Old Generals

This is Day 8 of a month of posts about how I came to own a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, you can visit the website or find us on Facebook. To read these posts from the beginning, here is Day 1.

Have I mentioned my notebooks yet?

I know I told you about my daily journal


where I scribbled down affirmations (and magical thinking) in the period leading up to opening day, and through the weeks and months that followed.

But I had other notebooks, too. Notebooks full of ideas and menus, full of ways to make this little café into an entire village of projects. Art events and poetry readings and music and weekend gatherings.

Dear friends, I had some plans.

Like old generals who are always fighting the last war, in many ways I’m always trying to perfect my previous undertakings. Maybe I hadn’t been as generous as I should have been in that other business, maybe I wasn’t as inclusive. Maybe I didn’t host enough events, offer enough workshops, hang enough local art, hire enough musicians. Well, here’s another chance to get that right.

Add all that old stuff to the inevitable new stuff — the new challenges, the fresh potential — and I end up with a project so overloaded with expectations it’s bound to disappoint.

cf. second marriage, new job, moving house. 

There’s a reason for that.

There’s a reason that the business — marriage, job, household — you envision is never the one that you actually create.

The reason is, the one you envision is a fantasy.

In your fantasy business, every decision has the desired outcome, every customer is a reflection of you, every interaction occurs in its ideal configuration, and time doesn’t exist.

The business you create is full of people you don’t yet know and glitches you didn’t — couldn’t — anticipate, where time collapses when you need more of it, and the work stretches into eternity when you’re exhausted and just want to go home.

In the business you create, the recipe doesn’t always scale well, and you run out of food well before you run out of customers.

Or you have no customers for all the food you’ve made.

Once more for the folks in back: the business you envision is not the business you create.

Owning and operating a business is like any other creative effort, something I have to keep learning again and again. The painting that lives in your head is never the painting that makes it onto the canvas, because the canvas becomes a part of the creative process. It responds to you in a way the initial vision can’t.

A business responds to you, too. And success — however you might define it — really only comes when you let your new creation be what it intends to be, which is not the thing that lives in your head — or in your notebooks — but the thing that exists as a relationship between you and your customers, between you and the world.

Something alive, organic, fluid, a little unpredictable. Yes.

Allowing that relationship to establish itself means setting aside expectations so you can get a good look at what it is you’re actually creating, and then giving yourself time — not days or even weeks, but months. Maybe years! — to really see it.