What can cleaning lettuce teach you about creativity?

Success/ Thinking

Being a dedicated reader of food books and cookbooks—where good advice about life and living can be found in abundance—I once ran across an Alice Waters quote about lettuce. Specifically, a quote wherein she addressed the oft-made claim busy people make that they eat poorly because they don’t have time to cook.

Alice wasn’t having a bit of it. She rose to cooking’s defense by describing the joy she finds in even the smallest kitchen tasks; specifically, she mentioned how relaxing and restorative she finds washing lettuce to be. I pictured Alice Waters in her presumably delightful Berkeley kitchen, swirling lettuce around in her sink after a long day of doing Alice Waters sorts of things, and thought, “What a load of bullshit.” I mean, I love me some Alice Waters, but please.

But comrades, I’ve come around. Today I’m here to tell you that I think you ought to take time out of your busy schedule to swirl some lettuce. For real.

Sieze the power in mindless and/or oft-repeated tasks

I’m a veteran of the restaurant business. From the dish pit to the bar, from the hot line to the dinning room, from part-time hostess to full-time chef, I’ve done it all. Before I left the food business altogether, I owned a restaurant with a full bar and a busy live music schedule, and a catering business with a storefront deli. Anyone who’s done their time in the restaurant business knows what it’s like to be in the weeds, and, more importantly, what it feels like to be in the zone.

For those of you who haven’t worked in the restaurant business, here’s the lowdown. You’re in the weeds when you’re busy as hell, you’re struggling to keep up, and you’re trying, desperately, to pull all the loose ends of a busy shift together and get ahead of the rush. On the other hand, when you’re in the zone, you’re just as busy, or maybe even busier. But, your timing is spot -on, you’re on autopilot, and you’re just ahead of everything that needs doing. You aren’t explicitly planning out your tasks anymore, or trying to catch up. You’re in a flow state. You’re KILLING IT, and you’re both mentally sharp and able to detach from your immediate tasks. You probably lose track of time. You’re likely surprised at how much work you got done, and how easy it seemed.

For me, being in the zone while working Friday dinner rush on the hot line, or a slammed shift behind the bar, meant that I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing anymore. That’s the whole point, in fact; I was using muscle memory and a intimate familiarity with every single task, memorized by way of constant repetition, to transcend what I was doing, and let my mind be somewhere else.

You might thing that the mindful work, the creativity, happened earlier – when I created the menu, when I decided what the specials would be, when I designed my kitchen, or when I dreamed up the idea of owning a restaurant in first place. But creativity doesn’t always need silence or focus. Sometimes it needs you to be right where the flow state will take you.

What are your zone state tasks?

To illustrate this for yourself, think about learning to drive. Try to remember what it was like to focus on your hands and your feet, remembering to check your mirrors and—if you’re like me, and you learned on a standard transmission—how to coordinate the clutch and the shifter. You had to consciously anticipate the actions of other drivers, remember to maintain a safe following distance, be mindful of the speed limit, and countless other tasks that you almost never notice doing anymore. It’s like you do it without having to think about it at all. But had you not paid careful attention to learning all of these enmeshed skills, you wouldn’t be a good driver, or maybe even be alive, today. But wow, the way your mind can wander, create new ideas and find solutions while you’re driving! How many unexpected and brilliant insights have you come up with while behind the wheel? For me, that’s a big number.

You can find these pockets of free space for your brain all over your day, when you start to think about it. Perhaps in the shower, or while walking your dog, or while falling asleep. Anything you do habitually and without your full, active concentration is time your brain can wander off to engage in creative thinking.

Swirl that lettuce, comrades

Back to the lettuce. I don’t know if this is how Ms. Waters finds her flow state; I don’t believe she addressed that at all. But I can tell you that as a fellow restaurant person, she knows it’s there if she wants it. Washing lettuce, or going through the tactile and familiar process of making a meal, gives your mind access to the flow state that allows ideas to be born and develop. When I think about my favorite food writers—Kate Christensen, Laurie Colwin & MFK Fisher, for a start—I think about how obvious it is that they do the first part of their writing while in the kitchen, making a meal.

Don’t like to cook? Not to worry, you orderer of delivery Chinese food! You can find your flow state in the tasks you know like the back of your hand.

Take the time to consider what you’re doing when you come up with your best ideas. Once you’ve identified what these activities are for you, you can decide when to schedule these tasks, and how often. Don’t forget that when you learn and master new skills, you expand your flow state repertoire, which invites more ideas into your life. It’s a win-win! What’s not to like?

Want to know more about flow, and using it to harvest creative thought from your fertile, waiting mind? Check out Finding Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s the reason I got to thinking about the role lettuce plays in my creative process. 

Back to top