In middle school jazz band, I learned that good jazz wasn’t produced through an abundance of notes, but a few well-placed ones. Teenagers enthralled by the capabilities of our newly-acquired instruments and rudimentary skills, we each were tempted to compensate for our lack of skill by playing a flurry of notes.
Our director threatened to strip our drummer’s kit down to a snare and high-hat.
I discovered Count Basie, who could say more with two notes of his piano than most could with the full 88. By stripping down a melody to the essential notes he made better music. As one of his band members said, “Count don’t do nothin’, but it sure sounds good.”
This is the simplicity that Yvon Chouinard, legendary mountain-climber, adventure-seeker, and founder of Patagonia, Inc. writes about his book Let My People Go Surfing. Though his company has grown ironically large, he maintains a personal ethic of simplicity that – if his written words are true – have guided Patagonia to maintain a simplicity throughout its growth.
He echoes the aspirations of Thoreau and Wendell Berry (and others), pointing out that a life of simplicity is the way to a richer life. While technology promises to get our desired results faster, simplicity acknowledges that the process is just as important as the result, even if it takes longer.
The ship’s carpenter on Shackleton’s lifeboat James Caird took only three simple hand tools with him on the passage from Antarctica to South Georgia Island, knowing that, if he needed to, he could build another boat with only those tools.
I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge. The more you know, the less you need.
– Yvon Chouinard
(If you’re like me, you’re probably the main question we should be asking: did this ship carpenter count his iPhone as one of his tools, you know, for finding how-to videos on YouTube, or did he bring three additional tools? 😉 )
The art of sourdough
Lately I’ve been learning the enjoyment found in simplicity in the kitchen, baking sourdough bread. The philosophy with sourdough is that you don’t need a fancy bread machine, or even yeast, to make great loaf of bread. Using only flour, water, and salt, a skilled baker can produce a beautiful loaf that is more nutritious than other quicker methods. (Oh, and YouTube videos, in my personal experience, are also a wonderful tool for helping achieve mastery, check out the Alex and Ken’s Artisan for some great tips.)
Master bakers wax poetic about the process of baking a great loaf, from the fruity smells of a lively sourdough starter, to the feeling of the dough as the gluten begins to activate, and the soothing rhythms of kneading the dough. Clearly baking for them isn’t about “taking in calories” or “fuelling”, it’s about the enjoyment of the process. With the bonus of a delicious meal afterwards. And isn’t enjoyment a huge factor for why we eat the things we do?
It turns out that the key ingredient for sourdough bread is time. Patience to let the natural bacteria in bread grow, ferment, and cause the dough to rise. Kneading the dough. Letting it “rest” before working with it.
Yeast gets you there faster. A supermarket, even faster. But if we treat food as a race to the finish, we miss out on a key part of the enjoyment of the food – the making of it.
In any endeavour, it’s worth asking whether adding more tools and technology will make the process better, or whether it will just get you to the end faster.