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What The Great British Bake Off Teaches Us About Success

Updated: Aug 11, 2019

My family has become enamored of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix, a scrumptious version of the original BBC show, and we look forward to watching one episode each night before bed.

I appreciate the show for so many reasons: the kind and collaborative nature of their competition; the introduction to such interesting techniques and vocabulary; and the focus on individual progress rather than a massive payoff for winning (the grand prize is just a cake plate).

But beyond that, I think The Great British Baking Show exhibits 5 key lessons about success (in baking and in life):

Present Something

Early on in the first season (minor spoiler ahead), one of the contestants struggled during a Baked Alaska challenge. Getting so upset by his ice cream's inability to set, he dumped the entire product into the trashcan and stormed off the set. When it came time to present the dessert to the judges, he was the only one who had nothing to show for his effort, except the trashcan. The judges pointed out that if he had presented what he did make--whether it had come together or not, they could have at least given him some feedback. As it was, they had no choice but to eliminate him (from the contest; they let him live).

I see this happen sometimes in the classroom. A student will become overwhelmed by due dates and life circumstances and instead of just submitting a terrible and incomplete paper, they elect to submit nothing. Trust me, getting even some points on the board is always, always, always better than nothing. Submitting something gets you some things--feedback, points, even pride. But submitting nothing gets you, well, not a thing.

Enjoy the Craft

Some of the bakers are almost impossible to watch because they seem so damn burdened by the task. One baker in particular was so sour about all the challenges, even declaring with a face twisted in disgust, that he thinks "fruit pies are disgusting" while baking one. In the end the judges remarked that you can't get better at baking a dessert you won't eat. Ah, but how many of us are desperately trying to become great at something we don't even enjoy?

Getting good at, and having success in, anything requires some joy in the craft. If I didn't truly derive such pleasure from writing, I wouldn't have lasted one round of edits on my latest book, let alone the five it underwent. The love of the craft keeps you light and playful, and when that comes to baking shows, that means you are also fun to watch and easy to root for. Those bakers who laugh and smile, even when their towers of tarts are falling, always fare better. And in the end, who cares about winning the coveted cake plate if you aren't excited to use it after the show has ended?

The Unseen Matters More

The structure of the show has bakers only coming to the tent for the competition each weekend, and sending them home to their families and jobs during the week. This is a startling contrast to any Americanized reality TV show, where contestants must leave their loved ones and careers to go eat bugs in a jungle.

This show understands that the individual progress and success is more important--and frankly, more entertaining--than declaring an overall victor. Because during their week back home, contestants practice their upcoming delicacies over and over and over. One baker admitted to making more than 200 biscuits at home in preparation for making them under the tent, while another confessed to not practicing at all and was hoping to "wing it."

You see, success isn't getting something right in one defining moment standing in front of Paul Hollywood and his boot cut jeans. It's about continuous repetition and revision behind the scenes. And all that invisible work, alone in your kitchen covered in flour, is what gets you a moment in front of Mary Berry and her crisp, colorful blazers. But getting to impress Paul and Mary starts long before you enter the tent.

Accepting Feedback Well is Crucial

With success comes two unavoidable trappings: 1) criticism and 2) praise. Most of us can readily acknowledge how bad we are at receiving criticism, but in reality, most people are far worse at accepting praise.

Proving my point, most every baker on this show has been great at taking constructive criticism, nodding in agreement and thanking the judges for the helpful feedback. But the real test is when the baker is praised. One particular baker bites her lip so hard every time the judges taste her food that I worry for her oral health. And yet, without fail, each time they love it. Really?! she always gasps. Oh, I thought it was such rubbish! I'm so surprised I did well! And off she goes looking relieved instead of proud.

There's nothing more cringe-inducing than watching someone put themselves down during a compliment. Women are particularly good at rejecting and deflecting praise. "Oh this shirt? It's just from Target. Clearance even!" "You think I did okay presenting? I feel like such a loser when I talk in front of people!" "No, your hair looks great, I look awful!"

My guess is people believe playfully deflecting or rejecting a compliment is a sign of humility. Or maybe it's because a compliment is so counter to what we believe about ourselves. But whatever the reason, rejecting a compliment is an insult to both the complimenter and the complimented and instills doubt in both parties. You are worthy of receiving their praise just as much as they are worthy of the joy of giving it.

Criticism can be handled in a variety of professional and productive ways. But the next time someone compliments you on your work, your baking, or your hair, here is the perfect response: "Thank you."

And leave it at that.

Failure and Success are Fleeting

Failure and success aren't nearly as sticky as Mary wants your buns to be. A contestant can go from being the "Star Baker" one episode to being in danger of elimination the next. And sometimes, in reverse order. Sure, failure sucks and you'll need to take a minute to cry on camera about your disappointment, but in the very next recipe you can rise as high as a well-proofed loaf. What a freeing realization it is to know that failure and success aren't destinations, they are merely stops on the path to progress.

Further, as fleeting as failure and success are, there is still no solid determinant of either. If there's anything a decade in higher education has taught me, it's that choosing your own metrics of failure and success are paramount. After all, my industry was built on grasping failure from the jaws of anyone's success--anything an academic can achieve, earn, or research can and will be refuted. When I found myself bending into that standard of judgment, I began to question my own worthiness in the field. Turned out, I was just listening to the wrong judges.

After all, there are just two judges tasting the dough in that big British tent, and even they don't always agree with one another. Which is why it's important to note the number of times contestants find themselves confused by the judges' harsh criticism when they "always get such rave reviews at home."

Failure and success are as fleeting as they are relative.


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