Make it Yours


Last week I re-listened to a "Freakonomics" podcast on Peak performance. The host interviewed Anders Ericsson who came up with the concept that ten thousand hours are needed to master something and Malcolm Gladwell who popularized it.

Ten thousand hours isn't enough.

You need directed practice during which you push yourself and get direction from others. That was Ericsson's recommendation.

The two authors mainly agreed. One example of where they didn't see things the same way was in what made the Beatles so great. Gladwell said that much of their success came from all of the public gigs they played in Hamburg and elsewhere before coming to America.

Ericsson said the strength of the Beatles wasn't in their performance but in their composition. What made them great, according to Ericsson, was the time they spent on activities related to composition.

Gladwell said that it didn't matter that they started as a cover band. He said imagine a band with Harrison, McCartney, and Lennon playing night after night. Of course they start by playing other people's music. But slowly, they work their own music into the mix. They see how it does with the crowds and make adjustments.

Gladwell said that that's how he learned to write. He began by writing work that sounded very much like his William F. Buckley. It was only over time that he began to find his own voice and write like himself.

He had to start writing like someone else just to get in the habit of writing and then he made his writing his own.

The Beatles had to start playing other people's music and really work at playing gigs before they could find their own voices.

Look at the things you like to do. Have you made them your own yet?

I love to bake but I tend to be recipe bound. I will try lots of different styles of bread but I tend to stick to the cookbooks fairly closely.

I was recently looking for a bread formula to try for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

Jeffrey Hamelman's Rustic Bread looked perfect. The bread has a mix of white, whole wheat, and rye flours.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this bread is that half of the flour is prefermented. This preferment is a fairly dry mixture of water and flour with a touch of salt and a little bit of yeast.

Hmmm. I have this really nice sourdough starter I've been maintaining. What if I used it instead of the preferment?

Well, the sourdough is quite a bit wetter than the preferment. The sourdough has about 25% more water than flour in it while the ratio in the preferment is five parts flour to three parts water.

Bread bakers would say the water in the sourdough is one hundred twenty-five percent while the water in the preferment is sixty percent.

In the first pass, I decided to just calculate how much flour I needed in the sourdough to equal the amount of flour that was called for in the preferment. The dough came out soupy. It was almost like a pancake batter. The bread baked up all right but the product was a little gummy and I didn't get the volume I wanted.

The second time I adjusted the total water amount in the dough down to just a little more than in the original recipe.

The result was a beautiful crispy crust surrounding a creamy crumb with beautifully distributed holes. The sour taste worked nicely with the rye and whole wheat.

I was really happy with the bread.

I love to cook from Hamelman's "Bread" book but this was even better. I'd taken one of his recipes and made it mine.

This also reminds me of my time in graduate school.

For the longest time, I met with my advisor each week and took the next step that he recommended. At one point I thought, "no, that doesn't sound right to me." I tried something else.

My advisor knew way more than I did. But he also was waiting for me to make the research my own. I don't know that he actually was waiting for me to and I won't say that I was every going to be much of a mathematician. But it was a wonderful moment when I charted a direction and followed it.

The first time I did it and showed my advisor he said, "you know what you've proved?"

I didn't.

I still needed direction.

That said, writing a PhD thesis seems to be in concert with what Ericsson is talking about. The student doesn't just keep doing the same things they know how to do. They have to extend themselves and they need direction.

Let's plan on doing this at least once this year in at least one area that matters.

And by "let's" I mean both of us.

We'll each pick something and strive to get better at it. Significantly better at it. We'll have to put in the time and we'll need the help of others.

Pick something.

Make it yours.