Professional Identity, Strategy

Success through Evasion


The career of a top chef in North Carolina has a great lesson for how to succeed against competition. The lesson: Don’t.

The Path

Katie Button exemplifies the meandering career path that we can so often only make sense of looking back in time. She began with a biomedical engineering Masters degree from L’Ecole Centrale in Paris and then entered a PhD program in neuroscience. What seemed to be a traditional path then veered. She felt directionless, was looking to connect more deeply to her work, and then reignited her love of food.

With no experience cooking, she began serving in restaurants. As she confirmed her interest in working in the kitchen she was told to get more experience first. Using her unusual academic credentials to get in the door, she found work in the U.S. and eventually landed a coveted internship at elBulli. As an alum of one of the best restaurants in the world with a strangely appropriate academic training, Katie Button then had options. She had respected experience under a visionary chef and had impressed people enough along the way for them to offer help (and introductions) when she needed it.

The Mistake

Most people in this position make a mistake. They inadvertently put themselves in positions to compete with the tiny minority of other people just like them. Because we tend to think of careers as having “appropriate” paths we often find ourselves surrounded by people a lot like us. There’s a startup mantra that explains the value of what Ms. Button did and what you can do too: Compete against Non-competition.

Ms. Button didn’t open a restaurant in NYC, LA or Chicago. She went to Asheville, North Carolina. There she was entirely unique. Her strengths and story had no competition. She could dominate her story space.

The Meditation

Take a few minutes to consider who your competition is. Are you surrounded by people with similar stories? In which industry, organization or city could your story compete against no one else?

Photo | Peter Frank Edwards/Cúrate