David Chang, Momofuku, featured in PBS’s Mind of a Chef.


Great entrepreneurs look inward to overcome obstacles

An op-ed in the New York Timesrecalls the experience of the chef David Chang, owner of the Momofuku restaurant group and many other successful enterprises, that offers a valuable lesson for any entrepreneur who is struggling to get their business off the ground.

Before clocking up his achievements, Chang struggled terribly when starting his first noodle bar, working 18-hour days, dealing with high staff turnover and barely paying himself. This despite the fact that he had cooked in some of New York City’s best restaurants.

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The writers, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, authors of the forthcoming book “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well,” go on to reveal how he overcame his challenges.

Mr. Chang could have blamed someone else for his troubles, or worked harder (though available evidence suggests that might not have been possible) or he could have made minor tweaks to the menu. Instead he looked inward and subjected himself to brutal self-assessment.

Was the humble noodle bar of his dreams economically viable? Sure, a traditional noodle dish had its charm but wouldn’t work as the mainstay of a restaurant if he hoped to pay his bills.

Mr. Chang changed course. Rather than worry about what a noodle bar should serve, he and his cooks stalked the produce at the greenmarket for inspiration. Then they went back to the kitchen and cooked as if it was their last meal, crowding the menu with wild combinations of dishes they’d want to eat — tripe and sweetbreads, headcheese and flavor-packed culinary mashups like a Korean-style burrito.

Without realizing it Chang was engaging in what is called double-loop learning, a mode in which we question every aspect of our approach to doing something, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumption. This is in contrast to single-loop learning, in which we look toward external or technical reasons for obstacles.

Let’s face it – it’s easier to look outward when things are not working the way we would like them to, but looking inward is the key to success.

This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

In interviews we did with high achievers for a book, we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.

So while it’s tough to acknowledge that our thinking and actions may be contributing to failure, it seems to work, which makes sense because we’re putting the truth out there.

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And that type of self-assessment is why Chang is no longer struggling to keep one noodle bar going, but running several acclaimed restaurants, bars and bakeries.