How to grow a thicker skin in yachting

Q: Rob, Chef, 27:

“I’m a chef coming to the end of my first yachting season. I’ve been so stressed I’ve got a stomach ulcer, and am struggling to sleep despite being tired all the time. The boss is ultra-fussy, he has no problem walking into the galley to return something he doesn’t like, and the crew are always whining about wanting different food- it doesn’t seem to matter what I cook, someone is always complaining. Sometimes I wonder why I bother as they seem to only want to eat junk food! I get no support from the captain at all, as he is a pretty fussy eater himself! Bit by bit, my confidence is completely eroding, and all this criticism has taken all the joy and pride out of what I do. I know I’m a good chef and I want to succeed on yachts, so I’m wondering if you have any techniques for dealing with this?”

A: The Crew Coach:

Oh Rob, as a former crew chef my heart is really going out to you here. Crew often don’t realise how much effort and emotion you as a chef put into the food they’re eating; meals just turn up in front of them several times a day—as if by magic! And if they’ve been dreaming of a greasy burger and fries and you give them steamed whole fish and quinoa because you’re trying to keep them healthy, then they’ll often experience a strong negative emotion to the food you’re putting in front of them (some might even say childish.) But you have to look at it from their perspective: they’re tired, they’re hungry, and they’re often being motivated through a tough charter by the dream of the next meal—so if your food styles don’t match their mood, it unfortunately will fall short of their expectations.

I’d suggest a two-part strategy to turn your situation around and get your confidence back.

The first step is to stop attracting criticism unnecessarily, by adapting your cooking style to meet the crew’s preferences a bit more. That’s not to say serve up junk food all the time, but that you mix things up a bit with the odd bit of home style comfort food that helps to meet the crew’s emotional requirements as well as their nutritional needs. Give them burgers if they want them, let them eat biscuits and cake! (Maybe find a cheffy challenge in making treats as delicious but also healthy and nutritious as possible.) You won’t change their eating habits by forcing them to eat things they don’t like or want – but if you gradually introduce delicious healthy options they may begin to become converted in their own time.

This leads to the second point. A lot of people respond very negatively to criticism (myself included, although I have done a lot of personal development work on this now so I take it a lot better than I used to!). If you don’t have the inner game skills to deal with criticism it can really erode your confidence, and it sounds like this is what has been happening. In addition to learning to take criticism as positive feedback, I believe it will be helpful for you to learn some resilience skills.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from a negative experience, and the ability to keep calm and manage your emotions when things aren’t going well. Luckily, resilience can easily be learnt- it’s just a set of skills, like when you learnt to fillet a fish or make perfect pasta in your chef training.

Learning resilience

–Accept change. Yes, you want to deliver super-healthy food, but this crew is not open to that experience, and you can’t force them to be. Accept that your challenge on this boat is to push your food boundaries and deliver food that you wouldn’t normally cook. This will make you a more well-rounded, more employable chef, so get excited about it!

–View criticism as an opportunity to get better. Next time the boss comes in with a plate of food he doesn’t like, tell you inner drama queen to be quiet and instead be enthusiastic about finding out what the boss didn’t like. Lean into the criticism and use it as an opportunity to learn about the owner’s tastes, and how you can please him next time.

–Make a habit of noticing your emotions throughout the day– particularly when you feel challenged by criticism or fear. Notice the physical stress response- the heightened pulse rate, the shortened breath. Each time you notice these, don’t judge yourself for them, just breathe until you feel calmer. Make a mental note each day about how you’re feeling- and perhaps using a 10 minute meditation app like Headspace each morning might put you in a calmer mind frame for the day.

–Keep a list of all your successes. Resilient people don’t fear criticism at work. They know that they’re good at what they do- (just like you do!); the difference is that while they take criticism on board, they don’t let it shake their core belief in their ability. It can be helpful to write down all the success you’ve had so you can remind yourself of your achievements when you’re beginning to doubt yourself.

There’s a lot more to say about resilience so I suggest you get started with these steps and do a bit of research as your resilience journey continues. Best of luck and let me know how you go!

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