Ah, the office pot luck! Not since junior high school have I been so keenly aware of how absolutely well I do not fit into mainstream society! As a pescetarian who can’t eat 95% of cheese and dairy products out there, I’m rather problematic for the typical potluck buffet. Generally I wind up eating chips and dip (if my coworkers remember not to add shredded cheddar or mozzarella), dinner rolls, and desserts.
Deciding what to bring is not that easy, either. Desserts tend to work best, but a girl gets tired of eating nothing but desserts for lunch on potluck days. Same with chips, sodas, crackers, and plates. (Okay, I don’t eat plates, but they are a good thing to bring if you’re broke and don’t really cook all that well.)
The other day my team at The Day Job™ held a potluck for a coworker whose wife just had a baby. Normally, I would have brought some cookies or chips. But a coworker had given me a zucchini from her neighbor’s garden that I was trying to use up. (Seriously, this thing was like a Junior Louisville Slugger. I’ve made three meals from it, and it’s still hanging on.) I also had a package of quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wha”) I’d been wanting to use in the cupboard. I’d tasted quinoa at some of the higher-end Louisville restaurants and I loved its earthy flavor and unusual texture (better than couscous by far, but not quite as hippy-granola as brown rice.)
Now, for those of you who are not familiar with quinoa, here’s a little write up from the University of Wisconsin-Extension site:
Quinoa or quinua (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) is native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. This crop (pronounced KEEN-WAH), has been called “vegetable caviar” or Inca rice, and has been eaten continuously for 5,000 years by people who live on the mountain plateaus and in the valleys of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile. Quinua means “mother grain” in the Inca language. This crop was a staple food of the Inca people and remains an important food crop for their descendants, the Quechua and Aymara peoples who live in rural regions.
The grain contains more protein than corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, and wheat, and more fiber than barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, and wheat. It’s also lower in carbohydrates than pretty much anything besides buckwheat and oats, putting in a very good place on the glycemic index.
So, as I said, Zucchini-zilla needed attending to, and I had that quinoa burning a hole in my pantry. I found this pretty awesome recipe that looked easy enough for even a cook at my level to make, and got to work. The whole thing cost me about $1.50 to make, so it was no big financial risk. When I was done, it tasted pretty darned good to me. I got Fey to try it, and she added some spice and salt (I always tend to undersalt…), and it tasted even darned better! When it passed the Mundane Palate Test (aka, Fey’s Mom thought it quite tasty), I made the decision that this would be my contribution to the office potluck.
As I drew nearer the office the morning of the potluck, though, my decision to bring quinoa to the table began weighing on me. After all, this is the Heartland. They don’t really cotton to strange food here (unless it’s local strange food). By the time I hit my desk, I was already preparing the hard sell—explanations of the grain’s odd appearance, a recitation of the health benefits, sworn affidavits ensuring the flavor and general non-toxicity of all ingredients.
And then it hit me—why was I apologizing for my contribution? Nobody ever apologized for the Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding, which can cause a diabetic coma from sheer proximity. In a heartbeat, a plot was hatched. The plot quickly became a plan, which rapidly evolved into…
The Quinoa Experiment
Instead of a pre-emptive public relations strike on behalf of my potluck dish, I did the unthinkable. I merely placed the container of quinoa among the other potluck submissions, without comment or explanation. I then returned to my desk, which had a very good view of the buffet area, and proceeded to observe the reactions. Not to sound too Jane Goodall here, but it was truly a fascinating experiment, watching adults encounter a food completely different from anything they’d ever seen. Here are few notes I jotted down (why skip the opportunity for a fun blog post?)
8:05 am: Placed quinoa in buffet setting.
8:53 am: By now, almost all coworkers have surveyed food. No questions yet on the quinoa.
9:00 am: Personal survey of buffet area reveals quinoa untouched by coworkers. Placed small amount of quinoa on my plate so that coworkers could see it was nontoxic, then arranged the fork purposefully to see if it was disturbed.
9:10 am: Observed coworker (female) hovering over area where quinoa is placed. There is some hesitation before coworker reaches over quinoa to scoop cheese dip onto her plate. Quinoa remains untouched.
9:15 am: Observed two coworkers (male) at quinoa site. Coworkers are engaged in conversation, with meaningful glances in the direction of the quinoa. Both regard the dish, with occasional bouts of uncomfortable laughter, but neither touches the dish. Younger male coworker leaves with two donuts and a plate of fruit. Older male coworker takes nothing. Quinoa as yet untouched by coworkers.
9:24 am: At last! A female coworker inquires about the quinoa. Confirms she has discussed the dish with other workers prior to asking me, but still does not partake. Gives assurances she will “try some at least.”
It took almost an hour and a half before anyone even asked about the strange-looking food on the counter. It was almost the end of the day before any coworkers tried it. Two female coworkers each had “one spoonful” to try. One hated it, and the other thought it was “interesting, but not my thing.” But at least they tried it.
The Lesson Learned
So what lesson can we bring from this little social experiment? That people in offices don’t want healthy dishes at their damned potlucks? Well, yeah, that’s a no-brainer. But an even deeper observation can be made into the nature of people and their resistance to change.
Most of us are so deep within our comfort zones that we not only resist change—we barely even register its existence! We go through our lives (all of us, to some extent) by rote—eating the same foods, having the same conversations, experiencing the same annoyances, cheering the same teams—for so long that we don’t even realize we are doing it. We become so entrenched in our habits that we are unable to even see something outside our comfort zone.
When applied to finding your life work, this tunnel vision is toxic. It limits not only your options, but your ability to become aware that options exist. It’s what Steve Pavlina calls learned helplessness:
That voice tells you that settling into a job where you sell widgets the rest of your life just won’t cut it. That voice frowns at you when you catch a glance of your oversized belly in the mirror or get winded going up a flight of stairs. It beams disappointment when it sees what’s become of your family. It tells you that the reason you have trouble motivating yourself is that you aren’t doing what you really ought to be doing with your life… because you’re afraid. And if you refuse to listen, it will always be there, nagging you about your mediocre results until you die, full of regrets for what might have been.
So how do you respond to this ornery voice that won’t shut up? What do you do when confronted by that gut feeling that something just isn’t right in your life? What’s your favorite way to silence it? Maybe drown it out by watching TV, listening to the radio, working long hours at an unfulfilling job, or consuming alcohol and caffeine and sugar.
But whenever you do this, you lower your level of consciousness. You sink closer towards an instinctive animal and move away from becoming a fully conscious human being. You react to life instead of proactively going after your goals. You fall into a state of learned helplessness, where you begin to believe that your goals are no longer possible or practical for you. You become more and more like a mouse, even trying to convince yourself that life as a mouse might not be so bad after all, since everyone around you seems to be OK with it. You surround yourself with your fellow mice, and on the rare occasions that you encounter a fully conscious human being, it scares the hell out of you to remember how much of your own courage has been lost.
When we were kids, we were insanely brave. We tried things no rational adult would even consider, and somehow, we survived. And when we were kids, the world was ginormous—filled with adventure and possibility and joy. Sure, we found things we hated (algebra, lima beans, etc.), but we found even more things that were just plain freaking awesome (wheelies, punk rock music, Pop Rocks).
Now, we’re afraid to try a stupid grain?
Getting Beyond the Grain
I’m not saying your whole life is going to change if you eat quinoa. But seriously—think about the things you do, and what you’re willing to try. When was the last time you just went for it and tried something weird? When was the last time you truly went beyond your comfort zone? By rigidly sticking to what you know, you block entrance for all those wonderful things you don’t know about (but really would be happy to know if you did!)
If you really want to push through the ordinary into an extraordinary life, you need to be willing to go past your comfort zone. Here are a few easy tips to get you started on the road away from your Comfort Zone.
- Try a new flavor of ice cream (I tried Grits & Sorghum ice cream tonight. It was actually quite delicious.)
- Listen to music from an artist you’ve never heard of before (Spotify and Pandora are great places to start).
- Learn a new language.
- Take an online course in a subject you know nothing about (like Physics or Electrical Engineering).
These are cheap (or free) ways to stretch the borders of your comfort zone. By expanding your comfort zone, you expand your world—and your opportunities for thriving within it!