Lessons from Cake

Some things can’t be learned in a lecture or from a textbook. Here are 10 life lessons I have learned from CAKE.

10. Venture outside your comfort zone…

If you keep making the cakes you’ve always made, you’ll end up with the cakes you’ve always made! Or something wise like that, anyway.

But it’s true! As tempting as it can be to stick with the cake you know you can pull off, you have to push yourself in order to grow and learn – and this is just like real life, too. Trying new things is always scary, but sometimes you need to take that leap of faith!

Comfort Zone

9. …But stick to what you know when it counts!

But there’s a time and a place. Just like deciding to get a side fringe on the day of your year 10 formal is not a great idea (yeh, it happened), experimenting with a new ganache recipe on that cake you need for tomorrow is not a great idea either (and yeh, it happened too).

I can’t tell you how many times I have “learned” this rule the hard way – in my cake life, and in my general life! Maybe one day I will actually take note and learn it once and for all!

Practice makes perfect (or, near-perfect!) so venture outside your comfort zone on the dummy cake, well before you need to do it on a real cake for a paying customer. And maybe try that haircut out a few months before your formal. Not the day of.

Seriously, High School Musical even said so.

8. Don’t compare yourself to others.

I just love scrolling through my Facebook feed and admiring the work of all the amazingly talented cake artists out there, but I also learned pretty early on not to compare my own work to theirs. If I did, I would have given up straight away!

Appreciate others work, but don’t let theirs devalue yours. And this goes for everything in life. Be happy for others, and be happy for you!

COmpare Yourself

7. Don’t make important decisions when you’re tired/crying/frustrated/angry.

When everything that can possibly go wrong with a cake has gone wrong, and you’re swearing and crying and telling everyone around you that you never want to see another cake again – not ever – it’s really not a good idea to keep working on it. I ASSURE you (from plenty of experience) that the end result will only be WORSE than the sh*tty result you had to start with.

This is JUST like refraining from online shopping when uni assignments make you cry. You will make very irrational decisions and it always ends in regret. Not only is your assignment still confusing and unfinished, but you are also $200 poorer.

It’s just like refraining from telling your mum/dad/boyfriend/girlfriend/bffl in the heat of an argument that you hate them/despise them/think they stink/wish they’d move to Yemen**.

Sometimes the best thing to do is sleep on it – in cake and in life.

Keep calm

6. Cutting corners (almost always) doesn’t work.

I’m capable of being lazy, and I like saving time/money/effort where I can. But 95% of the time that I think I am being smart and doing something in a way that will save me time/money/effort, it totally backfires and takes me twice as much time, money AND effort to re-do it properly.

Most of the time, the best thing to do is usually not the easiest.

I guess there is a bit of truth to that outside the kitchen, too. Sometimes a tough decision now can save a lot of heartache later; putting in the hard-yards today will make tomorrow a little easier.

Sorry, but I had to get a Harry Potter reference in here somewhere.

But I say ‘almost always’ because sometimes cutting corners is okay. Like using a Greens packet mix. I am not a cake snob. My day has been saved many-a-time by a cardboard box in the back of the cupboard. Thanks Greens.

5. Support is everything.

If you don’t have the right supports in your cake, it’s going to be going dowwwwn (yelling timber!), and you might just be the next top click on Cake Wrecks. (Well, at least you’ll providing some some much needed laughter in the world?)

Spending time before you start decorating to make sure your cake is structurally sound seems a little tedious, and it’s easy to forget how important it is. Often we only realise the importance of a strong foundation when we don’t have one, and something does go wrong.

Cake Fail

It’s pretty easy to take friends and family for granted, and it’s often not until times get tough that we realise just how important a strong support network is. You can’t get through life on your own – well, you can try, but you’ll likely end up like that cake on the bottom tier that didn’t have dowels in it, and got slowly crushed from all the pressure on top (figuratively, not literally, that would be very weird otherwise).

Friends are a bra

4. Know your worth… and stick to it!

Okay, deep breath, this is a big one!

When I moved from making cakes for friends/family to strangers, the thing I found the hardest (and still find the hardest!) is pricing.

When I had worked for other employers, I would sign a contract that established my “value” to them, in terms of an hourly wage. Suddenly I was my own boss, and it was up to me to determine my “value”. I found it hard (and still do!) to put a price on something I had made personally, almost feeling guilty for expecting people to pay for my cakes! I also initially  found it very confronting when people would turn my quotes down for being “too expensive,” or contact me wanting complex 3D cakes for $50-$100 – “but it only has to be small!”

In the beginning, I made the same mistake that so many cake decorators make. I started charging barely above cost in order to “be nice”. I rationalised this with the thought that this was something I enjoyed doing, I wasn’t as good as a professional, and at least I was covering my costs!

HOLD UP!

  1. Something being enjoyable and profitable are not mutually exclusive. I’m pretty sure Taylor Swift really loves singing about her ex-boyfriends, and she gets paid good money to do it!
  2. You certainly don’t have to be the best in your field to get paid for your work… imagine if this applied in other professions? The best lawyer/builder/doctor/hairdresser/nurse/teacher in the world can get paid properly for their work, but everyone else can earn just enough to pay their expenses? I don’t think so!
  3. As for cost covering, as someone who is almost (seriously, I only have three weeks and 4 exams to go!) an economist, I know better than anyone about the concept of ‘opportunity cost’. Time is a cost. When you look at it this way, I was not even close to “covering my costs”! When I worked in an office, I would never have been okay with my boss saying “well, you seemed to enjoy that paperwork today, so we will just give you the cost of your lunch and petrol – you don’t need to be paid any more than that!”

As I became increasingly busy with study commitments and a handful of other regular jobs, I started to realise that I absolutely had to increase my cake prices if I was to continue to justify spending time on cakes. I didn’t need all those customers – if they went to Betty Smith down the road who was going to charge half my price, I would survive just fine. After all, cakes were (and still are) a hobby on the side for me, and not a full-time source of income. There was no rational justification for me to be so desperate to meet their expectations. …Except to avoid ‘rejection’. Anyone who decorates cakes would know that this hobby is not a quick one – every cake represents many hours of love and hard work. I just don’t have the time – between assignments and exams and jobs and friends and life – to sacrifice that kind of time for next to no money.

Slowly I have learned to embrace rejection – by acknowledging my worth and sticking to it! When someone doesn’t reply to my quote, I don’t get upset about it. If someone asks me to lower my price, I politely tell them I can’t. I would rather lose the sale than spend 10 hours on a cake to make $10. Everyone’s on a budget, and I completely understand that (I’m a full time student… I get this!) so rather than taking it personally, I think of it as ‘their price-range wasn’t for me’ rather than ‘my cake wasn’t for them’!

It makes me unbelievably sad when I visit large supermarket chains and see licensed character fondant cakes being sold for $20 – less than the minimum hourly wage of an adult casual worker here in Australia. No wonder people expect me to whip them up something magic on a budget! But the reality is, I am not a big supermarket chain, and my cakes don’t taste like they’re from one, either!

I am a member of a number of online buy, sell and swap groups. I am constantly dumbfounded when people post requests for elaborately decorated cakes or cupcakes, often for two days time, and specify the price must be “reasonable.” Potential cake makers often comment their offering price on the post, and the poster will sometimes say outright that the (usually reasonable) cost is “well out of their price range” or that “but such and such said they’d do it for $20 less”. Thus, I have come to realise that nine times out of ten, the word “reasonable” does not mean ‘reasonable-for-very-time-intensive-and-elaborate-cakes-made-within-48-hours’, but actually just ‘cheap’. How anyone can sell Chanel cupcakes with modelled handbags and jewellery on top of them for $2 a cupcake is beyond my comprehension , and I would certainly like to know about whatever magic they’re using to make money off that. Unfortunately, I think that the reality is that there is no magic at work, and the pressure of having 20 people compete in a public space for the poster’s business has caused everyone to lose their marbles and drastically undervalue their own work. This is never okay! Not only are you harming your own bottom line, but you’re also continuing to feed the belief that reasonably-priced cakes are overpriced cakes.

I am so passionate about the cakes that I make, and I truly believe that if you are good enough at what you do, there will always be someone who can see your worth and will be willing to pay for it.

This was a lesson in cake, but I think it’s a lesson that will stick with me as I move through life. Believing that what you do has value, and even just believing that you as a person have worth, is something we all need to do more of. There are always going to be people along the way that don’t see your ‘sparkle’, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there! Learn to be your own number one fan – because if you don’t see your worth, how can you expect others to?

Value doesnt decrease

3. You are your own worst critic.

I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. A ‘bit’ is probably a slight understatement. This drives me crazy. If you watch Girls (which, if you don’t, you should, because it’s wonderful) then you’ll appreciate me explaining it like this:

Marnie 2

When it comes to cakes, this is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because I think a little perfectionist streak is necessary and helps push me to learn new things and continually improve. A curse, because, well, as Marnie says, it’s REALLY exhausting!

No cake is perfect. Seriously – ask even the most experienced decorator and I would bet you my own dog (that’s how serious I am here) that they could point out a “flaw” to you. When I make cakes, all I can see is what’s wrong with them. The tiny air bubble here, the slightly off centre stripe there, the pattern that didn’t quite line up at the back…. Sometimes I could write a whole novel-worth of things I’m not happy about with a cake!

But then the customer picks it  up and says “wow, what an incredible cake!” They don’t see the cake the same way I do – they’re looking for the good rather than the bad. They probably don’t even know what an air bubble is, or what elephant skin is, or that the stripe was meant to line up at the back. They just think it’s a pretty cool looking cake!

It’s so easy in anything (cake, work, study, life in general) to be our own worst critic. My mum always tells me that people step back and look at the cake as a whole, rather than carefully analyse each aspect of it, and I think that’s a fabulous metaphor for stepping back in life, and looking at the big picture. It can be so easy to see the glass as half empty, when it’s actually half full!

Talk to yourself as if you love

2. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

One of the most common things people say to me when they contact me about a fondant cake is that they don’t want it to taste like the fondant cake they ate 10 years ago at Aunty Betty’s 70th birthday.

I pride myself on my cakes tasting just as yummy on the inside as they look on the outside, and although I know that 20 years ago the cake world was a little different, these days 90% of decorators are all about the ganache and THIN fondant. Nothing can taste bad thats lathered in cream and chocolate… it’s a fact.

So I always find it telling that when people contact me after they’ve eaten the cake, the first thing they usually have to say is not “oh wow it looked so fabulous” but actually “WOW it TASTED fabulous!” And they’re usually surprised about this!

It just shows that no matter how great (or less than great) the cake may look, what’s on the inside leaves just as much an impression. A beautiful cake that tastes terrible is not going to get customers returning… But if your cake looks slightly less than perfect but taste devine? I reckon they just might be willing to give you another shot…

Now if that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is!

All life wisdom can be obtained from Disney movies.

1. It’s OKAY to mess up.

Numerous times I have come across the surprising statistic that people’s most common number one fear is public speaking. Weirdly, I actually enjoy public speaking (really, one of my “real” jobs is teaching little kids how to be kick-ass public speakers!) but without a doubt my number one fear is “making a mistake”!

Which is completely ridiculous, because mistakes are the best way to learn.

Woody Allen

It wasn’t until I started making cakes that I really discovered the importance of mistakes, especially in the realm of creativity. I have made so many mistakes in my “cake life”. I mean, I could have you hysterically belly laughing from some of them – that’s how ridiculous they are! (But I won’t because you might judge me and never trust me to make you a cake, ever.) But, I can also tell you that from each of those mistakes, I have learned something very valuable.

Mistakes

Trying new things often leads to mistakes. After all, new things usually take practice to get right. If I had not made any mistakes, I would not have tried new things, and the cakes I would be making today would be the same boring (and slightly dodgy looking) cakes I was making two years ago.

JK rowling

One of my favourite stories to tell about making mistakes involves eight year old me. We were told to draw a picture for a competition, to feature on “christmas cards” distributed by the local bus company. I was/am a terrible drawer, and I scribbled a strange looking drawing of a bus (driven, of course, by Santa) being pulled by brown horse looking things (I mean, er, ‘reindeers’).

It turns out that I didn’t listen properly, and the drawing was actually for a calendar.

But guess what? My mistake was excellent.Every other kid drew generic pictures of rainbows and flowers and stick people and whatever else eight year olds like to draw – great for any month of the year. But my Christmas-themed picture became “Miss December”!

I remember the teacher telling me it was a clever idea… I look back now and laugh – I had no idea what I was doing! I wish I could claim I was the smart kid who thought “oh I’ll be creative and draw a christmas themed picture for December!” but unfortunately, no!

So, as my reward for not listening properly, I got a voucher – and bragging rights to tell everyone I was now a serious artist, featured on a calendar. In other words, I actually won because of, and not in spite of, my mistake!

Now. Maybe don’t tell your kids this story. Nine times out of ten, not listening properly at school doesn’t end well (and I have experienced that first hand too…) but I think it is a wonderful example of why – sometimes – something not going to plan is actually not so bad after all! …That, and it makes me laugh.

To prove this is 100% true, I even found the calendar for you.

photo

In all seriousness, a good cake decorator is one who has learned from their mistakes… similarly, an exciting life is one filled with mistakes. Sometimes I think we have to fail somewhere along the way, otherwise how are we supposed to know what success is?

Huffington

On that note, I hope you take my “lessons in cake and life” on board, but still discover your own, too.

**If you got this Friends reference, you are truly a wonderful person.

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6 thoughts on “Lessons from Cake

  1. Good Morning!

    Are you doing your marvellous Christmas cup cakes this year?

    If so I need to order some

    Please!

    I love your lessons learnt!

    Cheers

    Marg

    • Hi Margo! I sure am. They are slightly different to last year (“new and improved”!) and I will put details up on my Facebook page and this blog @ the end of November. They are $45 for a dozen box, $25 for half dozen. I have done the ad already so if you would like me to email it to you now (it has a picture of them and all the info) so you can get it early just let me know where to send it to! Micaela 🙂

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