Are There Recipes for Living?

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It seems to me that we all have our ‘recipes’ for living: cooking with a recipe means handling standard ingredients in standard ways, and likewise we have relatively set routines for handling familiar situations. These ‘recipes’ can lead to very high standards of performance.

A Minimalist Approach to Life

In our household we’ve just acquired Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. This was quite a discovery for me. It has an approach that just feels right to me; I even experienced elation as I skimmed through it when it first arrived.

Then I wondered why. Cooking is something I’ve learnt how to do (mostly) adequately. It isn’t a passion or even interest of mine. Any interest it has for me is as a means to being healthy. Cooking itself isn’t appealing. To experience elation about a cookbook was entirely unexpected.

What appealed to me was the approach. Mark names his approach ‘minimalist’. This means fresh ingredients and simple preparation. Mark then gives additions and variations to the basic minimalist dish.

This approach gave me the feeling that cooking was accessible. A feeling of, “Hey, I can do that!” I now realise that I had believed that being a good cook was beyond me — that it was too complicated and mysterious.

Mark’s minimalist approach felt right to me because it fits with my approach to living: get to the core of what something or someone is about. Once I know the core clearly, there is freedom to ‘play around’ — the equivalent of adding variations in the cookbook.

Recipes for Living

It seems to me that we all have our ‘recipes’ for living: cooking with a recipe means handling standard ingredients in standard ways, and likewise we have relatively set routines for handling familiar situations. These ‘recipes’ can lead to very high standards of performance. Dreyfus and Dreyfus (in Mind Over Machine [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]) see expertise as a repertoire of standard situations and procedures to deal with them. And much of expertise is perception: once you know what kind of situation or problem is being dealt with, then there are usually standard solutions that can be applied fairly directly. Expertise disappears once the situation is non-standard (chess masters are no better at remembering chess pieces arranged randomly on a chess board than non-experts).

This approach can be applied to most realms of life, I think. Here are some examples of what I mean. Edward de Bono, in the CoRT Thinking Lessons, gives 60 standard procedures to use for thinking. Christopher Alexander and colleagues, in A Pattern Language [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], gives the standard elements in architecture and urban planning. Psychotherapy has procedures to address different ‘problems’ people have — phobias, delusions, depression and so on. There are play-books for various sports; there are standard situations that drivers learn to recognise…

There are also standard procedures (recipes) that we use in our everyday lives: speaking our native language, arithmetic, social conventions, and the work we do… By the time we are adults, we have developed a very impressive recipe book on how to live our lives.


Sometimes the recipe doesn’t work: the cake doesn’t rise or the house has a roof that leaks, or a colleague gives us a hostile reaction to our normal, friendly greeting.

In this situation we can try and find what went wrong. For instance: we may have been interrupted by a phone call when making the cake and so forgot to put in the baking soda, the tiles may have been laid incorrectly on the roof, we may find out that our colleague is going through a health crisis.

When we want to know what went wrong it helps to be thoroughly familiar with the elements of the situation and the procedures we use. Doing something for the first time it is hard to know if we did everything right (whether we used all the ingredients the cake recipe called for or to see if the tiles on the roof of the house are laid correctly). It is much more likely that we will get things wrong the first time. Practice is part of acquiring any skill (though this may not mean drill, and in my view mindless drill should be used rarely if ever).

If something goes wrong in a routine situation then a wider investigation may be called for. A strange response to my normal friendly greeting could mean investigating whether my greeting was different (perhaps I’m tired or stressed), whether the other person is different in some way (stressed about something at work or at home), or whether the broader situation has changed (have I been promoted over their head and I haven’t been told yet?).

The Problem of Novelty (Non-Standard Situations)

Routine responses to standard situations only work for standard situations. In the case where I have been promoted above a colleague and not told, then the situation was actually different — so applying the routine greeting didn’t work.

The knowledge that we may be in a new situation emphasises the need for awareness. In a complex situation this can be very challenging: for instance there are varying analyses of what lead to the “Global Financial Crisis” (all the way from individual greed, to a particular kind of transaction on the stock market, to the nature of markets, to all of them mixed together), and so different proposals to avoid another one (capping CEO salaries, a bit more Keynesianism, banning of particular financial instruments, government regulation of markets, and so on).

Good Servants and Bad Masters

Most of the time, I think, our recipes serve us well. From putting on our clothes in the morning, to making breakfast, getting to work, talking with our friends, and in thousands of other ways, our recipes for living make our lives easier.

Likewise having recipes helps when teaching others: whether it is a child how to be polite, an older person how to drive, or a student how to perform in a particular discipline. It helps to know the ingredients (the elements of the situation) and the usual procedures applied to them.

The problem I think is when we use our recipes without awareness. That is, we overlook that the situation is a new one: if we had looked more closely, we may have noticed that our colleague had a different look on their face, showing they were stressed or angry perhaps.

When our recipes become our masters, we become insistent. Instead of being curious about what went wrong, we repeat our standard behaviour, or strive to prove we are correct, or do the same thing repeatedly or with more intensity.

I’m wondering do you feel that you have some good recipes for living? If so, I’d like to hear what they are: please share them with me in the comments to this post.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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