Our five basic senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch allow us to understand the environment around us.
If we are fit and healthy we use our senses without even thinking, it just happens. They allow us to understand what we like, dislike and to interpret the information around us. How would you live your life if one, or more, of your senses vanished?
Mr Willy Wonka
I want to introduce you to Grant Achatz. Some of you may have heard of him, but I suspect many of you will be going, huh?
He is a chef, based in Chicago. His restaurant, Alinea, is one of the best in the world. His cooking is all about the element of surprise.
For example, one of his dishes looks like a strawberry but tastes like a tomato. He then reverses this and makes a tomato that tastes like a strawberry. Sound a bit Willy Wonka? I guess this is the point. He wants to mess with your head and with your senses.
Most chefs work crazy hours and it is not uncommon for them to work 18+ hours a day.
Grant Achatz was no different and when he opened Alinea in 2005 he pounded his body, rarely taking a day off.
After a while of this punishing schedule he noticed and felt a white spot on his tongue. It was annoying him more than anything so he carried on working all the hours he could.
It became worse so he had a Dentist check it out. The Dentist felt it was a sign of stress and anxiety, suggesting he take some time off and rest.
Grant Achatz ignored the advice. He had to be in the kitchen, he had to be driving the restaurant forward. His goal was for Alinea to be the best restaurant in America.
Losing Your Senses
The white spot did not go away, in fact it became more painful. He mentioned it to his business partner who demanded to take a look. What he saw was not pretty and he insisted that Grant go see a Doctor, rather than the Dentist he had seen earlier.
They ran some tests and the news was devastating.
Cancer is graded on a scale from one to four.
A Cancer grading of four means the survival rate is low, in Grant’s case he had a 30% chance of living.
The one thing that could save him is surgery. The surgery would result in him losing his tongue, both sides of his neck and the left side of his jaw.
He left the Doctor’s office in a daze. He wandered over the road to down Margarita cocktails with his friend and business partner.
‘What are you thinking?’ his friend said. ‘That I’m going to die’ was Grant’s reply.
After the hangover had cleared they decided to release the news as a press release. Word was going to get out and they wanted to control the communication as much as they could.
Chicago University saw the news and felt they could help by offering an alternative solution.
Grant went to see them and what they offered was a clinical trial. One which focused on chemotherapy. There was no guarantee of success but the chance of survival was 70%. This was the complete opposite of the Doctor’s original view which was a 70% chance of death.
Grant signed up knowing there would be one key side effect – he would lose his sense of taste.
Salt and Sketching
During chemotherapy he would wake at 5am, go to the restaurant and prep the food for the day ahead. He would then go for chemotherapy and would then return to the restaurant to work.
As the chemotherapy started to attack the cancer cells, his taste buds started to die. ‘This needs more salt, the seasoning is way off.’
The other chefs would look at each other, not knowing what to say. Grant saw the looks and realised what was happening. ‘The salt is fine, isn’t it?’ The other chefs would nod in silence.
One thought kept spinning around his head. How was he going to be the America’s best chef when he could not taste the food? He sat down, feeling like his world was falling about him, got out a sketch pad and started drawing.
Whenever he came up with a new dish it would often start as an idea, something written down and sketched out.
This would help him think about the presentation and the way it will taste to the customers.
He started to sketch a new dish, something he had been thinking about for a while.
It was here, as he sketched, he had a Eureka! moment. He realised that the concept and execution of a new dish was not in the tasting. It was in his mind.
He knew what flavour combinations worked. He knew how acidic or sweet something should be. All the years of training and creating had taught him this.
Excited at the thought of creating dishes he could not taste he grabbed his most senior chefs. He explained his new idea and how they would do this without his ability to taste.
The Darling Buds
The chemotherapy ended and they waited to see how effective the clinical trial had been.
Grant got the news everyone was hoping for. He was now clear of any cancer in his system. He immediately had one question ‘When will my taste buds be back?’
The Doctors could not give Grant any assurances that they would grow back at all.
Several weeks went by and Grant continued to sketch and communicate how he wanted a dish to be constructed.
Sat at home, wondering if he would ever get back to his old self, he made a coffee and dumped in three spoons of sugar.
He took a sip and flinched, looking down at the coffee cup. He brought the cup up to his mouth and took another sip and flinched again. He could taste the sweetness from the sugar.
Excited he called the Doctors who told him to not get his hopes up too much. This was just the start and it may not get any better than this.
A few weeks later he was prepping a dish in his restaurant and took a taste. Salt! He could taste the sour of the salt!
The improvements continued and to his Doctors surprise the taste buds are fully grown and as good as new. In fact, they are new.
It’s Already Within You
In facing adversity Grant Achatz realised he did not have to rely on something which appeared to be central to what he was doing.
There was another way of doing things, a way which did not hinder the end result.
So, what can we learn from this amazing story?
Is everything as it seems?
Do we take our senses for granted?
Do they trick us?
What would you see/hear/feel if you turned down or turned off one of the senses for a day?
Try it now.
Close your eyes or pop some noise cancelling earphones on.
What are you seeing/hearing/feeling differently? What surprises you about this?
How can you use this learning to develop new, or enhance existing, relationships?
How much more would you listen to someone’s point of view if your sight is switched off?
How much more would you notice someone’s body language if your hearing was lost?
And here’s the thing.
You don’t have to lose any of your senses at all.
You can make a choice to listen because you want to listen.
You can notice someone’s body language and ask if they are OK.
What will you do differently today?