August Angst

Every year, as August rolls along, this quiet but very apparent angst sets in. A restlessness that I can’t quite put a finger on, so many questions, way too many ideas, no clue where to begin or how to proceed. Behind it all is a voice, soft, but persistent. Asking questions direct and sharp. The answers to which are unformed. Mushy, nebulous. And they evade me most times.

And as always, it happens in August. Something about the eighth month of the year suddenly creeping up on me, maybe? I was never very good at managing time and the sheer race of keeping up and doing so much in so little (one can never have enough time no?) is a well-established refrain in my life. I have come to accept that the number of things I want to do or am in the process of doing will always be disproportionately larger than the number of things I have done satisfactorily well. That feeling of looking back on a task well done, with that smug, satisfied grin, dusting hands off in glee – that feeling is something I have never known.

This year though, the knocks have been louder; and the questions have come thumping, banging down the door rather than knocking gently in the background. They resound in my head, refuse to leave, circle around relentlessly — “have you sold as many cakes as you possibly could?” and “have you written as many different blog posts as you wanted to?” or “have you sketched out the food project you promised yourself you would?” and “have you contacted Mr. XYZ and Ms. ABC with the proposal you had in mind?” or “Have you pimped your cakes enough?”  — I immediately shudder, because at the root of it the answer screaming out at me is “Have you sold yourself enough?”

This year the angst has been multiplied by the burgeoning activity I have suddenly experienced on facebook. But this year though, it’s been quickly followed up by a peaceful understanding, and acknowledgement of what is, what will be and what will never be. For the most part I watch from the sidelines, agog, as my newsfeed is tantalisingly full of food, now more than ever before. The floodgates opened after IFBM and there’s no looking back now. People engaging in link-swaps, page shares, pimping classes, props, photography, ingredients and all kinds of other goodies all the time. In the midst of the cacophony my Hungry & Excited cakes cry out feebly too.

I’ve never been able to make peace with what the H&E page does for me. I bumble along because people tell me it is the way to go. I do it, but I can’t say I’m at peace with it. I have never been very good at pimping myself. I am the person who is perennially looking back on opportunities and wishing I had it in me to dive in and sell myself at the time. It’s a skill one must either have, or be willing to acquire, I have realized. Right now though, I have neither the natural ability to self-promote, nor the willingness to learn it because something about the whole act itself doesn’t come naturally and just doesn’t sit right with me. When I try, I am reminded of the one time I went all out, got out of the comfort zone and do something that didn’t come naturally but I got forced into egged on by a very head-strong and cut throat entrepreneur friend. The incident involved a stack of business cards that sat by a basket of H&E muffins, with one shoved into the hand of every hapless person to pick up a muffin for some Christmas cheer. It yielded several calls of appreciation, and one of them converted into an order. But several other things happened as a result, and the relationship with my friend (the entrepreneur has been strained ever since) and it has been one of the biggest lessons in listening to myself; and only doing something if my gut says its right.

So I hang around on facebook, mostly just posting instagrammed pictures of everything I eat, everything I cook, everything I want to eat, everything I plan to cook – and many things in between. Ever since the frequency of posting a recipe has reduced, there has been even lesser action in terms of populating recipes and links on facebook. When I think about it, I feel incredibly lame cross-posting instagram pictures, because I already have instagram for it. And because I’ve a private instagram account and am an unabashed junkie, that really ought to work for me. I know I ought to be doing more on facebook, but I just cannot get myself to push through the clutter, I cannot find it in me to hit that “boost post” button, I don’t have the willingness to post every pictures, recipe link on a gazillion recipe groups, I cannot engage in comments and likes the way I see most people do. And the way they do it, I also see how fb works for them. I know its possible, but I have realised there are some things I will probably never be okay doing. I might do them in future, but never with a straight face and a comfortable stance.

This is where I miss the perks of a day job. Full time employment means you don’t have to constantly sell yourself or prove yourself with every task. You’re hired for a set of skills that you’re believed to possess, and known to perform well. So the going can be as good or as great as you make it, but for the most part you just have to sit around and do what comes your way. Singularly. The responsibility of finding work, the selling work lay squarely in the lap of project managers – many of whom I worked with did the job with such astounding lack of ability, that it ought to have taught me to step in and learn a bit of it for myself. But no. I’ve said before, I’m a doer. A follower. A worker bee. And this ability to take charge, sell a product, skill or even myself, doesn’t come naturally. When I found myself doing it for IFBM, I shocked myself. Every instance of talking to a potential sponsor or a vendor and pimping the event and our desperate need to keep costs low, made me feel like I was having an out of body experience. At the end of every instance, I had to pinch myself to check if it all really happened. I surprised myself several times, sometimes pleasantly so. And it showed me that deep down, I do have the ability, I must harness it and finetune it to use it well.

I remind myself that every cake I have sold this past year has happened organically, on its own without too much noise. Mostly through word-of-mouth, either in real life or online. I am yet to put an advertisement out there, or pimp an offer a discount or a scheme. It has worked so far, the question stalks me all the time — wouldn’t all this be that much higher, better, louder if I actually actively sold myself a little?

The answer is yes. Of course it’s a yes. There was never a doubt about that. But my state of perennial fb-angst and observing everything I see going on fb, in these days of social proof, salability and viral quotient, makes me realize that I am old-school in this respect. When I come across articles about social media marketing, tips on how to get your blog stats to soar, how to float a business completely on facebook etc, I find myself rolling my eyes quicker than I can get through the entire piece. I have however moved from mocking it all, to watching with wonder. I realize now that there are many who make it work, and work well. I also realize why I cannot make it work. A lot of it may have to do with my stubbornness and unwillingness to self promote. But at the heart of it is a personality type. And that is something that isn’t going to change very easily, no matter how many cakes go between me and several happy clients. I’m willing to wait it out, without rushing the process by hitting “boost post”. I’m willing to wait for organic reach, even off fb. And perhaps this has everything to do with the fact that I do not depend on selling cakes to feed myself, but still. I’m willing to wait, because I believe that I may not reach out to 100 people, and sell 50 cakes a month. I may do about a tenth of that number, but the ten cakes that I deliver will be cakes I didn’t mindlessly churn out because some boosting action drove my fb stats and order scheds through the roof. They will be ten cakes going to ten people who understand the difference between fancy cake and everyday teacake. And if enough people get the taste of that, the numbers will grow and eventually, the money will follow.

I call it old-school because this is what I have seen my parents believe in, and made it work. I have realized that when they told me to “find my passion and follow it uncompromisingly”, the statement unwrapped itself into a whole bunch of lifestyle choices – choices I would have to learn to slowly make. Choices that are still coming to me, slowly. Painfully. I have learned slowly but surely that it often means being happy with less and not constantly aspiring for what can be. Not letting the pursuit of money become the centre of my being and life. It means worrying less about what other people think should be my path to “success” and defining success by parameters that work for me. It often means being grateful for the little things. It means focusing on my craft, without worrying about the numbers.

It’s why I struggle to call myself A Writer. I’m constantly prefixing it with trying-to-be or finding polite ways to define my niche. I don’t dare call myself a “chef” on my blog, because really WHO ARE WE KIDDING?! And I roll my eyes and chuckle every time I see something to the effect of foodie-turned-specialist on one of the million food blogs that now surround us. Every time I hear of a blogger turned author, and then read the tripe doled out in the form of a book, I resist the urge to drive a nail through my brain. It is often passed off as unnecessary modesty when I pick a veil and hide behind it, but come August every year the sinister question raises its head again – have you sold yourself enough?

This year though, a quiet acceptance has turned up, in place of the restless angst that used to come with it.

Have I sold myself enough? No, I haven’t sold myself at all, actually. I had grand plans to pimp a personal project at IFBM, because “it was the thing to do” and anything less would be “a waste”, I tried to do it, and the mosre unnatural it felt, the farther I felt myself moving from the project I was so supposedly so invested in. Eventually, I dropped it, and told myself things will happen, if they’re meant to. Even if it takes five years longer than if I self-promoted NOW.

Recently, I read this piece of the thoughts of Werner Herzog on making a living of doing what you love, and it echoed so much of what I have seen growing up, experienced in some part, and now know is an indelible part of who I am.

If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs. — Werner Herzog

My grandfather was a prolific musician who silently made some of the most brilliant music for over 8 decades. He lived off meager earnings, and yet supported his wife and three children on it, and from what I hear my mother and her brothers tell us it was a fabulous childhood, that rarely allowed them to feel the pinch of what might have been missing. He won national acclaim in the form of a Sangeet Natak Akademi award when he was well past 70, but over the years won millions of hearts through his heart-rending music, passed on his thoughts about music and life to scores of students, and created a living parampara of his kind of music that will live on for hundreds of years to come.

I feel humbled and grateful that I have had my grandparents and parents who have lived by this, so I don’t have to go through the hardships that they did, before I learn this way of life. They did most of the grunt work, weeded out the crap and passed on some of the best things to us – teaching us not in dogmatic, academic ways but through actions and the best example that is their own lives.

Of course where I talk of baking, I could just as well replace the word “cake” with “writing” and the logic still works. What I call old-school, some may call unrealistic, idealistic. Some might even say its downright foolish. But it’s the only way I know.

I haven’t done nearly as many things as I imagined I would at the start of the year, but I feel satisfied in knowing that what I did, I did without the worry of money, stats, success or adulation. The stats on my blog, the likes on the fb page, they’re just numbers. I bake because I love it. I write because I love it. And that’s pretty much all there is to it. Because like Bette Davis said, If everybody likes you, you’re pretty dull.

*****

Related (if you manage to see the connection) is this song my sister was obsessive over, the whole month of August that she was with me. Look up the lyric, read between the lines and if you’re feeling any of the August Angst, maybe you’ll agree :)

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17 thoughts on “August Angst

  1. It is so interesting that you say what you do about Facebook, because often when I get updates from the Hungry and Excited FB page, I begin to wonder if I do enough for the FB page of my own little food blog [and if I need to at all, since I run no business that is linked to it] (:

    • Haha, I know I dont do nearly half as much as I “ought” to. I am actually ONLY there for the business side of it. I don’t believe in promoting a regular blog. So in some senses I should be more active and keep it dynamic, but I do what I can — I go through entire weeks of never looking at the page and mostly automated Instagram cross-posting is what keeps it active. But I’ve stopped fretting about it too much :)

      • Always intriguing to see how all of us try to navigate the digital world (: I started the FB page as a way for people to choose whether they want to hear me go on about food all the time. Have always thought of it as a way of sharing that people can opt-in for. But yes, businesses would see it as promotion. I suppose I would too if I had something that needed to be promoted or marketed.

        • I think FB is definitely a good tool to engage with an audience (even readers of your blog, to see if you should go on talking about food at all, for example. And since you asked, as a reader Im going to say YES you should :)) but Ive realised it takes effort, which I am personally not always willing to put in. I tried it for a bit, and it began to feel very contrived and like I was trying too hard. So I stick with just posting when I feel like it now.

          Its very interesting for me to watch how we use FB. I used to be very judgemental and inwardly mock some people I know who realllllly know the ins and outs of self promotion. Ive eaten my words though, and now I can admire it as something that works, if done well, because I know what I can and cannot do, and therefore why my fb page will probably never run into multiples of thousand followers or my blog will never be one of those most-read bogs out there. But Im fine with that. Iv opted out of the race.

  2. [Different point of comment, different thread]

    I’m also glad you bring up the point of there being a difference between running a business that must pay the bills and one that doesn’t necessarily need to. For some time now, I have been working towards setting up a business that quickly grows into the former kind, and one of my biggest fears is my inability to sell myself and my work. Last month there was some press coverage about me in the context of my day-job (I’m a typeface designer) and I was so embarrassed by it that leave sharing it on my social media networks, I was a bundle of awkwardness every time someone who saw it congratulated me.

    • Gosh I so know this feeling :) Im awkward to the point of stupid in such situations, in real life. I can however share a link on fb and hide behind the screen. Catch me in real life and congratulate me and i’ll promptly put a foot in my mouth.

      And yes, not having to earn from this business puts a whole different spin on it. I’d probably be busting my ass off to get comfortable with self promotion or hiring someone to do it for me, if I had to live off this business. Then again, if I had to only earn to sustain myself I wouldnt be here in the first place. I was only able to take a step back form full time work because I am in a wonderful place in life that allows it.

  3. Hahaaa.. I could have written this post!! I keep quiet on fb from time to time .. then suddenly feel I don’t do enough.. and share some stuff..but I’m like you R.. I just can’t do it.. and am beginning to make my peace with it.. the blog will find it readers if it has to..I cant do self promotion.. and that’s the way it is gonna be.. although I do have the occasional twinges that maybe I should do more!! sigh!

    • The tussle was more active and kicking with me, now im more or less settled wiht the fact that there will be some tings I will never be able to do. And when the day comes, maybe I’ll learn and it wont feel so unnatural. Until then, slow and steady wins :)

  4. Two things –
    1) Social media, by being social in nature, constantly makes us feel as if we need to be doing things – stay connected, stay visible, stay voluble. But do we really *need* to? I remain unconvinced.

    2) Sure, your baking business could grow by promoting it on FB, because it’s an easy way to reach out to large numbers – but given that you’re fighting in an ever-burgeoning space of home bakers, why focus so much on it? Some of the best (and most successful) home-cooking businesses have spread simply through word of mouth and local orders, with the latter sphere gradually expanding.

    Why stress so much about a medium that makes you feel guilty and inadequate?

    • 1) Im convinced. We dont. We do what we can, and what works.
      2) Youre right. And a lot of it is what Iv said, overcrowded space, success of word of mouth. No guilt, and certainly no stress — this is just putting in words some of the thoughts that occurred to me this past month (in relation to events that I havent highlighted in the post) triggered by the Herzog post which came at the right time.

  5. Ummm.. Should you ever consider to discontinue the business aspect of H&E, I am still going to follow the page & blog for the sole reason that your content appeals to me.

    Selling oneself is something that you can do (or not do)if you’re forced to, It kinda comes naturally to you.. You can be taught to sell yourself better, but you must have the inclination to sell in the first place.

    As far as your work goes, the thing about word of mouth is that it will be steady.. if you get 10 orders a month then you will continue to get ATLEAST 10 orders a month.. As & when the word spreads, this threshold will keep on increasing, slowly but steadily.

    But these will be people who get what you make, and why you do so..

    The same goes for writing :D

    • Im not going to discontinue the business, or the fb page for that matter. If anything, Im going to try and learn to make FB work for me, gradually, when the time comes, rather than be all angsty about it.

      Yes the inclination is an important point. And I think thats what it is — thats why it comes naturally or doesnt come naturally to some. And youre so right about people getting what I do and why I do it. That is important to me. And yes, same goes for writing.

      • You explained the point I was trying to make (badly).

        I find so many of us getting pressured into feeling we should be able to make all the SM platforms work for us, that we keep trying to make it work even if it’s totally counter-intuitive for us. Which only adds to the pressure when we can’t get it to work with the ease that others do.

        I tried it briefly, and quickly decided I was a semi-socialmedia-neo-Luddite. Or something.

  6. Two things – One, I totally *hear* you when you talk about the disinclination and the dissonance when it comes to selling yourself. I think it is a life skill, but I have stopped trying because my attempts (in the business I am currently managing) are so obviously forced and unnatural, I’d rather not do them. Anyway, despite no obvious selling, we’re doing okay for now. We would do much better with all the active selling, but I’ll pick average sales until I learn to market without cringing..

    In your case, I have just one thing to say. I’ve seen so many home bakers exploit social media, especially Facebook (Yes, I’ll use the word exploit), and boost their sales despite their product offerings being strictly AVERAGE. They are able to connect with a wide audience, but the very average products do not make the customers come back after making one single purchase. So there will be a point where those people will face a decline in their sales after the initial euphoria and high has passed.

    I think the key word for any business should be ‘sustainable’, and that can mainly be achieved if you have something worthy to offer in terms of products. Despite not having the opportunity to sample any of your offerings, I can vouch for your cakes. They are driven by simplicity and that is what I think makes them awesome. I think the sales maybe a little slow initially but they are here to stay.

    Sure, it would be great if you could sell yourself. You’d see increased sales and profits. But even now, I think you are much better than those people whose skills only reflect in their sales strategy, but not in their product offerings.

    • Sustainability is key. If i were spending more on making even those 10 cakes, than I was earning from them then all these discussions would be moot.

      I know what you mean by exploiting, and this is what feel — people fo what works for them :) I have moved from being vexed by this phenomenon of all the “wrong” people having the zest and passion to self promote (with the ones I wish would self-promote shying away!) to accepting that this is just the way it is.

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