There’s a popular show on Food Network called Chopped. Each week, four chefs battle each other and the clock by creating meals from a common set of mystery ingredients. There are three courses. After each course, three culinary experts judge the meals and the loser gets chopped. The last chef standing wins cash and bragging rights.

In the culinary world, winning Chopped is a pretty big deal. But here’s the thing. Chefs love food and they love to cook. Racing against the clock under bright lights and TV cameras with their reputations on the line, not so much.

Last night I watched a talented but introverted chef break out of her comfort zone and beat the pants off three competitors to become a Chopped champion. At that moment, she was exhilarated. At that moment, she realized that facing her fear, putting herself out there, and following her dream was the right move. It’s the only way to win big.

On some level, I suppose we all know that; but that doesn’t make it any easier. For most of us, that barrier is ridiculously hard to overcome. And some of us may have very good reasons not to try.

If you met me, you’d think I’m an extrovert. A risk taker. Someone who effortlessly challenges his own comfort zone. Maybe that’s true to some extent, but it’s never easy and it certainly isn’t effortless.

I’m just as uncomfortable with change as the next guy. It’s something we all wrestle with. The only difference is that I learned early on that, if you want big things out of life, you have to face your fear and do what makes you uncomfortable. And since I’ve always wanted big things out of life, that’s what I’ve always done.

You’d never imagine what motivates me to make that choice over and over. You see, I was blessed with a father who played it safe. He took a menial job that was beneath him because he loved my mother and wanted to start a family – a common motive in his generation. He never took any risks. And I think that haunted him until the day he died.

That lesson lives inside me, but it’s a bit more nuanced than that.

I used to think my dad didn’t go further in his career because he gave into fear. Not true. He sacrificed his hopes and dreams for his kids. Whether it had to be one or the other, I can’t say. He certainly had regrets. “Don’t make the same mistakes I made,” he used to say. I knew what he meant, but the irony didn’t escape me. If he’d never made those mistakes, would I have ever been born?

As you might imagine, I’ve done quite a bit of soul-searching about what stops people from going after their dreams. And I’ve identified three reasons why people don’t follow the advice of Robert Browning, who said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

Fear. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Indeed. It takes courage to face your fear. And even if you’re not consciously aware of it, that is a choice.

Priorities. There’s a lot of content out there about how to be more productive and not procrastinate. It’s all bull. If you procrastinate – if you’re unproductive – there is a reason. Maybe you’re scared. Or your work doesn’t inspire you, which often means you’re doing the wrong work. Sometimes, work simply isn’t your priority; and that’s not always a bad thing.

Inertia. Like me, most of the highly accomplished people I know started with nothing and thrive on adversity. So I don’t buy the argument that lack of privilege is a show stopper. That said, lots of kids go down the wrong path before they even know they have choices. That’s called inertia. Inertia is a real problem.

You do everything for a reason. While there is a random component to life, the outcome is very much dependent on the choices you make, even if you’re not consciously aware that you’re making them, or why. I chose to follow my dad’s advice, rather than follow in his footsteps. I focused on career, not family. Whether it had to be one or the other, once again, I can’t say. All I know is that my wife and I are happy. And the sacrifices my father made had a lot to do with that.

I often think about the last hours I had with the man. He’d been sick for years when that last heart attack hit. My mom called to say he was in the hospital, that he was dying, and that he was waiting for me. I hopped on a red-eye flight to New York and spent the day by his bedside. Before he went to sleep for the last time, I had the chance to say some things I’d always wanted to say but never had. We’d had our differences and I guess something always seemed to get in the way. Not this time.

My dad couldn’t talk, but I knew he could hear me. I told him that, through all the ups and downs, my life had turned out to be pretty darn wonderful. I told him that I was happy, and that I owed it all to him. I thanked him for all the sacrifices he’d made along the way. And I told him that, while it may have taken me a very long time to get it, he was a great dad. And as I looked into his eyes for the last time, he seemed to be at peace.

Wherever he is, I hope he’s living the dream. No more sacrifices.

Image jaimebisbal via flickr

A version of this originally appeared on  

  • Randall Vincent

    Great article Steve. I’ve been enjoying your blog for months. My parents divorced when I was a toddler. My dad was never “there” for me and made no sacrifices on my behalf. I’m 56 and I’ve gotten more insight and wisdom from your writings than anything my dad ever shared with me. I’m happy for you that you had a dad that you could appreciate and that you could be there to comfort him in his final hours.

    • Steve Tobak

      Thanks for the kind words, Randall. Good to have you around.

  • SamHanson

    This deeply moved me, Dad died when I was 5 and ever since then I’ve been lost.
    I know there is the capacity to achieve great things in me, but something isn’t clicking, something is missing.

    It’s fear and I can’t overcome it, so for now I’m “leading a life of quiet misery”. I lead a seemingly normal life; job, some friends and hobbies – but I keep things quiet, don’t open up to anyone about it. Don’t share. Don’t burden others.
    It’s even more painful to see how others who don’t have half of what I have push forward and get what they want, I’m not angry or jealous of them, just at myself for not doing better.

    Not sure if it can change anymore, wish it would.

    The only place I ever shared this was with strangers, on this website.
    Your story is great and you’re an inspiration, thank you.

    • Steve Tobak

      It’s never too late, Sam. But hey, don’t beat yourself up about it; you’re certainly not alone. Here’s the thing. I was in that situation long ago. I finally said, “screw it, if this is the best it gets, i’m ok with that.” I made peace with it and let go. That’s when all the good stuff started to happen and my career really started to take off. No kidding.

      • SamHanson

        Thank you, Steve.
        I was told that advice by my Mom and still find it hard to “let it go”, never thought something so easy can actually work.
        I’ll do it, highly appreciate it.

        • Steve Tobak

          Mom’s can be pretty wise that way. As I recall, it wasn’t easy for me either. It only happened when I really had bottomed out — reached the end of my rope. It was a great relief, actually. Good luck with it!

  • WMC

    I once heard or read something such as this: “If you could do anything in the entire world, and God promised you that you would not fail, what would you choose to do?”

    I think of this concept often and I realize that, among many things, there’s a whole lot of courage required to ‘go there’ and be honest with one’s self in such an intimate and private probing.

    Perhaps it is not only one thing that needs to be accomplished. Perhaps there’s one thing, once completed, that will lead one’s life onto ‘a different path’.

    I feel that I have found that one thing and I am busy setting myself up to do it. For real.

    Steve, your thought-provoking words above are refreshing and seem to align a few reader-writters with others of a similar mind, on the bottom of the page. The two comments below, like your article, are deep. Thank you kindly for your ongoing effort. You are a source of wisdom one can easily rely upon. Sincerely. W,

  • LeviMeow

    Thank you for sharing. May he rest in peace.