Fork in the Stone
Earn self-respect with three basic habits
The Bear is a television series that follows an award-winning chef who returns to Chicago to run his family’s sandwich shop. In the second season, Richie, one of the restaurant employees—an obnoxious man-child but a loyal friend—alienated his coworkers with his terrible attitude. The chef believed Richie had potential but lacked purpose, so he sent Richie to work at a Michelin-starred restaurant for a week instead of firing him. There, the restaurant manager put Richie to work polishing forks.
At first, Richie approached the task with his signature sloppiness—hastily drying utensils and tossing them into a tub. After a few days of nothing but cleaning forks, the boredom (and a little inspiration from the high-end restaurant) transpired a change. Richie started to respect the work. He improved his process—polishing every tine on every fork and lining them neatly in the drying rack.
This small behavior change toggled a domino effect for Richie. He organized his apartment, dressed better, reduced his swearing, and treated his coworkers with dignity. He eventually found his calling: Providing excellent customer service.
I love this series, and this “Forks” episode is my favorite because it illustrates the power of developing self-respect through incremental habit change.
Boredom as a Blessing
I have been fortunate enough to experience a similar transformation in my work. Four years ago, I was notorious for botching product releases. My sloppiness put serious bugs into production and caused customer issues, and I screwed up not once but several times. Instead of firing me, the product leader gave me the Richie treatment. He took away all my responsibilities except one thing: Ensuring quality data ingestions.
At first, my ego took a hit, as I was embarrassed to lose so much scope and get relegated to “boring work.” It wasn’t until a year later that I realized the gift this was. I learned about graph databases, the complexities of data normalization, and how to make a positive difference for customers. The narrow scope allowed me to dig deep into the product and excel at something.
While Richie and I were lucky enough to get a second chance, not everyone gets this work experience. However, I believe the principle of fork polishing is accessible to everyone and broadly applicable to any endeavor.
Fork in the Stone
We can’t accomplish anything if we can’t manage ourselves, and we can’t manage ourselves if we bite off more than we can chew. Sometimes, we aren’t aware of the ambitious bites we take or the distractions we invite, and this lack of awareness can silently stall our progress. To overcome this, we need a stable foundation.
We may believe that a stable foundation should be relevant to our goals. For example, if we want to be professional golfers, we might think we need good swinging habits. Counterintuitively, we’re better off forming an exercise habit unrelated to golf. Establishing routines that are too relevant won’t build the stable foundation we need.
If we build a narrow foundation—practicing daily golf swings—we create a fragile base. If we throw out our shoulders, we lose the stability that habit provided. Similarly, our baseline habits are useless if we change our goals (i.e., to become a competitive bike-packer).
Instead, we’re better off building a foundation with three general-purpose habits because once we develop self-discipline, we’ll have a better framework to mold our pursuits.
Imagine a magic fork stuck in a stone, like King Arthur’s sword. This fork in the stone is our key to self-respect. But, to withdraw the fork, we must unlock its three tines.
When we’re not sure where to start, I recommend three daily habits:
The Three Tines
Begin with exercise and aim for something with a high probability of daily success, such as ten minutes of jogging or twenty push-ups and sit-ups. On a calendar or in a notebook, start marking days as successes or failures based on this habit. Do this for a week. After seven days, evaluate whether it was too easy, too complicated, or too repetitive and tweak it (i.e., increase the jog to fifteen minutes, decrease the push-ups to ten, or add variety).
As we enter the second week, adopt a second habit: reading. Pick any enjoyable book and read it for a set number of minutes daily. Ten minutes is a good starting point because it’s not too overwhelming but can add up quickly. Read for seven days straight and record success or failure alongside the exercise habit.
In week three, begin the final keystone habit: journaling. Acquire a paper notebook or basic note app and reflect each day. Again, start small: set a five-minute timer, write a few lines, or list ten bullet points. It’s okay to write stream-of-consciousness about anything—what we did yesterday, a recent workout, or what we read. Over time, this habit will become a critical component of self-awareness.
Withdrawing the Fork
If we do all three habits every day for a month, we’ll find the proverbial fork of self-respect sliding from the stone. We’ve allowed the “boredom” of measuring only three things to deepen our quality and establish a high baseline. We might take on more strenuous workouts, read more challenging books, or journal about topics we were once afraid to broach.
Like Richie polishing forks, these three habits provide general-purpose self-respect. They are worthy table stakes for any future goal because they keep our bodies healthy, our minds open to new insights, and a line of communication open with ourselves.
Want a better life? Go polish some forks.