14 Years of C&Z: 14 Lessons for Blogging and Life

Hey, you know what I did fourteen years ago, like, to the day? I went ahead and created a blog! About food! And I called it, wait for it, Chocolate & Zucchini. Because it had a nice ring to it, and I liked chocolate, and I liked zucchini (and fortunately still do).

It has been an utterly amazing fourteen-year ride, and most of my life’s blessings have come directly or indirectly from that single decision.

Where and who would I be if I hadn’t created C&Z? It’s anyone’s guess and it makes me a little dizzy just thinking about it, but I can’t imagine possibly finding a more fulfilling, happier life path. (It’s a good feeling.)

To celebrate, I’ve put together this little bonus for you:

First, I want to thank you, whether you’ve been reading for fourteen seconds, fourteen weeks, or fourteen years. None of this would make sense, or even be possible, if it wasn’t for your interest and your readership.

I have done a lot of learning, thinking, and growing over the past fourteen years, and I want to pass on these fourteen lessons for blogging and life. I hope some of these resonate with you. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts if they do!

Basket of produce at the market

Note: This is a little different from what I do normally. If you’re just here for the food, I can perhaps interest you in this feta and fresh herb quick bread or this aquafaba chocolate mousse. For the others, please pull up a chair!

1. Thrill yourself first

There is an infinity of things you could be doing, exploring, talking about, practising, writing about… How do you avoid overwhelm and paralysis? By using the only relevant compasses: your passion and your curiosity.

When I’m figuring out what to share with you on C&Z, this is always my first question: does it thrill me? If it doesn’t, why would anyone else care?

Now, I won’t say I hit the nail on the head with every single post. But thrill is my editorial line, and I like to think that, over time, it adds up to create a consistent, cohesive source of inspiration that like-minded readers can tap into.

Des Gâteaux et du Pain

2. Be of service

While I believe the motivation for sharing has to come from my own passion (see above), the way I share must be focused on others. Readers are not a mirror held up for the writer to admire how clever and how creative he/she is. I want you to come to me knowing you will leave refreshed, inspired, entertained, having learned something new.

Nothing gives more meaning to life than being in a position to help others, teach what you know, offer your experience, and clear a path for who wants to follow. It is a worthy life goal to find your way to that position, or tweak your current position to be more like that.

3. Connection is gold

It’s going to sound sappy, but it’s true: I am honestly and sincerely grateful for every single individual who comes across Chocolate & Zucchini, stops by to read what I write, gives me permission to send them my newsletter, drops me a line, or takes a chance on one of my books.

The gratitude is too much to hold in my brain all at the same time, but I put it in practice by valuing every connection, however small. I do my best to respond to every comment and every email, and to acknowledge every hat tip and mention on social media. Is it scalable? No. Will I do it until I die really can’t any more? Yes.

Being generous — with my time, my attention, my kindness, my knowledge and, when it comes to it, my money — is the value I hold above all others. Those fourteen years have shown me for certain that the Internet is governed by karmic rules, and you reap what you sow 100% of the time. Best be on the good end of that stick.

Cuillier Coffee Shop at 19 rue Yvonne Le Tac in Paris' 18th arrondissement.

4. Do other stuff

For those of us who pursue a single, all-encompassing passion, it is easy to give it ALL THE SPACE, to live and breathe and sleep and talk and read through it every moment of every day. It’s what we love, right?

As it turns out, holding space for other interests is the healthier thing to do. It prevents you from spinning your wheels or burning out, it creates a sense of balance in your life, and it can in fact fuel your main passion in unexpected ways with a fresh perspective and new doses of inspiration.

This is why I don’t watch any food television, or read very many food memoirs anymore. In between my cooking and food writing activities, I know I need to feed (pun intended) other loves. Maybe it’s drawing, lettering, sewing, going to see art exhibitions, memorizing poems, listening to podcasts… I see such clear benefits when I heed this advice.

5. Give yourself permission to grow

It’s okay to change. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to do things that you swore you would never do back when you thought you knew everything (*cough* pre-kids *cough*). You’re not betraying who you were; you’re just growing, and hey, it’s a good thing. You can stop growing when you’re dead.

One major growth spurt for me occurred, unsurprisingly, when I had children. It is such a ginormous identity shift that it took me a few years to embrace the new me in real life (they don’t tell you that in pregnancy books), let alone in my blogging life.

I remember being uncomfortable about it for a while. I was intent on not changing a single thing, on not becoming one of those bloggers engulfed by motherhood, and I felt stung on the (count ’em, two) occasions a reader told me, in essence, “I liked your blog better when you didn’t have kids.”

In hindsight, I’m only sorry I cared so much. (I was also exhausted all. of. the. time, and that didn’t help with perspective.) In time, I eased into the part of myself who is a mother, and I can now effortlessly decide when it is relevant to mention my children, and when it doesn’t bring much to the topic at hand.

When you change, you win some and lose some. Nothing you can do about it, and worrying about it is a waste of energy. I hope I remember this when I handle the changes that will inevitably present themselves down the road.

It's a new day

6. Try new things

Our modern lives and our modern jobs are such balancing acts. When you’ve gotten into a rhythm, it feels scary to change things up, especially for those of us who are risk-averse. But if you can get into a playful mindset, then you are free to experiment. And that’s what keeps us young and nimble; failure and rejection are just opportunities to learn.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” is a good question to ask, and truly get to the bottom of. No, really, what is the absolute worst that could happen? Is it so bad, and why does it scare you so much?

In fourteen years of Chocolate & Zucchini, I have seen a lot of online trends and evolutions come and go, or sometimes stay for good. Nobody knows what’s going to stick and what’s going to pass, and the experts’ guesses are only slightly better than yours and mine.

So my approach is to look at emerging tools and usages not as commandments (“Thou shalt Snapchat!”) but as new toys to play with.

If I’m curious about them, if I think they may add something to my site, to my message, and to my interactions with you, if I’m in a season of my life when I have time, then I’ll experiment and evaluate: how can I make them work for me without going crazy (more on that below), i.e. what do I need to stop doing to make room for this?

7. Focus

One of my favorite maxims is À l’impossible, nul n’est tenu: nobody can be expected to do the impossible.

This includes: being everything to everybody, having a finger in every pie, pursuing the million different ideas you have all at once, keeping abreast of every news and trend, saying yes to every possible opportunity, keeping up with aaaaallll the Joneses in the world, winning at every social media game.

Nope. Not happening.

Best to apply the Pareto principle (20% of our efforts yield 80% of our results), with some Essentialism and a bit of The One Thing thrown in.

And if it feels difficult to let go of certain opportunities, just recognize that there are seasons to your life — personal, relational, spiritual, professional — and this is going to be your season of just this one project or aspect of your life, and not that and all the other things. You will be setting aside stores of energy and freshness for the next season of your life, when you decide it’s time to shift your focus to something else.

For instance, when I was working on my upcoming cookbook, Tasting Paris, I was thrilled about it yet it was also frustrating to have to let some things slide, or put other exciting projects on the back burner, such as exploring fun collaborations, developing the coaching program I’ve been thinking about… But this is what I was doing then, and I was for sure going to enjoy every minute of it.

And within just a few months, when the finished manuscript flew from my kitchen to my editor’s desk, I was all the more pleased to devote some time to launching my new podcast, Change ma vie.

Butternut Squash and Lentil Soup

8. Prioritize sleep

I used to be slightly neurotic about getting eight solid hours of sleep (would you believe I never pulled an all-nighter in my entire life?). But then I had newborns, and discovered I could actually function on much less (though not comfortably so).

Since then, I’ve often negotiated with myself about bedtime, thinking I can get away with spending just a leeeeettle more time (mostly on the computer) doing this or that, as if those nighttime hours were a free bonus. They are not. It is never a good idea, and I always end up regretting it.

If this is something you’ve also been grappling with, I recommend Sarah Ballantyne’s Go-to-bed program that includes a fun 14-day challenge. The e-book has been illuminating to me on the role of sleep in our overall health and energy, and it offers a lot of actionable advice (food-related in particular) to establish better sleep habits. Again: work in progress, but step number one is recognizing this is a pain point. (Right?)

9. Invest in yourself

I once read in a financial advice column that if you have money to invest, putting it toward your own education and growth will get you the best possible interest rate, if those new skills allow you to make a better living down the road. The article referred to earning more actual cash, but doing something you really like and improving your emotional life are equally valuable in my book.

This notion stuck with me, and since then I have been much more intentional about setting aside the time and budget to learn new things, improve my craft, reflect upon myself, and expand my skillset.

In addition to purchasing (and actually reading) business and productivity books, this has meant signing up for online courses and actually applying the material. I’ve been a long-time member of Food Blogger Pro, I got ah-mazing value from The Food Photography School (they’ve just released new modules that look fantastic), I’ve been going through The Perfect Voice training, and I participate in Brooke Castillo’s coaching program.

Raw Chocolate Truffles

10. Think like a pro

Because I first created Chocolate & Zucchini as a passion project and dreamed up a job description for myself, it took me a while to put myself in a resolutely professional mindset. Let me be clear: I have taken it 100% seriously from day one, but I have sometimes lagged a little when it came to putting systems in place.

The shift from amateur to pro is subtle, but it can mean documenting your processes in detail (so you can analyze and streamline and delegate), actually paying for quality services and tools (if they’ll make you more efficient), or putting together toolkits (real or virtual) and taking the time to set things up before you tackle a task, so that you’re not kinda sorta winging it all the time. (That’s just exhausting.)

I’ve seen it in action with my cookbook writing this time: Tasting Paris will be my fifth book, and one day while working on it, it dawned on me. Hey, I’ve become a pro at this! I really know what I’m doing! The recipe development, the testing, the headnote writing, the sending of the recipes to my recipe testers and analyzing their feedback, the research, the fact-checking — all of this took work for sure, but I had a very clear, systematic idea of how I wanted to conduct the process. All I needed to do was execute, and see the book take shape (almost) on its own. It was quite thrilling.

While much of this comes from experience and you can’t take shortcuts on that, one thing we can all do is think like a pro the moment we start anything new. Having a big-picture view of what we’re doing and establishing systems from the very beginning saves so much time and headache down the road.

11. Build a team

I did everything on my own for twelve years — not counting the priceless support of Maxence — but a couple of years ago I first took on an assistant, and it has revolutionized my work life, making it exponentially better.

Not only can I achieve more and move faster because we have more (wo)manpower between the two of us, but it’s been incredibly gratifying and confidence-building to share what I know. I get to test my ideas on someone else, which brings me a lot of clarity; we can discuss the minutiae of our day-to-day work activities (which only us really care about); and she contributes her own bright ideas and fresh outlook. The team spirit is invaluable.

So if you’re a one-person-band and you’ve been considering possibly maybe bringing someone on board — an intern, a real-life assistant, a virtual assistant — I say: do it! Do it now! Do it yesterday! It’s wonderful! You’ll only regret not doing it sooner!

Happiness is a bunch of tulips

12. Network with your soul

Back when I was a software engineer, I would sometimes leaf through those painfully boring industry magazines I thought I had to read, and find articles about the importance of networking. They would fill me with dread and guilt. I had no network to speak of, and couldn’t see how I could possibly muster up the motivation to create and cultivate this kind of relationship.

Part of it was that I was too junior to grasp the concept; time and maturity would have helped eventually. But more important, I now understand that the best networking is the kind you do spontaneously and for your own pleasure, without realizing you’re networking.

It’s reaching out to people you like and admire; it’s chatting with someone and following up afterward because you just want to say you had a fun time; it’s attending a local event you’re curious about, with no particular agenda; it’s putting yourself out there candidly, and also acknowledging other people who have put themselves out there candidly; it’s reading an article or a quote and sending it to someone because it made you think of them; it’s putting two people in touch because they have a lot in common and you like them both; it’s emailing someone you kinda sorta know to tell them you had a dream about starting a particular project with them (not to be creepy or anything) (it actually works).

In short, it’s about delighting in others and sending good energy in their direction. Not expecting anything in return, but trusting that good things will come to you because you’re such a positive force in the world. (Is that woo-woo enough for you? I believe it so strongly.)

13. Time is elastic

It is natural to imagine that, given more time in the day or week, we can achieve more. But productivity is a fickle thing, and I make much better use of my time if I am actually given fewer hours to do my work.

I was forced into this realization by — you guessed it — the two adorable little humans who entered my life in recent years. When I was home caring for my sons for a few months after each was born, computer time was scarce, and the minute I was able to sit down, I worked with rockin’ efficiency and zero dilly-dallying.

I also noticed that my brain was processing things even while I wasn’t physically at my desk (because nursing and cooing don’t, in fact, take up 100% of your mental bandwidth). I could, for instance, jump in and compose a fully formed email in one go, because the sentences had been floating around and arranging themselves in my head.

This means two things. 1. If I anticipate that I am going to have less time to work on my main or side projects over a certain period, I don’t stress or despair. I know that tasks will, to a certain extent, fit themselves into whatever time resources I do have.

And 2. I try to keep this elasticity in mind when I organize my normal schedule, reminding myself that I can take a half-day off for something fun (going to the pool with my eldest), inspiring (going to see an exhibition), or simply necessary (taking my youngest to a hospital checkup) and that it will all even out over the rest of the week.

If you’re curious about how this works, you may enjoy this bonus I’ve put together for you:

14. Manage your mind

I have become more and more interested in personal development these last few years, and I discovered, as if the clouds were suddenly parting, that we are not our thoughts, that everything we tell ourselves is optional and can be changed, that our thoughts create our reality, and that if we want to feel better we have to think differently first.

This was so life-changing for me that I decided to create a podcast — in French — about everything I’m learning. It’s called Change ma vie and you can subscribe on iTunes today.

Tearing a piece of baguette

I hope you got some valuable nuggets that may apply to your life and/or your passion projects. Please chime in with any reaction you have, I would love to discuss this with you!

A Day In The Life — Sharing a typical day in my food writer’s life,
Building a Successful Bilingual Blog — My interview on the Food Blogger Pro podcast,
How to Build a Blog That Stands the Test of Time — My interview on the Learning with Leslie podcast,
A conversation with my former assistant Anne.

This post contains some affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase through them, I will receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you. All opinions expressed are my own. Thank you for your support of my work.

This post was first published in September 2016 and updated in September 2017.

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