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The Work in Our Bones

Business Lesson #2: Let Go and Find the Flow

An Interview with Elle Lien of Daily Grub
An Interview with Elle Lien of Daily Grub
Published on February 21, 2011

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She’s got the music cranked but it’s not only the speakers that are humming; it’s the crowd, too. Today is a loud one at Daily Grub. Customers are lined to the door and orders stretch a long row on the shiny concrete bar. If Elle Lien were like me, she’d be panicked—right about now she’d have a cold trickle of sweat dripping down her armpit, her torso, straight to her vintage belt. But Elle couldn’t be happier. She’s almost dancing as she furiously plates the food. She’s hey!-ing welcomes and smiles. Every bone, every breath is energized; even her hair looks alive. She’s in her zone.

A scientist could look at Elle and it would be clear: she’s in flow. Flow, otherwise known as “optimal experience” is:

the sense of effortless action that stands out as the best. The person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow:The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life)

I recently spoke with Elle about her experiences as the owner and chef of Daily Grub. I already knew she loved her job; it’s obvious when you watch her. But I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know what the experience meant to her.

She came to my home, we drank tea and we talked for about an hour and a half. When she left, I felt a combination of inspiration and awe.

Elle has lived in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and South Carolina. She’s a writer and journalist who learned to cook from some of the best chefs in the nation. On her way to London for grad school, she decided to make a stop to spend some time with friends and family in Nebraska. That was almost five years ago, and she still hasn’t left. At some point, she decided to stay and open a restaurant that serves beautiful and tasty comfort food.

Elle opened Daily Grub on 20th and Pierce on April 21, 2010. By November, she’d won The Reader’s Best New Restaurant award.

Elle is happiest when she’s making food and sharing it with people. It took a while for her to find the courage to follow that passion. But through it, she has found the community and home she’d always been looking for.

When I asked about her success this past year, Elle exclaimed joyfully, “It’s so overwhelming! But in a good way.” What is so great about it?
Elle: I’ve always been someone who is trying to figure out what I should be doing with my life. Always moving and trying new things and never stayed in one place. We’ve been open less than a year, but for me, it’s the most grounded I’ve been. It’s so rewarding. I feel like I genuinely have community here. I’m building and deepening relationships in ways that I never have before. I mean, I’m getting to see little kids grow up in my restaurant.

So instead of me swirling around all over the place, it’s like all these other people are swirling around the restaurant and I get to be a touchstone. I get to hear what’s going on with them. It’s the greatest. I love it.

What were your expectations when you started Daily Grub?
When I started Daily Grub I didn’t expect anything. I was at a point where I had zero reason to stay in Omaha. I thought, “This [restaurant] is the only thing I care about doing—I might as well give it a shot. I thought that even if it blew up in my face, at least I tried it. I had no expectation.

For the most part this is a pretty excellent fit. I’ve never been so happy in my life. I’ve never been so—well, not happy or elated. But just at peace. I feel confident. Working a lot and having a routine is really good for my mental health. I never really had that before.

Do you feel like you’re in flow? What makes you happy at Daily Grub?
Well, it’s a creative outlet and a social outlet. I am most happy there when it is really slamming busy and I have 12 tickets lined up and I’m under the gun. I love that. I love it when it’s loud! I love it when the whole restaurant is buzzing.

But I’m happy all the time there. I have made a family for myself there. My employees are like my best friends. I love them; I don’t know what I’d do without them.

So if that’s what you mean by flow, then I’ve totally tapped into that. And I’ve spent my whole life trying to find that.

What made the difference?
Omaha's Daily GrubOmaha’s Daily Grub
I don’t know! I really don’t know. [long pause] Letting go, I guess? Letting go of who people thought I was or maybe who I had been. Expectations that I had placed on myself and that other people had always placed on me. Letting go of worrying about failing or what people think. All of that…just letting go of all of that. Just being okay with saying, “This feels good to me.”

I think for a long time I was really preoccupied with figuring out how to present myself to the world in a way that best reflected who I thought I was. A big component of that was “Finding the Right Job.” But I guess I just don’t care anymore. It’s much more important to me now that there is a small group of people that gets me. And I don’t care if anybody else gets it or not.

[long pause] 

I was a debate nerd in high school. And the natural progression for a debate nerd is to go to law school. And I would have been a really good lawyer—but I would have been miserable! So that expectation was always a part of it.

And I was actually married before. I was married to a professor and all of our friends were academics. So that was another expectation: If you’re a smart person then this is what you do and how you present yourself to the world. And if you’re doing these other things, then you’re not smart. But I was uncomfortable. Now I’m comfortable. I really am. I am at home in my own skin. I’m not proving anything.

You aren’t proving you’re smartyou just are smart.
Yeah, and some people might see that and others don’t. But it doesn’t matter.

[Elle becomes quiet. Then she begins talking about the death of her friend Jessica Latham. Jessica was the former owner of Bellwether Boutique and a regular at La Buvette, the restaurant where Elle used to work.]

She and I were definitely kindred spirits, and this year in particular. You know, she was a fellow female business owner. So we could talk to each other about that. And I didn’t have that connection with anybody else. So there are two weeks that I don’t really remember after that happened. At the time I said you need to make a timeline and write down what’s going on. I could not piece together how the days were happening. I think I was grieving. And I’ve never truly done that before. What an insanely disorienting experience.

The Reader
asked me to write this little bit about what I’m thankful for. It was for their Thanksgiving issue. It was so hard to write because everything I wrote was so cheesy. But I have so much to be thankful for his year. I’m completely overwhelmed.

It’s interesting that you talk about gratitude and grief in the same sentence.
Well, I think they put each other in relief. The loss made me feel that much more gratitude. And Jess’s death in particular brought people together in a way that was so intense. The night I heard she died…we were doing dinner that night and we had to open. And I found out right before we opened. I called her mom and talked to her for a while. After that I thought, “What do we do? What do we do?…Let’s just open.” So I just sucked it up and did it. Afterwards I was just numb. After work, I took off and Joey [my partner] went home. But I couldn’t go home. I just wandered down to Buvette. Some of us just have a homing device planted in our brains. [Laughs through tears.] And I knew that’s where she [Jessica] would be. That’s where we hung out. I knew that’s where she would be.

It was the first time that I’ve ever felt like I have a home and I belong to a place and a group of people. All my people just wandered in, and everybody that wandered in was there for the same reason. We were all experiencing the same thing. I have never felt that before. And I am so grateful for that.

I’ve wanted to feel like I had a home my whole life and I kept running way from home to try and find that perfect place where I fit. And it was here the whole time. I just had to open myself up to actually caring about something.

Questions to Ponder

  • When have you experienced being “in flow”?
  • What do you love to do so much that you lose time when doing it? Why?
  • What can you do and not lose your energy? You may get tired, but it’s a good tired. Not drained.
  • What have others noticed about your passion? Perhaps they have said:, “You make it look so easy!” 

Some more info on the concept of flow:

The Elements of Flow*

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it. In other words, they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it, didn’t receive praise for it, or didn’t “have” to do it. It’s an activity that is engaged for its own sake.

  • A Challenging Activity - A challenging activity that requires skills. This involves confronting tasks that we have a chance of completing. 
  • Complete Involvement - Complete involvement is deep concentration. It can be described as the merging of action and awareness.
  • Clear Goals and Immediate Feedback - Complete involvement is possible because there is a clear goal and immediate feedback.
  • Less Awareness of Worries  When someone is enjoying themselves, they act with a deep but effortless involvement that removes awareness of the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
  • The Paradox of Control - Enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. More importantly they lack the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life. What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.
  • The Loss of Self-Consciousness - Concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
  • The Transformation of Time - Sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. 

*Source: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

daphnedelDaphne is a writer, creative thinker and project wrangler. She lives in Omaha with her husband, Caleb, and their street-side vegetable garden. Want to know more? See