• Matt Burrell

Successful People Create Their Own Ladder

In 1984, an inexperienced eighteen-year-old boy tried to enter the restaurant business. He had no relevant training or qualifications in catering but this didn't put him off.

After writing to the Top 30 restaurants in the UK, he managed to get an apprenticeship working for Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc in his Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons restaurant. He quit after one week.

Despite being offered a permanent job by Raymond, the teenager decided he didn't want to spend years working his way up the kitchen ladder. He was determined to open his own restaurant and start at the top of the kitchen.

For the next 10 years, the ambitious young man spent his days working as an office equipment salesman and a debt collector. But he spent his evenings teaching himself how to cook. He began to perfect classic cooking techniques that he'd learnt through reading books.

Through reading and experimenting with food, he discovered that traditional cookery texts often contradict each other. He found that the advice they give is frequently wrong and even though they told you how to do something, they rarely told you why you needed to do it.

He learnt to question everything.

By 1995, he and his wife had managed to scrape together enough money to buy an old, run-down pub in Berkshire, England. Finally, after a decade of hard work and self-learning, he owned his own restaurant. This restaurant would go on to be listed as one of the best restaurants in the world and become the fastest in the UK to earn three Michelin stars.

Today, the teenager who decided he didn't want to climb someone else's ladder or follow the conventional rules, is a multi-award winning, multi-millionaire. He's been awarded three honorary degrees as well as an OBE by the Queen. His name is Heston Blumenthal.

Since opening his first restaurant, Heston has opened five other kitchens, two of which have also earned Michelin stars. He's written multiple books and even academic papers on the science of cooking.

Climb Your Own Ladder

Last night, I watched a documentary about Heston and how he created The Fat Duck's world-famous menu. In the documentary, the original kitchen team were reunited to recreate the 1998 menu that won the restaurant its first Michelin star.

As I watched the documentary, it struck me that Heston was the perfect example of somebody that had rejected the employee mindset.

Heston's decision to leave Raymond Blanc's kitchen and begin a journey to open his own showed that he embodied the business mindset. He challenged the assumption that you need to start at the bottom of somebody else's ladder.

If you're dedicated to teaching yourself, experimenting with new ideas and taking calculated risks you can build your own ladder.

How To Build Your Own Ladder

Have a Beginner's Mind. Heston broke the mould by experimenting with cooking techniques and flavours without fear of getting it wrong. This process leads to creativity and new ideas. When you start to teach yourself something new you're at a huge advantage. If you're eager to learn, keep an open mind and have no preconceptions you will be able to see many possibilities. As a beginner you have energy and potential. You're free to play, learn and imagine. You want to listen. This isn't true for an expert. Their perception has been shaped by experience which is another way of saying it's been restricted. Their mind is no longer open because they assume they already know something. Experts look for confirmation of their beliefs. They want to tell you what they know not listen or play with new ideas. Experts cannot easily see new possibilities like a beginner can. Once you've learnt something play around with the knowledge. But more importantly always question it. Maintain the beginner's mind.

Work Hard But Work Smart. Entrepreneurs don't work 9-5 jobs. Their careers are seasonal, marked by short periods of intense grind, followed by longer periods of temporary 'retirement' where they enjoy the rewards. This is different to how employees see their careers. An employee's career path is long and lasts a lifetime of working their way up the ladder. As an employee, you leave school or University. You get a job working for someone else. You commute to someone else's office to play office politics and hope to get noticed by your boss. One day, if you've sucked up to the right people or simply because you've been at one place long enough, you might get to the top. But how many years did it take? 30? 40? The business mindset is about squashing your years of effort into a shorter period so that you have longer to enjoy the rewards. No successful person starts off working a 4-hour week. You must work hard and then find smarter ways of working. Eventually, you will discover that 20% of your work generates 80% of the results. But you don't know what that 20% is at first. To find out you need to learn to fail fast and learn from your failures.

Take Calculated Risks. When you decide you build your own ladder you give yourself permission to fail. Your beginner's mind gives you the energy to try new things and the insight to spot opportunities. The learning you acquire from failing fast actually increases your probability of success. You'll have the confidence to make small bets and you'll develop a gut instinct for the right decisions. Once you have this power you need to take action. If you sit around waiting for opportunities to occur you'll just be one of the crowd.

Fake It Before You Make It. Building your own ladder doesn't mean never working for someone else. Heston took on a day job to pay the bills and spent the evenings studying. For many people, working for someone else initially is the right path. For example, you might need to learn a trade from a specialist employer. Or you might need to build up experience in a particular industry. Working for someone else gives you the knowledge, network and capital to build your own ladder. The key is to do this without falling into the employee mindset trap. See each job as a step towards building your own ladder. Think of your company not as your employer but as your client or customer. See yourself as an independent one-person business where you provide skills and consultancy to your colleagues and managers. This is a subtle but powerful shift in your mindset. When you think of yourself as a business, not an employee, great things start to happen. You focus on creating value and a reputation in your industry. You begin planning and strategising your career. You learn how to market and promote yourself. You create side hustles - or make small bets. You create a vision for your career and discover your core values. The skills you learn as part of this process will increase your value as both an 'employee' and an entrepreneur.

Set Your Own Goals. You own your career - it's your ladder. An employee is set goals and targets by their manager. Someone with a business mindset sets their own goals. You don't need someone else's permission to start. The moment you set your first goal is the moment you take back control. You become accountable for your successes and failures. You create a plan, get your finances in order and start to identify your core values. You start to build your own ladder.


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