Once upon a time, I thought life is all about experiences and actions I take. However, as I seek out new experiences and different things to do, I found that experiences for their own sake didn’t give me the feeling of fulfillment that I seeked.
My father, having grown up without his father or much financial resources in rural Taiwan, has always valued experiences more than material things. Wanting to give his sons opportunities he didn’t have while growing up, he started his own business when I was born and subsequently sent my brother and I to the US while he worked in Taiwan. As a result, the times we have together are few and precious.
Whenever he could, my father would take us somewhere or do something memorable – watching sunrise on a mountain, visiting nature reserves, going to amusement parks, etc. He always advocated that “you can lose stuff but you’ll always have memories.” This became even more poignant for him over the years, as his business became successful. He saw that, regardless of how much money he made, he could never buy experiences with his own father. Therefore, it was that much more important for him to create fun memories with us whenever he can.
As I grew older, our limited time together became bigger projects, such as international travel at a time most people in Taiwan didn’t go very far or a 2-day photo-shoot to have our family portraits taken. However, one thing he especially loved was taking us to restaurants. While growing up, his family subsisted on bland rice and vegetables. So, it was a big deal when they got meat and some variety in their diet. As the family wealth grew, he enjoyed taking us to sushi houses, French restaurants and, especially, steakhouses, which I used to hate because it took forever to get the food and I didn’t like steak.
However, as he modeled his values, I gradually absorbed them and made these values my own. I’d come to enjoy having exciting experiences and creating fun memories with friends and loved ones. And, I started liking the experience of dining. Specifically, the variety of flavors, textures, ingredients, and how it’s served. I am always excited about trying new and different things. Now, I don’t eat live animals and I am not a fan of really spicy dishes. Other than that, I’m willing to give something a taste even if it looks or smells unusual to me.
10 years ago, I came to the “amazing” idea that I would dine at every single Michelin Star restaurant in the Bay Area. Going to Michelin restaurants combines two meaningful activities for me: eating new food and sharing experiences with loved ones. So, armed with the Michelin Guide and Yelp, my partner and I went on a culinary adventure.
Over the next 3 years, we dined at 24 Michelin Star restaurants around the greater Bay Area from Yountville to Los Gatos. All in all, we had a lot of cool experiences.
First and foremost, the services were generally excellent. It’s the little things and attention to details: When we left our seats for a moment, we’d come back to a freshly folded napkin. If we looked like we’re lost or had questions, someone would come by and ask whether we needed anything. As we prepared to leave the restaurant, our server brought small desserts for us to nibble on our way home.
Next, the food was delicious. While most restaurants included some fancy ingredients, such as truffles, saffron, caviar, wagyu, etc., the most impressive were local ingredients prepared in unusual ways, such as the Manresa dirt (made from potato, parsnip, and roasted chicory root.)
We had fun speaking with the few young children there with their parents for family dinners. For the most part, the younglings were not enjoying the experience. Much like when I was young, the kids thought the dinners were too long and boring. On the other hand, older teenagers who grew up dining at nice restaurants seemed more sophisticated, mature, and appreciative of the opportunity they were given.
Then one day, as my partner and I were deciding where to go next, I noticed that I wasn’t that excited. I wasn’t looking forward to the next dining experience with the same anticipation as I had in the past. Even though service continued to be great and food was still delicious, the experience itself became predictable and a chore.
Truth is, after the first year, the Michelin Star restaurants were no longer individually memorable. Over time, they blurred into a continuous stream of dining experiences. The goal of eating at every Michelin Star restaurant was not fulfilling; there were no overarching personal values or persistent needs connected to this goal.
Seeking experiences for the sake of having more experiences was fun in the beginning but felt empty over time.
I realized that the experiences I really want are those that add to my life or impact the world around me in a meaningful way. Since I had dined at these restaurants for my own experience, I didn’t share any reviews, rate the restaurants for the benefit of others, provide feedback to the restaurant management, or reflect on how I can cook better. After the novelty of dining at luxury restaurants wore off, there were no reasons to continue.
In fact, I found this need for personal growth and contribution to be critical in many aspects of my life. Until I uncovered my why for career advancement, I had stagnated in my corporate career; bitter about my lack of advancement but not truly motivated to do anything about it. Similarly, I had wanted more success and wealth in my life but, once I was comfortable with my daily living, I wasn’t willing to put in the time and effort to focus on more success and wealth.
Today, I view experiences as a strategy for me to reach my outcomes of having more joy, love, growth, and contribution to others. By focusing on what I really want, I get to be flexible with my strategy. And, I’ve found that the experience of a home-cooked meal with my family can bring me as much joy, love, and growth as any $500 dinners.