(Chronicle of Philanthropy) — A few weeks ago, I had a chance to sit down and watch the first two seasons of The Bear. For me, the FX/Hulu series wasn’t just outstanding television. It was a revelation that should be shared and dissected by all of us in the nonprofit world.
The Bear revolves around a group of people building that much-maligned but essential entity — an institution. They believe in its purpose, and they give themselves to its practices. To watch this poetry of creation in an era dominated by the chaos of critique felt like a spiritual experience.
Critique can be productive, or it can be poison. Right now, too many nonprofits are succumbing to the latter. Literally dozens of nonprofit leaders have told me some version of the following: My staff is too busy calling each other racist to properly tutor the underserved 9-year-olds who come to our organization.
This is selfishness dressed up as righteousness. It’s a tragedy for the field and those we should be focused on helping.
In this climate, The Bear offers salvation. It’s about a team of people who commit themselves wholly to a mission — even though the mission is modest and the path is arduous.
In season one, that mission is reviving a dying Italian-beef joint in the River North neighborhood in Chicago. In season two, it’s transforming that space into a fine-dining establishment with an eclectic menu.
The cast of characters who undertake this journey certainly need the paycheck, but that isn’t what drives them.
They are committed to the memory of the previous owner, Mikey, whose demons caused him to take his own life. They are committed to the great privilege of feeding people. They are committed to turning their disputatious crew into a beautiful community. They are committed to their craft.
Every member of the staff has known calamity, and yet not a single one responds by playing the detached cynic who sits on the sidelines and admonishes colleagues for all they’re doing wrong — for all the ways the institution is toxic, all the reasons the system must be dismantled, all the words that are problematic.
Everyone — the guy who fixes the video games, the pregnant sister, the investor with mob ties — is committed to making the restaurant the best it can be.
They embody the great line from Teddy Roosevelt: “It’s not the critic who counts. … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
The Bear presents an alternative to the spill-your-guts, rail-against-the-system work culture that is increasingly a substitute for excelling in your job. The Bear’s message: Bring your quirky personality to work, but leave your traumas at home. Achieving the larger mission requires focusing on something other than yourself, which, as it turns out, might actually be good for you.
The workplace depicted in The Bear is far from perfect. There’s mold in the walls, the plumbing is erratic, the power doesn’t work properly, the place is never up to code. There is plenty to complain about.
What does the staff do in response? They show up and try to fix the problems, not just call them out. They are the calm pilots when the plane hits turbulence, not the frightened passengers. They are the doctors when blood is spewing everywhere, not the patients.
They approach their work as a responsibility and a craft to refine.
Marcus, the pastry chef, is so committed to making the perfect doughnut that he sleeps in the restaurant so he can conduct experiments with sugar and flour at all hours of the day.
Syd, the chef-manager, tastes different dishes from restaurants across the city and then tries to re-create them from scratch at home.
Carmy, the chef-owner, models what it means to be a leader. He is committed to making the restaurant a place that is worthy of his staff’s dedication. He works the hardest, cares the most, and invests in his team. He has trained for years and earned the right to give the final yes or no to what goes on the menu.
Carmy knows that if the staff gets better at their craft, the restaurant will improve. So, he sends two employees to culinary school, gets staff the equipment they request, and approves a trip to Copenhagen for Marcus because it’s the best place to learn how to make the perfect pastry.
There is only one standard at The Bear: gold. You don’t need to be at that standard when you walk through the door, but you need to be willing to do what it takes to get there.
Pride in Work
I think nonprofit staffs should watch The Bear together because we need to remind ourselves that our work matters.
The staff members of The Bear take justifiable pride in serving up a quality meal to people who can pay for it. Those of us in the nonprofit world seek to do the same for people who can’t pay for their meal. That is far more noble.
Virtually every role in our sector is filled with a kind of nobility because the purpose is to serve people. Watching The Bear will help you remember that. Watching it with your team will encourage people to share their stories and listen to the stories of others.
Talk about the time that the kid you were tutoring read a whole passage on her own and swelled up with pride. Tell the story of the person who is thriving in the job you helped him find.
Most of all, share the secret of your craft: how you convinced that company to employ someone with a prison record. What you did to help a kid who hates school learn to love reading.
There is a moment in season two, episode five of The Bear that captures the holiness of finding your calling within an institution. Natalie, who is running operations for the restaurant while pregnant, is about to collapse from exhaustion. Syd sees it and offers to make Natalie an omelet. Such a simple, ordinary thing. But Syd approaches the task with the singular focus of a Zen master.
She rubs the outside of the omelet with butter by hand, chops the chives just so, crushes the potato chips, mixes juice to drink, then plates it all with love and delivers it with a humble smile.
I watched that and thought: If someone can approach making an omelet as both a work of art and an act of service, surely I can approach writing a strategic plan or leading a staff retreat with the same spirit.
In another remarkable scene, The Bear shows that the only thing better than a job that allows you to make art and serve others is a job that gives you the opportunity to do it with people you love and respect.
Syd and Carmy are righting a lopsided table in preparation for the restaurant’s opening night for friends and family. They confess to each other how scared they are, their prior disasters exploding like fireworks in their minds.
“I couldn’t do this without you,” Carmy tells Syd. “I wouldn’t even want to do this without you. You make me better at this.”
“You make me better at this,” says Syd.
And then she tells Carmy about the omelet, the kind of cheese she used, and the type of potato chips.
The act of sharing is almost as profound as the act of doing. The scene captures two of the great joys of life — building something that matters with someone you love and being a virtuoso alongside another virtuoso.
‘The Bear’ and Democracy
On the surface, The Bear is a show about a restaurant. But it can also be seen as a meditation on reviving our democracy.
The great genius of our nation is our civil society. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “In democratic countries, the science of association is the fundamental science. Progress in all the others depends on progress in this one.”
The quality of our democratic life is inextricably tied to the quality of our civic life. The quality of our civic life is inextricably tied to the quality of our civic institutions. So, let’s operate our civic institutions like our democracy depends on them — because it does.
In Islam, the highest spiritual state one can achieve is ihsan, the state of excellence. If your civic institution needs a reminder of what ihsan is, watch The Bear. It will lift you up and take you home.