Let me start by saying that I am a lousy baker. Well, I suppose it goes broader than that – I’m really a lousy cook in general. I have no intuition for food preparation at all and the only way I’ve ever really achieved positive results in the kitchen is by strictly following a published recipe.
This lack of skill was never too much of a problem until about two years ago when I decided that I was going to be a bread baker. The decision wasn’t so much driven by a desire to cook – more by a desire to eat home-baked bread (which is always delicious). So, with grit and determination, I set out to become a great bread baker.
One of my favorite things to do is to reflect back on new skills that I’ve learned and break down what exactly allowed me to gain the skill. How did I build a mental map for the challenge? What did it feel like to be bad at the skill, before I had learned it? How did my brain change to adapt to the new knowledge?
When it comes to learning how to bake, my adventure started in a very familiar way: with total failure. My first few months baking were not great. The majority of the breads I baked were mediocre at best, and many were inedible, flat, burned or otherwise offensive to look at.
These first months were very difficult. Baking bread takes a long time (anywhere from 3 to 18 hours depending on the kind of bread), and to invest so much time only to fail is very painful. However, I was able to persevere and week after week I learned a little bit more about baking. I discovered new recipes, I explored new ingredients and I gained a basic intuition for the proper ratio of flour, yeast and salt.
Flash forward to today and I bake bread almost every weekend. I have a few go-to recipes and continue to explore minor tweaks and improvements to them all the time.
Looking back, there are really two things that allowed me to learn how to become the baker I am today:
1) I did it a lot
I baked almost every weekend for two years. I produced a lot of bread – some of it was good, and some of it was bad, but I kept going and I practiced a lot.
2) Objective distance from my work
Immediately after baking I always encourage honest feedback from my friends and family about the quality of the bread and how it was prepared. I usually receive very candid, honest feedback because they know I am not emotionally attached to being a baker. I have separated my identity from my work, so when it comes to my baking, I’m able to accept critical feedback easily and without feeling offended.
The second point here is critical. When learning how to do anything, it’s very important that your identity is not too closely tied with the skill you’re trying to learn or improve. If – throughout the process of learning to bake – I thought of myself as a great baker, it would be very difficult for my friends and family to give me candid feedback on my baking without also giving feedback on me. Each time they told me they didn’t like my bread, they would also in a small way be telling me they didn’t like me – which is a hard piece of criticism to both give and receive.
The key to really learning or improving any skill is to find emotional distance from your work. You must always know deep down inside that you are capable of great things, that your work can always improve, and that honest feedback from others is important to solicit and digest.