Cupcakes and Competition: Lessons from a High School Bake-off

Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcakes with Cookie Dough Centers. Yeah baby.

“Mom,” my daughter said. “I have to bake cupcakes for Huffman’s class. It’s for a bake-off and I get 25 points for entering.”

“Great,” I answered. “How many points do we get when we win?”

Oh, we won. We don’t mess around. We made Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcakes (a la Joy the Baker) with a cookie dough center, complete with whipped cream and cherries. Some of the other kids—kids who brought inferior baked goods–criticized Maddy for trying too hard.

Trying too hard?? It’s a competition! Do you criticize your basketball team for trying too hard? Do you tell your track runners to slow down? No. You tell them to WIN.

My daughter and I are both highly competitive. Our competitiveness is exceeded only by our lack of athletic ability. So while we can’t run faster or jump higher or hit harder than you, we will KICK YOUR ASS in a bake-off. Our cupcakes will mop the floor with your lousy cookies and then stuff them down your throat, LOSER.

Only we won’t say that out loud, because we’re ladylike.

Maddy and I were cracking ourselves up, talking about our aggressive baking and how our thwarted competitive natures spill over into non-competitive arenas because we have no other outlets. Maddy said something like, “Yeah, I’m good at all the lame stuff—baking, board games, logic puzzles…”

Then, because I am a mom, I jumped in with a little lesson that I wish I’d learned earlier in my life.

“Baking isn’t lame. Logic puzzles aren’t lame. You think it’s the lame stuff because it’s what you’re good at,” I told her. “Other people wish they were good at the things you’re good at—it’s not lame stuff. You just don’t value your talents because they come easily to you. But they don’t come easily to everyone. ”

When I was younger, I felt like I was only good at easy things. My strong suits are words, pictures and people.  To me, those are all easy, fun, fluffy talents. Even my strongest skill, which has always been writing, seemed inadequate to me. Because I have a simple, straightforward style, I felt like my writing was unsophisticated and childish. I always believed that the real value was in the numbers skills–the logical, left-brain sort of talents. Yeah, I can make things look nice and I can get along with people but who cares? Who’s going to pay me for that?

As I entered corporate America, I was subjected to personality and aptitude tests that reinforced that belief. No matter which test they administered, I was cast straight into the bimbo category: you’re a Sanguine! A High I! An ENFP! They all seemed to indicate that I talk too much and I can’t keep my act together. I think my elementary school teachers were in on those tests.

I wished I could be more like the analytical types, or the bold, Type-A types. I wished my skill sets were more practical. Basically, I just wanted to be what I wasn’t. Don’t we all?

One perk of getting older is that as we gain perspective through experience, we are able to see ourselves more clearly and understand how we fit into the big picture. I have now read enough bad writing to realize what a gift it is to be succinct and articulate. I have now worked for enough terrible bosses that I see the value in people skills. I have seen enough ugliness to appreciate my own ability to make things beautiful.

I’ve also figured out that not everyone thinks that what I do is easy. Even smart people with great ideas can’t always put them in writing. They think it’s some crazy superpower, just the way I feel about people who can do math in their heads.  More than one employer has capitalized on my people skills—turns out that people skills, or “soft skills,” as they are referred to in corporate-speak, are very hard to teach.

I’m not sure if this is universal or just women who do this, but it took me a long time to understand that the “easy stuff” only seemed easy to me because I am good at it.

This phenomenon of downgrading our own talents seems to be an extension of the grass-is-always-greener mindset.  We always think someone else’s talents are more valuable than our own.  Someone said, “If the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence, try watering your own lawn.”  Genius.

In this case, we need to recognize that just because it comes naturally to us, doesn’t mean it’s cheap or lame—someone wishes it came naturally to her, too.  Someone wishes he could write a better sentence, or bake a better cupcake.  My abilities are unique and valuable, even though it took me several decades to realize it. They are worth cultivating.

Another perk of being middle aged: I still have time to implement all this wisdom I’m trying to impart to my daughter. It’s not like I’m croaking out advice on my deathbed. It’s not too late to capitalize on those talents—not too late to water my own lawn.

Smart Girl Syndrome

I’m a smart girl. It’s the one thing I can hang my hat on. I am occasionally a pretty girl—but every girl has pretty days and ugly days. I’m usually a funny girl; at least in my head I’m funny. And I have a lot of phases that come and go—fat girl, artsy girl, religious girl, bitchy girl. But as long as I can remember, I’ve been a smart girl. Everybody says so: “That Meg, she’s a smart girl.”

Sometimes I am even called a smart “cookie.” I know that’s vaguely insulting from a feminist perspective, but it doesn’t bother me. Who doesn’t like cookies? And tacking that cutesy diminutive onto the word “smart” takes the pressure off.

Oh, you can bet your patootie there’s pressure. There are smart decisions to make, smart books to read… and there are things smart girls never do. They never sleep with men they’re not interested in because they’re lonely, or spontaneously adopt a Siberian husky because it’s cute, or buy ridiculously expensive vacuum cleaners from the door-to-door Kirby salesman. (Damn that Kirby salesman!) No, smart girls never do any of those things that I just spontaneously invented for the sake of illustration. Smart girls don’t lie much, either.

My boyfriend doesn’t like it when I say that I’m smart. He says it’s “not very becoming.” (I know, I know. That’s another post.) He doesn’t understand that for me, being smart is not something to boast about. I don’t believe being smart makes you superior. Smart is just another kind of different. It has advantages and disadvantages.

Smart is just the way my brain works. In most cases, I can quickly absorb and process information. I can synthesize and apply what I’ve learned in the past to new situations. I can recall a lot of big words at just the right moment.

Smart is not the same as wise. Yes, I can wrap my brain around the facts quickly, but that doesn’t mean I know what to do with them. Smart is not clever, either– I might know what’s going on, but I sure don’t know what to say about it.

I raised a couple of really smart kids, and I often told them that it doesn’t matter how smart you are if no one can tell. We live in a performance-based world. No one cares if you have a bunch of brilliant thoughts in your head—you have to DO something with them. It’s the Forrest Gump corollary: smart is as smart does.

If only I followed the advice I gave my kids, huh?

Notice I don’t claim to be a smart woman, despite the onset of my menses nearly thirty years ago. I’m still hiding behind the word “girl.” Seems like if I were a smart woman, there would be some achievement involved, some greater personal discipline that would allow me to capitalize on this brain of mine. Smart women are powerful, and they get things done. No, that’s even more pressure. Who needs that?

“Smart girl” implies potential, and I have loads of that. Any minute now, I could do something awesome. I’m just doing a careful analysis to determine the smartest way to go about it.