3 min

Process vs. Outcome: A Perfect Grilled Cheese

Can we please not be that family that puts cliche signage all over our house? You know what I’m talking about:

There’s a space above the window in the kitchen that my husband Sam thinks is begging for a sign. I’m not opposed to signs in general. I’m just opposed to corny ones. So after some thought we agreed on a meaningful message: 

Process vs. Outcome

It’s something Sam and I say all the time in all aspects of our life, but especially in the kitchen. While we love cooking and experimenting with new recipes, we despise messing up and ruining dinner. The phrase is a reminder to enjoy the process and control what we can control. 

When I mess up or make a mistake there’s a voice in my head that tells me I suck and I can't do it and why am I even trying? I'm not sure where this voice comes from but he's mean and angry and does absolutely nothing good for my well-being, mental health, or productivity. It’s always easier to see this in hindsight but in the thick of it, the demonic voice is deafening.

To illustrate, here is the progression of my grilled cheese sandwich-making abilities over the course of three years:

Process: I spread cold butter onto room temperature bread.

Outcome: The bread ripped (and I cursed at myself).

What I learned: The butter needs to be at room temperature.

Process: I microwaved the butter.

Outcome: It completely melted all over the plate (and I berated myself).

What I learned: There’s a Power setting on the microwave. It should be at 20.

Process: I put the burner on high.

Outcome: I completely scorched the bread. (Motherfucker!)

What I learned: The heat should be on medium.

Process: I was so worried about burning the bread that I constantly used a spatula to lift the bread and check underneath.

Outcome: This was like watching a pot of water boil. (You are such an idiot.)

What I learned: The sandwich needs to sit untouched in order to get that nice, golden brown. If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’.

Process: I attempted to flip the sandwich.

Outcome: It fell apart in the pan. (Why do I suck at this so much?!!)

What I learned: Once assembled in the pan, press down on the top slice of bread. The cheese will soften and stick to the bread so that the sandwich stays together.

Process: As soon as the grilled cheese came off the pan, I cut it in half.

Outcome: The cheese ran everywhere. (But I was so close!)

What I learned: It's best to wait two minutes before cutting the sandwich in half.

It was a long, arduous road. I've made at least 100 grilled cheese sandwiches and at least 30 of them were horrible. 30 throw-the-pan-across-the-room moments, 30 hate-myself moments, 30 ruined lunches, 30 meltdowns, 30 freakouts.

But now.... but now! A beautiful, perfect grilled cheese sandwich I will happily and confidently make for anyone.

When I look back at each attempt that ended in failure I think about how hard I was on myself. How much I beat myself up. How worked up I would get. Now that it's all said and done and I'm very proud of my grilled cheese sandwich-making abilities, I realize that each failure was putting me one step closer to success. And without each failure I wouldn't have learned one more key step in making my sandwich great.

It’s easy to realize this in hindsight, but how can I learn to love the process? How can I turn the moments of frustration into moments of embracing growth?

First I have to call it what it is. If it’s something completely brand new that I’ve never done before, Brene Brown calls this an FFT, which stands for “Fucking First Time.” 

Naming the FFT leads to 3 things:

  1. Normalize it: “This is exactly how new is supposed to feel. This is uncomfortable because brave is uncomfortable.”
  2. Put it in perspective: “This feeling is not permanent and it doesn’t mean I suck at everything. It means I’m in the middle of an FFT around this one thing."
  3. Reality check expectations: “This is gonna suck for a while. I’m not going to crush this right away." 

Whether it’s a brand new experience or not I can give myself a little breathing room with the expectations. Instead of pumping myself up and telling myself, “I can do this and I will do this,” tell myself, “This is a learning experience and when it's all over I will be better next time.” 

Now let’s add two actionable bits to Brown’s approach:

  1. Have a backup plan. If I'm cooking a new recipe that turns out to be completely inedible, make the decision beforehand that we can go out to dinner instead. Sometimes there is no room for a backup plan, so just set the expectation that this might not work out and be okay with mac ‘n’ cheese instead.
  2. Take notes. When it all goes to shit - even if I've told myself that this could happen - it's difficult not to sulk or beat myself up. Write down exactly what went wrong or exactly what step I will do differently next time.

With this newfound healthy approach to enjoying the process I'd like to rewrite history. I'd like my grilled cheese-making attempts to go exactly as they did with all the failures, but this time I don't want to beat myself up for it. I want to realize in the moment that without the mess up I wouldn't learn and improve. That the only way to improve is to have setbacks and do better next time.

Unfortunately I can’t rewrite history. But I can learn from it. I can use my past frustrations and moments of cursing myself as an opportunity for growth. I can approach situations with a new mindset. I can use the steps listed above to enjoy the process. 

To be completely honest, I’ve been thinking about this idea of process vs. outcome for a couple of years and still don’t have a shining example of doing it. There have been moments of awareness along the way and a much shorter time spent calling myself an incompetent loser, but I still find myself screaming in the kitchen when I misread the instructions and dinner gets pushed to 8pm instead of 6pm.

The idea of process vs. outcome extends beyond the kitchen into all facets of life whether it’s learning, experimenting, improving, or perfecting. No matter what you’re doing there’s always opportunity for growth.

It’s a work in progress. I hope that by writing this essay and putting it out into the world that I become even more aware of the demonic voice in my head, have more curiosity with the task, and have more kindness with myself. 

And every time I see our cheesy sign above the kitchen window, I can remind myself that I’m learning to enjoy the process of enjoying the process.