The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work

The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work

by Simone Stolzoff
The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work

The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work

by Simone Stolzoff


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"Superb."—Oliver Burkeman

A challenge to the tyranny of work and a call to reclaim our lives from its clutches.

From the moment we ask children what they want to “be” when they grow up, we exalt the dream job as if it were life’s ultimate objective. Many entangle their identities with their jobs, with predictable damage to happiness, wellbeing, and even professional success.
In The Good Enough Job, journalist Simone Stolzoff traces how work has come to dominate Americans’ lives—and why we find it so difficult to let go. Based on groundbreaking reporting and interviews with Michelin star chefs, Wall Street bankers, overwhelmed teachers and other workers across the American economy, Stolzoff exposes what we lose when we expect work to be more than a job. Rather than treat work as a calling or a dream, he asks what it would take to reframe work as a part of life rather than the entirety of our lives. What does it mean for a job to be good enough?
Through provocative critique and deep reporting, Stolzoff punctures the myths that keep us chained to our jobs. By exposing the lies we—and our employers—tell about the value of our labor, The Good Enough Job makes the urgent case for reclaiming our lives in a world centered around work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593538968
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/23/2023
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 93,077
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Simone Stolzoff is an independent journalist and consultant from San Francisco. A former design lead at the global innovation firm IDEO, he regularly works with leaders—from the Surgeon General of the United States to the Chief Talent Officer at Google—on how to make the workplace more human-centered. His feature writing on the intersection of labor and Silicon Valley has appeared in The Atlantic, WIRED, The San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other publications. He is a graduate of Stanford and The University of Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt


For What It's Worth

On the myth that we are what we do

Sufficiency isn't two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn't a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn't an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.

Brené Brown

Divya Singh was sitting in her college dorm room when her roommate's boyfriend said something that changed her life: "You couldn't get an internship at The Restaurant even if you tried." Divya was a nineteen-year-old Indian American culinary school student with sleek bangs and a single pronounced dimple under her left cheek. She was studying to become a nutritionist. Her dream was to design recipes for a glossy food magazine like Bon Appétit or Saveur, but that comment changed things. Cody, the boyfriend, was a tall, confident Midwesterner on the fine-dining track. Even as a student, he assumed the bravado common among male chefs. Little did he know, Divya was the wrong person to be told what she couldn't accomplish.

Every year, one student from the culinary school Divya and Cody attended was awarded an internship at The Restaurant, which was widely considered to be one of the best in America. It had just received three Michelin stars, another accolade for its famed chef, Stephen Fischer, whose home adjoined The Restaurant's kitchen.

The internship would be awarded by Randy Garcia, a faculty member at Divya's culinary school who used to work at The Restaurant. Garcia evaluated prospective students on their knife skills, solicited feedback from places where they had worked, and conducted interviews with each applicant. Divya had never worked in fine dining. But after she set her sights on The Restaurant, she spent the rest of her nights and weekends of the school year working in high-end kitchens.

At the end of the year, Divya and Cody both applied for The Restaurant's internship. Divya got it. Garcia told me she was the most prepared student he had ever recommended for the role. Even after securing the position, Divya continued to go to Garcia's classroom to practice chopping onions, carrots, and celery in anticipation of the summer ahead.

The Restaurant is a picture of culinary sophistication. The rustic stone building was a turn-of-the-century saloon before becoming a restaurant in the 1970s. When Fischer remodeled the kitchen, he told the architects that he wanted The Restaurant to resemble the Louvre-a mix of the historic and the contemporary. Every detail-from the cerulean front door to the "Sense of Urgency" sign that hangs below the kitchen's Vacheron Constantin clock-carries Fischer's fingerprint. The nine-course prix-fixe menu is $350 dollars a head.

Most fine-dining kitchens are organized by the so-called brigade system, made popular by a nineteenth-century French chef who based it on the hierarchy of European military kitchens. The head chef barks orders that the rest of the kitchen staff dutifully follow. Fischer, whose father was a Marine, implemented the brigade system at all his restaurants. As a commis, or junior chef, Divya was at the bottom of the pyramid. Everything in her first six months was "yes, Chef" or "no, Chef."

Divya's days passed in a blur of minced tarragon leaves and diced chanterelles. The chefs routinely examined the symmetry of the commis's cuts, and if they weren't up to their standards, the food would be thrown away. Working as a cook at The Restaurant was like working as an animator at Pixar or a cellist at the Vienna Philharmonic-being among the best of the best was intoxicating. But the work was grueling. "Your time there is the equivalent of dog years," a former general manager told me. "For every year you're there, it's seven years off your life."

At the end of the internship, Divya was invited to stay on, but she wasn't excited by the monotony of cooking on the line and wanted to graduate from school. So, she went back to finish her studies and devised a plan to return to The Restaurant on her own terms.

In the mid-aughts, molecular gastronomy was all the rage. Divya read about European restaurants with their own research and development kitchens, which used food science and chemistry to develop novel cooking techniques. Because The Restaurant changed its menu every day, the chefs often didn't have time to experiment with the most cutting-edge methods. So during her senior year of culinary school, Divya wrote her own job description and, at twenty-two, was hired as The Restaurant's first ever R&D chef. A few months after graduation, she was back at The Restaurant, experimenting with how to make seawater sorbet and turn béchamel sauce into foam.

One of Divya's responsibilities as the R&D chef was to create menu items for people with dietary restrictions. She spent months developing recipes for dairy-free alternatives to The Restaurant's signature tapioca pudding and leek soufflé. The R&D kitchen was housed in a separate building from the main dining room, but occasionally The Restaurant guests would ask to meet the wizard behind their dairy-free delights. One time, a woman who hadn't eaten dairy in seven years broke down crying in front of Divya while describing what it felt like to bite into her dairy-free brie. Divya knew she was onto something.

Divya saw a business opportunity to bring what she had learned in The Restaurant's R&D kitchen to home chefs. Most dairy-free alternatives require home chefs to substantially alter their favorite family recipes. Divya's idea was to create a line of dairy-free products that home chefs could substitute into almost any recipe. She decided to call it Prameer-a play on paneer, the Hindi word for cheese.

Since Divya was still on staff at The Restaurant, she didn't want her project to be seen as a conflict of interest. She set up a meeting with Chef Fischer to ask for his permission to start Prameer as an independent venture.

On the day of the meeting, Divya wore her starched white chef's coat, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Divya and Fischer had never met one-on-one. Her heart was pounding as she sat on the picnic bench outside Fischer's office while she waited for him to emerge. A twenty-four-year-old recent culinary grad, Divya was about to meet with one of the top chefs in the world. Who am I for Stephen Fischer to even care about? she thought.

Just like she'd done for her internship, Divya overprepared. She brought research on trends in dairy-free baking and charts analyzing the competitive landscape. But when broad-shouldered Fischer stepped outside to meet her, he greeted her with the disarming charm of a college professor. "No need to be nervous," he said, flashing a smile. "It's just me."

After her pitch, Fischer didn't just give Divya the green light-he did one better. "What if I help you?" he asked. Divya was shocked. She had been grateful for just a half hour of his time, but now Stephen Fischer wanted to help her. "I don't need anything, but I'm just compelled to help you because you seem like a very driven, ambitious woman," he said. "Why don't we partner on this?" Divya came into the meeting with an idea and left with a business partner. They agreed to a fifty-fifty ownership split.

Over the next few years, Fischer took Divya under his wing. Despite being a notoriously busy man who ran several other restaurants with a constellation of Michelin stars, Fischer went out of his way to make himself available to Divya. They met regularly to talk about the future of the business. They appeared together in the glossy magazines where Divya had once dreamed of working. Divya ran the day-to-day operations of Prameer, but Fischer, who had no kids of his own, offered her advice and guidance. "This was the first time I ever had a mentor," Divya told me. "Like a father figure."

One day, Divya was feeling particularly anxious about the business, so she went to Fischer's office, which is a garden path away from The Restaurant's front door. After she talked through her worries, he said something that will forever remain etched in Divya's memory: "Hey, I just want you to know I'm really proud of you," he said. After the meeting, Divya went directly to her car in the parking lot. From the safety of the driver's seat, she started to cry. No one had ever told her that before.

As Prameer grew, Divya grew into her confidence as CEO. She'd developed the products, created the brand, and managed a team of a half dozen employees. The product hit the shelves with favorable reviews everywhere, from dairy-free food blogs to The New York Times.

The following year, Forbes included Divya, now twenty-six, on its annual 30 Under 30 list. The company was growing quickly. It launched in hundreds of stores across the country and expanded its product line to include dairy-free ice cream and yogurt.

But with the growth came strains on Divya's relationship with Fischer. After the business got off the ground, Fischer started to pull back, making Divya go through the restaurant group's chief financial officer to reach him. Divya wanted to raise funding from investors who had experience working with packaged goods brands, but Fischer didn't want to dilute ownership of the company. For every investor they brought in, Divya and Fischer would have to cede some power.

Instead, the company hired a new member for their leadership team, a middle-aged food executive who had experience working with large brands. Divya and the new hire did not get along. She felt that he patronized her and didn't trust her leadership as the company's CEO. But when Divya suggested they let him go, Fischer told her she was "being a brat."

Six years in, Prameer was doing better than ever, but Divya was not. The company was expanding into major retailers such as Whole Foods and Costco. But Divya felt distant from Fischer and exhausted from the time and effort she had poured into the business. She sought support from experienced food entrepreneurs, but every time she brought in a potential adviser, Fischer turned them away. Fischer didn't understand why Divya wanted to go outside of The Restaurant's inner circle for advice, and Divya didn't understand why he wasn't open to support that might help the company grow.

In another effort to expand Prameer's offerings, Divya and the team were developing an egg substitute product. The company signed contracts with retailers and began manufacturing, but less than two months before launch, Fischer started to get cold feet. He was unhappy with the design of the new product's packaging, which de-emphasized the company's connection to The Restaurant-a choice Divya had made to appeal to new customers.

Fischer decided to veto the egg alternative altogether. It was Divya's last straw. One by one, she called the vendors and distributors with whom she had spent months negotiating deals. As much as she wanted to believe that this was her company, it was never fully hers. Divya set up a meeting with Fischer to hand in her resignation.

In the meeting, Divya told Fischer she had lost the passion that inspired her to start Prameer, and although it was a difficult decision, she wanted to leave the company. Then Divya saw a side of Fischer she'd never seen before. He told her that she was being ungrateful, that she was squandering the opportunity he had given her. He raised his voice as his eyes narrowed. "I hope you know you would be nothing without me," he said. "You'd be nobody. You'd still be in that kitchen."

To a certain extent, Divya believed him. Even as her business partner and mentor berated her, she still felt beholden to his support. Divya agreed to keep working for the company for several months even after resigning. She still felt grateful to Fischer for his mentorship and kindness. "That was my frame of mind for years," she told me. "And I think in many ways that created a blind spot . . . I was blinded by feeling so indebted to this person."

After spending seven years nurturing Prameer from an idea into a successful business, Divya finally left the company. At first, the transition was rough. "I was left with this gaping hole in my identity," she told me. "I didn't know who I was without this job." She was so depleted that she felt physically incapable of doing anything else. But it was during this period of not working that Divya inadvertently started to build back her sense of self.

Divya spent six weeks traveling alone in Thailand, a place where no one saw her as Stephen Fischer's right-hand woman. When she returned home, she began to explore some of the hobbies she had brushed aside during the seven years she built the business. She spent weekends camping in redwood forests and weekdays surfing on the coast. She taught herself how to skateboard and rediscovered the joy of cooking for pleasure.

"I was able to develop myself in different ways," she told me, "because I had the space to." She was no longer just a worker. She was a skateboarder and a sketcher, a community builder, and a thirty-year-old prankster. She loved to kidnap her friends and bring them to secret locations around town, go rock climbing in Halloween costumes, and show her housemates how to make samosas from scratch.

Psychological research shows that when we invest, as Divya did, in different sides of ourselves, we're better at dealing with setbacks. In contrast, the more we let one part of who we are define us, the less resilient we are to change. For example, in one study, Patricia Linville found that subjects with a more differentiated idea of themselves-what she calls having greater "self-complexity"-were less prone to depression and physical illnesses following a stressful event. When people who had less self-complexity experienced a stressful event, it was more likely for that stress to "spill over" to other parts of their lives.

This makes intuitive sense. If your identity is entirely tied to one aspect of who you are-whether it be your job, your net worth, or your "success" as a parent-one snag, even if it's out of your control, can shatter your self-esteem. But if you cultivate greater self-complexity and distinct sources of meaning, you'll be better equipped to weather the inevitable challenges of life.

Overidentifying with just one aspect of yourself can also be dangerous. Take Junior Seau, a linebacker who played twenty years in the National Football League. He led his team, the San Diego Chargers, to a Super Bowl championship and was voted to a record twelve-straight Pro Bowls. But less than three years after retiring, Seau tragically committed suicide.

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