In order to be good at something, you need to first spend time being bad at it. Musical instruments, and particularly the violin, where ‘bad’ takes on whole new layers of meaning, are very good examples of this idea.
My students, when I had students, would roll their eyes at this provocation, though in those same eyes the clear recognition of something that rang true. They were not music performance students, but studying in an area of academic enquiry that necessitates a familiarity with the world of the musician. Also, not idiots, these students – at least not natively. Stupidity instead more a byproduct of systemic and bureaucratic idiocy imposed upon them by some third party (not a political third party in this instance, just some ‘other’) that had beset them since early years in what has come to be what might more accurately be described as the education prevention system. The pressure on university undergrads, economically driven, is simply to pass tests and get good marks. A confirmation of value for money. Yes, I’m £30k in debt all of a sudden, but I spent it on this distinction pass in Media Studies. And would you like fries?
Failure, incidentally, is understood as an indictment of the “quality of service” – the level of teaching paid for ostensibly not being commensurate with the quality of results, like perhaps a faulty hairdryer. The analogy is a good one. The first question has to be the extent to which the purchased item was used according to its manufacturer’s instruction. In the drying of hair, as with teaching, the results vary widely depending on the extent to which you were actually in front of it when it was on.
And, also, it may be self-evident, but in order to learn something you generally need to start out not knowing it. Despite this fairly obvious intuition, students are nevertheless and for the strategic reasons stated above, understandably very keen to only elect to take courses they feel they can already pass, these students, though that’s not really how learning happens.
At any rate, this has been something of a preoccupation of mine for some time. People very quickly settle into the notion of “this is my sort of thing – I can do this” and so gravitate only to the areas where only improvement through practice and refinement is required, and not the initial ‘getting to grips with key concepts and skills’ which, in violin terms, would equate to getting at least to the point where you can practice within earshot of other human beings without causing them serious discomfort and anxiety. As a byproduct of that way of thinking, anything that renders poor results on first attempt is automatically interpreted as some combination of the learner being inherently ill-suited to that category of knowledge (most commonly encountered in the phrase “I’m no good at maths”) and substandard teaching. Of course, substandard teaching does occur and pedagogical approaches can certainly always benefit from improvement at early stages (see: maths), but the point is, as I mentioned above, that in order to be good at anything you have to start out being bad at it.
There’s a misconception made popular by Malcolm Gladwell that the magic number of hours you need to spend doing something in order to master it is of the order of 10,000. Or exactly 10,000. In Gladwell’s words, in an incredible number of fields, you need to have practiced for precisely that many hours in order to be good at it. Now, I say ‘misconception’… in fact, to be fair to Gladwell, his source does come from experts in their field, there is an extent to which they are no doubt correct and he has taken them at their word. But their definition of ‘good’ is pretty lofty. Like, Tiger Woods is good at golf. Anthony Bourdain is good at cooking. Hiromi Uehara is good at playing the piano.
Gladwell’s goal with the book Outliers was to encourage societies to build institutions that enable people to have the time and the opportunity to work hard at something in order to gain mastery at it. In other words, expertise is the goal. You don’t want to be composing like Mozart when he was in his teens, you want to be composing like Mozart when he was in his mid twenties. Concerto no. 9 onwards. Because less than that is not ‘good enough’.
The theory goes that you go through about 10 years of apprenticeship and practice in order to reach a point in your chosen field of endeavour before you can feel yourself to be in command of that domain. But what that means is that you only really get one domain. Three or four if you time your career switches to coincide with critical moments. Just as you become the best at something you abandon it in order to become dreadful at something else.
I’d make an argument in favour of ‘good enough’. And by that I don’t mean that people should set their sights low. I’m arguing on behalf of the generalist. The person that doesn’t necessarily want to select just one thing and make their whole life about the pursuit of excellence in that one field, but instead (or perhaps in addition) would see the value in getting just a little bit good at a lot of different things. I consider myself to be very much a generalist. My thing is not having a thing, but rather, it’s all about being interested across a range of whole different things and maybe drawing a few connecting threads between them.
I’m not against experts, as such. They are necessary for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is policy advice, despite British politicians having declared that we’ve all had enough of them and their fancy knowledge about things. The exceptional should rightly be celebrated and rewarded for their sporting prowess, their musical mastery, their deft woodworking skills or their phenomenal Tetris level-clearing. But I have no particular ambition to be exceptional at any one particular thing to the exclusion of all else. I am interested in breadth far more than I am interested in depth. There are some topics of which I have some depth of understanding. But I do like to skim across the surface of things, and get just enough to be able to incorporate ideas from that domain into other things. My understanding of technology is largely drawn from principles of literary criticism, a little philosophy (both Eastern and Western), a particular strand of Russian psychology from the 1920s and a little physics, though not the stuff you might imagine would be applicable.
In other words, I’m someone who dabbles. Not in the pejorative sense that has me borrowing and applying dangerously misunderstood concepts to areas they don’t belong, but rather the character of having read widely around the topic, rather than only reading the topic. I like to integrate knowledge across a range of disciplines. I like the feeling that accompanies the possession of new knowledge. Learning new stuff is something I like to have done. I don’t necessarily always like doing it, but I do enjoy having done it.
Josh Kaufman has a rule I prefer to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. His is about The First 20 hours. In a nutshell, the concept is this: if you want to learn something to the point where you feel like you enjoy it, you’re good enough to do it with some degree of confidence and you want to do it more, then what you need to get through is those first 20 hours.
The first 20 hours suck – both for you and for those around you. But if you push past the 20 hours, then you have learned enough about something in order to do it “well”, which is to say “not terribly”. You have to spend time being bad at it before you can be good at it, but you don’t have to spend 10 years being bad at it. Just, y’know… 20 hours.
Of course, 20 hours is a commitment in itself. It’s not to be underestimated. Think about it. That’s 40 minutes uninterrupted practice every day for a whole month. But if you want to do something well enough to enjoy it and get results that you can be reasonably happy with, that’s where the bar is realistically set.
I like that. It’s attainable. It’s modest. Being a generalist has a much more satisfying and short-lived process of delayed gratification. The First 20 Hours rule is something that makes me think that in my lifetime, I could learn to play a few songs on the piano, I could juggle three balls, I could get by in Spain if I needed to get directions somewhere or order a meal in a restaurant. I could, let’s say, bake a decent sourdough loaf, made entirely by hand.
It’s this last one that I most recently decided to give a go. The expectation, of course, being that for at least the first few loaves, the results were not going to live up to my ideals of what an artisan sourdough loaf should be like.
I’m not at my 20 hours yet, but today I felt confident enough with what I had baked to share it with the neighbours as part of a post-concert drinks and snacks evening. It was okay and people were very kind about it. I’m happy with the crust, and less so with the crumb. It’ll get there. I can already see improvement. But the point is that this was not one of the first attempts. The first attempts were pretty seriously humbling.
Here’s the interesting thing about making bread: there are variables. There are only four ingredients (flour, water, salt and yeast), but there are lots of variables. Temperature and time are very important – not just in the cooking, but in the preparation and waiting processes. The water temperature makes a difference. Ambient room temperature makes a difference. Time between folding the dough changes the dough. Time left to rise is critical. And with sourdough, because you are using and cultivating the natural yeasts in the environment rather than only using commercial yeasts from a packet, the variety of bacteria differs by geography and climate. The flour is also different depending on where you bought it or which brand you use. Some water is hard, some is soft. 245ºC is a different temperature in my oven than it is in yours. All of these things have an impact, and so you’re not just learning how to make bread, you’re learning how to make bread here in this place, using these ingredients and tools. Most of the 20 hours will be spent making adjustments and adaptations, even as you follow recipes strictly to the letter. There is complexity and that complexity is daunting to begin with. You will feel like you’re not going to get the hang of this. Then you start to get the hang of this. It’s a bad feeling that is just part of learning stuff. It’s not a popular feeling, and most people want to do whatever they can in order to avoid that feeling. Turning up each day in order to be bad at something is no fun. But having an idea of what it is you’re trying to accomplish then noticing how you gradually begin to approach that accomplishment is what keeps you going.
Good instruction certainly helps, though you do have to get your hands dirty and do the actual cooking yourself. As far as recipes are concerned, I have been quite pleased with the book Flour, Water, Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish. He also has some excellent short videos on his website that take you through some of the techniques that make a real difference. I’ve watched them a couple of times, each time noticing something simple I’d missed and that I’ll do differently next time.
Of course, nothing says ‘I live in an old farmhouse in a forest in the north of Sweden’ like making bread by hand. There’s been a real lifestyle and cultural shift in moving here that comes out in such small ways. Things like watching the village green fill up with families at Midsomer for traditional dances and games; how the neighbour pops over with fresh-laid eggs; getting to know the various burning properties of different kinds of firewood as you stock up for winter. It’s not just a shift to the rural way of life, but a shift to the Swedish rural – in a country where work/life balance in the cities already has a six-hour workday enshrined in the culture, as well as regular breaks for fika. Here outside the city with the dogs and the pine trees, there’s a pace of life that you need to succumb to when you can, and it’s one that is entirely compatible with hand-made objects and home-baked bread.
There’s a Swedish word that you hear a lot: lagom. It means something like ‘just enough’, but has overtones of fairness, humble sufficiency and balance. It’s a pretty good answer to “how are you?”.
Breadmaking has elements of lagom about it. You work on something, create it with simple ingredients and simpler techniques, and the result after many hours is ‘just enough’. A satisfying object, warm and with an incredible smell that infuses the wood of the kitchen – but not necessarily an item you would put on a letter to Santa Claus. It’s wonderful, but it’s not special. It’s a simple, every day thing. Lagom.
‘Give us this day our daily bread’ has a nice simplicity and humility about it. As prayers go, it’s about having the basics for survival. It’s about as far from the kind of materialistic wish-making that often passes for religious prayer as you can get. It’s a request for enough. Lagom.
But also, at the same time, it’s kind of asking a lot too. When you recite the Lord’s Prayer and expect your bread on a regular daily type schedule, you’re not actually asking for that bread to magically appear. You’re asking for the conditions to be right for you to be able to make the bread yourself. You want the crops to succeed. You also want to have the strength and capacity to go about making that bread. Or at least that someone you know will be able to. And, if possible, that whoever it is that gets to make the bread on a daily basis does so with diligence and due care and attention. But it’s more accurately “Give us, this day, our daily bread”. In other words, let’s not worry about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. Just for today, this day, give us O Lord our daily bread. This is about the moment.
Making bread by hand also has that quality of mindfulness about it. There’s no multitasking when you’re folding dough. It’s the only thing you are doing and, certainly when you’re just getting started as I am, it’s the only thing you’re thinking about. I can just about have music on while I’m making bread. I can’t have a conversation, listen to an audiobook, read or answer emails.
It’s not so much that making bread in this way is particularly time and labour intensive, but rather more that it is something that ties you to a place, a routine and a periodic object of focus. You can’t start making bread in the morning and then decide to go out all afternoon. There will be steps that will need to take place as the day progresses, and they are critical to the success of the loaf. They won’t take up a lot of your day, the steps, but you’ll need to be there when the time comes.
And the end result… well, the end result is okay. It’s not good yet. I haven’t been through my 20 hours, but I’m working on it. I have to spend some time being bad at this before I can be good at it. And when I’m good enough at it, then it’ll be something that I can do and enjoy without feeling like I have to be the best baker there ever was, enter bread competitions or even make bread my new career. This is something that I am working towards enjoying, I’d like to be good enough at it to be able to make a few different loaves without a recipe in front of me, and I want to be able to share it with people who enjoy and appreciate it as I do. Good bread is really great and I’m looking forward to being able to consistently produce it.
And it’s really nice to have something like this where unlike, I have discovered, the process of learning to ski, the first 20 hours are not likely to be quite so injury prone – unless of course I happen to absentmindedly touch something that’s way too hot. And nor do the early days have too many ‘violin moments’. Failed bread can go straight to the hens next door. Near misses make pretty good toast. Nobody has to suffer.
I’m not after a Masters in Baking, should such a thing exist. I certainly don’t want to become a chef. That looks like a terrible occupation. But I’m pretty confident that by late November – mid-December at the latest – my sourdough game will be at a point where I can really start to have fun with it. Knowing about the frustrating bit at the beginning in advance is helpful.
Just got to get through those first 20 hours.