Inner-vation: step outside your comfort zone

It’s the fifteenth series of Celebrity Masterchef, a competition turning people who normally struggle to make a basic chicken stir-fry into people with fancy ways with wasabi when making prawn spring rolls. Contestants are not prized for their personal reputation or personality, but purely for their cooking skills: innovation, technique, flavour, seasoning and presentation, just one plate of food after another, each trying to improve on the last.

The contestants face a number of challenges, starting with the MasterChef Market, where with the best quality produce they must invent and cook one dish that will show the judges they have potential. Next they split into two groups as they work in a professional restaurant kitchen, they then head back to the MasterChef kitchen to impress with their own creations. In the traditions of the best Reality TV, contestants then get voted off. I’m rooting for former Olympian Matthew Pinsent to win.

MasterChef is inherently serious, sincerely self-aggrandising. The closest we come to humour is the voice of India Fisher, an omniscient narrator describing every dish in the same slow, considered tone: Ian has served oven-baked beans in a gloopy tomato and sugar jus on grilled slices of bread, with a cheddar cheese reduction, and a self-pity crumb I hear her say in my dreams, a sat-nav character host. Her hushed narrative and voiceover…the soft ‘g’ in the pronunciation of tagliatelle… gives me goose pimples.

Each component of a plate is conceived with care and judged with scrutiny. There is pathos in an incomplete or poorly executed dish that resonates far beyond the disappointed chef. I share the contestants torture by every deflated soufflé and overcooked duck breast. Co-host Gregg Wallace, ever resplendent with his rictus smile, looks like a constipated egg, and it always seems to me that he might start chucking saucepans at contestants when they disappoint.

The rationale for the success and failure of a dish is constantly there, and the competition gets progressively harder as their original creations meet praise and scrutiny. So far this season we have witnessed the show in its purest form: a series of puree-liquidising, soufflé -shaping, sauce-setting, beef-resting, pea-shoot-sprinkling, fish-skin-crisping delights. We see cookery showcased as both a craft and an art, as amateur cooks hone their skills to a professional standard.

The strictly timed challenges push the competitors to the limits of their comfort zone, but there’s no telling who can cook themselves to victory with extraordinary effort. This week’s highlights included Gregg saying Two tarts and an ice-cream as if it were the title of a new release by Little Mix. I watch and learn, and make notes, when flavours combine like yin and yang, to try them myself.

The only necessary qualification from contestants is a willingness to expose your inadequacy in a series of daunting competitive challenges. Aussie judge John Torode made his mark this week on a bread sauce, raising an eyebrow: It might be good for hanging up the wallpaper, but I don’t know how good it will be for dipping chicken in. He followed this with: It’s vague, it doesn’t reach out and say ‘I’m a pie’, and after seeing burned pastry crisps, growled: The whole plate looks like it should go straight into the dishwasher.

The kitchen epic is all about the journey and the insights it offers into human ambition, learning and determination. The contestants, for all their alleged celebrity, really do roll up their sleeves and get stuck in with obsessive concentration, because the challenge to themselves is more important than winning.

The level of jeopardy on display runs at fever pitch in the pressure-cooker atmosphere, preparing complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to a result is incredible to watch. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of pomegranate jus on the plate as the judges bellowing YOU ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT!

How many of us commit ourselves to our startup like this? Very few I suspect. Most of us give bursts of effort and endeavour, but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised. We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. But on Masterchef, they step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul. And sometimes their sole.

How often do you push yourself out of your comfort zone to cross the boundary?. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with familiar routines and limits? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

Routines can be stable and comforting, but they can also turn stale and confining. Pull your bungee cord! Doing something new and potentially uncomfortable staves off burnout and is good for your brain. Still, it’s pretty hard to shake yourself out of a routine, and there’s plenty of science explaining why—and how to do it.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to an experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal.

This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply. The concept of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the Masterchef competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something.

We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend to settle in. Don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that headspace, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Breakout and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. Risk and uncertainty are key issues for an entrepreneur to embrace. For a startup founder, Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be. The philosophy is simple: Be the very best you can be so that you perform when it matters.

So, ask yourself:

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like if you go a step beyond where you are now? And then another?
  • How often do you review what’s working and not working?
  • How can you improve? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • Have you set up an opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • What is the challenge that you’re holding back from? Why?

Let’s look back at Masterchef and some potential learnings we can take to answer these questions for our startup venture:

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants are told the goal of the day and then have to think through each activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and presentation. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven.

You may not know exactly what to do in terms of strategy, but having a process to develop a strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B To deliver the desired culinary result, a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility to respond quickly and have a contingency. Startups operate in a dynamic environment where unplanned and adverse events occur.

The ability to recognise the potential risks and dead-ends, and being able to formulate a fall-back plan to go again, is vital, to identify, select and navigate and the fork-in-the-road options.

Simplicity is an under-appreciated virtue Sometimes the contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and usually the competitor with the simple, well-prepared and well thought through dish rarely goes home.

Be goal oriented and time aware – attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles. Be innovative at all times, but seeking to be disruptive is an overstated hobby.

Critics come in all shapes and sizes and have different personalities Greg Wallace is supportive, wants competitors to succeed but is firm and professional. John Torode is sarcastic and likes to watch people sweat, quick to anger, but has plenty of heart too.

Occasionally, lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Stay cool under pressure As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. Stay cool when the heat is on, what happens when the customer pitch, just like the dish, doesn’t turn out as expected? Yes, you have a Plan B, but Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully.

Thinking on your feet is a key skill for an entrepreneur, living in the moment, dealing with the situation in hand. Always have a survival or exit strategy up your sleeve.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants are shown the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product. The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve, visualise the journey, the process, the outcome.

We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process of our startup.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the presentation of each dish the contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a big risk to take in business.

Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with your team, and a pilot customer deployment.

As Greg says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Startup life does occasionally throw eggs at us, and we have to be ready – Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

But the key takeaway from Masterchef is being comfortable outside your comfort zone, it’s all about ‘Inner-vation’, and pushing yourself to step beyond your limits. Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said T.S. Eliot, what a great motto for any startup founder – or adventurous chef – to have.

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