Embracing the First Pancake

Programming - Apr 19, 2024

Illustration of a oddly shaped pancake with a smiley face, on a hot blue griddle.

Sometimes, I like to give a year a theme – something to help guide and inspire me as the year drones on. At the beginning of 2023, I knew I was facing challenges, professionally and personally. I felt stuck, frustrated, and unable to move forward. Enter…the philosophy of the First Pancake. 

If you’ve ever made pancakes or anything pancake-like, you know the first pancake is never quite right. Maybe the pan was too hot, or you put too much batter, or the batter was too thick or too thin. Maybe you needed more or less butter. The first pancake, while still delicious, isn’t perfect. At all. You still eat it, of course, but maybe it’s the one the chef gets to sample before making a bunch for the rest of the family.

Actual photo of an ambitious first pancake, stuffed with oats, chocolate chips, apple, and peanut butter courtesy of Venunye Tamakloe, who happened to be making pancakes the day I drafted this article.

The thing about the first pancake is that you can’t get to the second pancake, or the giant, delectable stack of pancakes, without making that first one. After the first one, you adjust the temperature of the skillet. Add some water to thin out the batter. Maybe add a little bit more butter to the pan. You learn. You make adjustments. You try them out on your second pancake. 

I often have a lot of ideas, but I get thwarted by wanting to make sure things are perfect from the outset. I create barriers to getting started because I’m worried what other people will think or if I’ll look foolish if it doesn’t succeed as I hoped. I want that stack of identical, perfect, delicious pancakes immediately. But I realized I need to get through that first imperfect pancake before making that stack. And you can’t know if something is going to work out the way you want until you try.

This thinking empowered me to focus on more quick and measurable execution of new ideas, knowing that I could refine them once I’ve done it and have learned a little bit. (I could even stop making that particular flavor of pancakes if things didn’t turn out as I expected! Imagine!)

I tried a lot of new, scary stuff in 2023. I learned about SEO and marketing for Cloud Four. (ahem. still learning.) There was that ill-fated cold email outreach campaign (there will be no more of those pancakes). I started a video podcast. Nicole Mors and I conceived and planned the AI Portland meetup. I started a book club for the Bureau of Digital. Lots of first attempts, not all successful at first. 

The cool thing about this approach is that some of those early ideas become building blocks for other things in the future. Not only do you learn for the next evolution of that particular attempt, but it helps you with other things you want to try. And because you already took the steps to make the first one, you move quicker to that tall stack of pancakes you really wanted to make. For example, I learned some interviewing skills in my podcast that transferred very nicely to a panel I moderated this month. 

In 2024, I’ll keep throwing batter in the pan, of course, but I will also work on taking some of my more promising first pancakes and refining them into second, third, or beautiful stacks of fluffy, delectable pancakes. Will it be the Year of the Short Stack? That remains to be seen. But I hope to have many more pancakes to devour.

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