you can, be who you are, and open you to the endless possibilities that lie within. And if you’re lucky, one day you will be able to do the same for another.
Grasping and implementing these tools will lead you to understand yourself at a deeper level and bring you closer to the flawless execution of your ideas. This is a vital step in unlocking your capabilities;
when you choose the right opportunities, they bring you closer to your ultimate goal. Combine this with the compounding nature of decisions, both good and bad, and the impact of your decisions are amplified considerably. Self-sustaining positive-energy loops naturally exist in the world, and these tools allow you to ride them like a surfer on a wave.