Progress, Not Perfection

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on

Over the years I have gotten some wacky requests in the cake department.  In the recent past we have made a departure from wedding cakes with the crazy columns, circa 1980, thank God!  Simultaneously, mixed media and art has begun to penetrate the pastry industry with molecular gastronomy and the like.  Custom cakes have taken the lead and are storming weddings and children’s birthdays, don’t even get me started on bachelor/bachelorette parties!

There is a new trend that I am not ashamed to say, I love!  Barbie was a staple in my elementary school years. She was an excellent neighbor to the My Little Pony family who lived in their dream house next door.  They even went camping with my brother’s GI Joe’s and were then, tragically, decimated by his dinosaurs. To my immense excitement, I finally got to make a Barbie cake for a magical little girl with an equally magical name; True. And as if it couldn’t get better, she wanted her Barbie to be a witch!  What? Barbie and the Mystical in one magical dress shaped cake?  Count me in! I start putting Halloween decorations up right after the 4th of July.  I am not ashamed!

When I was first starting out in the pastry industry, I would have never taken on a cake like this.  I often tell my students that becoming a cake artist is like learning a sport or playing an instrument.  It’s hard, so much harder than social media and tv make it look.  I am going to date myself  by talking about the dreaded Generation Z, I can feel myself aging as I type. My son is a proud Generation Z’r and is braving the tribulations of his freshman year of high school. Watching him is like observing a sweet, confused lamb step out from the safety of the pasture to brave the dark forest.  I know this expression well, many of my students have the same doe eyed look about them.  I field dozens of questions a day about how hard cake decorating is and “why does my cake look like it should be on Nailed It?”

The 4 P’s

I hear the same lament from my son.  Why did I fail that test?  Wait, you mean I have to study? At home? Instead of playing video games?  You can’t pick up a saxophone and expect to play like John Coltrane immediately.  Somewhere down the line between the depression hardened Baby Boomers and the social media obsessed Generation Z, we forgot what the world was like when you had to scrape and bite to carve yourself out an existence, and it seems that now the pendulum has swung to opposite direction.  I love technology as much as the next gal, I rely on it as a small business owner. I’m an old school Facebook user and would cry if I had to go back to my archaic non electric toothbrush.  However, I am finding myself trying to figure out a way to explain to a generation accustomed to having knowledge at their fingertips, that acquiring a skill like cake decorating, studying or epic jazz playing  takes time and hard work.  

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

I often talk to my students about the 4 P’s; progress not perfection, patience and practice.  The 4 P’s can be applied to just about anything.  Cake decorating, the hell of high school, learning to play an instrument and world domination, you have to start small.  I’m still working on that last one. The problem is that our society is so focused on perfection, airbrushed photos and insta reels, that we have entirely forgotten how to embrace the hot mess that comes with putting ourselves out on the proverbial limb.  Guess what? It is totally ok to be imperfect and to accept your temporary limitations.  By doing this, you respect the craft and the crafters who have come before you. The moment you think you know it all is the moment you need to get the hell out of dodge and try something new.  By giving up before you have begun because that one thing didn’t turn out like pictures you have been scrolling through, you sell yourself short and wrap the binds around your creativity a little tighter. Believe me friends, this is something I have struggled with since I was the age that fantasized about having a Barbie dress cake at my witch themed birthday party. Ok, to be fair I STILL fantasize about Barbie cakes but you catch my drift. Finding patience with yourself is a hard battle and it is not one that you will ever fully resolve because we should never stop learning.  Let’s be honest, self critique is what makes us better humans, learning from our mistakes and challenging the status quo keeps us moving forward. So how do you find the balance between not giving up when all goes sideways and our need for perfection at any cost?

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

I think the humans who quit at the first roadblock and those who beat themselves senseless striving for perfection are actually reacting to the same core dilemma; we hate to fail. We put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to “be the best” and I see my students, and the young people around me, buckle under that weight time and again.  I remind them that the world never imploded because your cookies burnt.  What happened? How can it be fixed next time? What did you do well?  And that last question is always the hardest one. 

I learned a trick in my earlier doe eyed years when I worked in youth mental health.  We called it the Oreo Cookie. At the end of the day, or a project, take a step back and tell yourself one thing you did well, one thing that needs some work and one positive thing you can take away from the experience.  It often helps to write it down. By sandwiching the “negative” feedback between two positive reflections, the criticism feels less harsh. But like all things, it takes the 4 P’s.  I continue to practice this technique each day.  Every time I get in front of the camera to do a live demo for my students or make a wedding cake for a customer, I have to remind myself to take a step back and sandwich all the things I hate about the cake between two positive observations.  

What I have found to be true is that when your critical self approaches your insecure self with kindness, love and a cookie you begin to watch yourself create amazing things.  We all mess up.  When you fail the test, burn the cake, or forget to send that email you are giving yourself a fresh opportunity for growth and self love.  If I gave up at the first misstep, then True would never have gotten her Barbie cake and that, I think, would be a tragedy! 

Be well and shine bright!

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