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Youth development lessons from The Bear

By Kate Walker

I wrote a post on youth development lessons from the hit TV series Ted Lasso. That inspired me to find similar lessons in my new favorite show, The Bear, which is about a renowned chef who returns to his hometown of Chicago to run his late brother’s struggling Italian beef sandwich shop. Chef Carmy dreams of transforming the restaurant into a world-class restaurant, but is constantly battling personal struggles, crushing debt, a rundown kitchen and unruly staff. Through it all, I draw important lessons in teamwork, leadership, personal growth and purpose.

Teamwork and leadership

The show demonstrates the value of diversity in a team, where different personalities come together to solve problems and overcome setbacks, from failed inspections to exploding toilets. As chef de cuisine, Carmy listens to the kitchen staff, seeking their expertise and advice before determining the path forward. Determined sous-chef Sydney studies and applies leadership lessons from Duke University's legendary “Coach K” to motivate staff and transform the dysfunctional kitchen. She too listens to and trusts her team which allows the kitchen crew to bond and operate as a true team. 

These leadership traits are equally important in youth development programs. Youth programs can be powerful spaces where participants learn to bridge intergroup differences. Further, youth workers need to be intentional about building trust and ensuring youth voice just as Carmy and Sydney hold up the talents and ideas of their developing kitchen crew.

Personal growth and purpose

The show shines brightest when key characters depart on journeys of personal growth to find a stronger sense of purpose. Veteran line cooks Tina and Ebraheim head to culinary school, something they never dared might be possible at their age. Pastry chef Marcus embarks on a journey to Denmark to train under the world’s greatest pastry chef. And most transformatively, Carmy sends Richie to an apprenticeship at a top restaurant. At first he resents and resists what he perceives as punishment, but later develops discipline and pride in expanding his potential and serving others. He arrives at a profound realization that in life, pursuing excellence means realizing that “every second counts.” 

As caring adults in the lives of young people, we can support them on similar journeys of growth and transformation. Youth programs can provide apprenticeships in purpose where participants build competencies and awaken possibilities and aspirations for their future. This might include exploring educational or career pathways, or like Richie, discovering a new capability or sense of self as part of one’s identity formation.

The Bear reminds me of the importance of fostering teamwork across differences, leading in youth-centered ways, and providing challenging and expansive opportunities that inspire personal growth and hopeful purpose. Are there other youth development lessons you draw from The Bear, or your favorite show?

-- Kate Walker, Extension professor and specialist in youth work practice

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