I often wonder what makes the great so great — why one continues to excel where others plateau. For this discussion I’ll be using the example of master bakers, but the idea of mastery speaks to excellence in all fields and endeavors. Every Master, no matter their area of expertise, possesses that certain magic — that ephemeral “something” — which sets them apart from all the rest.
I want to know what that “something” is. So I can capture it. Apply it. Use it in my own pursuits.
And I bet you do too.
So just what is it that makes a Master a Master? Is it simply a matter of skill? Innate talent? Education? Experience?
Or maybe it’s just a matter of title; if your colleagues call you a Master then a Master you must be. Correct?
Or perhaps it’s that third party designation bestowed upon those who’ve passed “the Test.” Certified Master Baker. Surely proof of mastery lies in such a lofty title.
Maybe it’s all of the above. The talent. The skill. Long experience. It all leads to reputation and the ability to pass such a rigorous test. A title well deserved.
Yes, perhaps that’s it . . .
Or perhaps not. Perhaps it’s something else entirely . . .
You see, mastery is derivative of a mind set.
And there can be no Master, however you choose to define the term, without possession of this mindset. One begets the other.
So let’s delve a bit into this almighty mindset. If we can just dig deep enough into the mind of a Master, well then . . . I think we might be able to unravel some of the mysteries of real excellence. I bet we can even get to the true heart of the matter . . . the secret . . . what it is that makes the best the best.
Key Traits of the Master Bakers
1. Passion (or Obsession)
The truth is that for most of the great bakers of the world passion and obsession are the same thing. Call it whatever you like; it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. And the starting point of passion usually begins with one simple thing . . . fascination.
Not love. Not joy.
Pure unbridled fascination. There’s just something about baking that’s so alluring to them. They might not even be able to specify exactly what that something is. But it’s there, make no mistake about it.
The thing about fascination, even more so than love or joy, is that it compels us to explore the thing further. Deeper and deeper we dig, in a never ending quest to understand. We simply can’t help it. We become absorbed. Enthralled.
And that’s where the path to mastery begins. You’re either obsessed with baking or you’re not. It can’t be faked. Because if you’re not truly fixated on this one thing, you’ll never reach so deeply into the craft as those who are obsessed. The drive won’t be there. You’ll hit that point of diminishing returns and the payoff will cease to justify the effort.
But those who are passionate, those who are obsessed . . . they’ll keep on truckin’. The fact that there’s more to learn, no matter the time or effort involved, will just keep pushing them further and further. They couldn’t stop if they tried. It’s too addictive.
Fascination breeds obsession. And obsession is a prerequisite to mastery.
2. Deliberate Practice
Practice makes perfect, so they say. The more astute might say perfect practice makes perfect. Seems a bit more reasonable to me, but still . . . can such a thing as perfect practice even exist. I mean, it’s a bit of a circular argument – if perfect practice is required to make perfect, then how do we ever achieve perfect practice if not by first employing more perfect practice.
You see where this is going?
Maybe I’m just getting a bit too deep into the semantics here, but I believe in clarity. So I think the better term to use is “deliberate practice.”
Deliberate practice makes perfect.
If there’s one defining trait common to all Masters it’s their dedication to purposeful practice . . . that is, practice with a specific goal or outcome in mind. This kind of practice is separate from mere habitual repetition — rote practice. This kind of practice requires mindfulness.
It all comes down to intent.
Are you simply going through the motions; mindlessly repeating the same thing over and over? Hell, are you even paying attention?
Or are you engaged in something more significant? More worthwhile. Something that might actually bring about a result.
Deliberate practice is about putting your entire self into the learning process. It’s about attention and mindfulness. It requires being present – in the moment. And it depends upon a strong desire to learn. To understand. To improve.
So no, practice doesn’t make perfect. Nor perfect practice. Not even deliberate practice, truth be told. Perfection doesn’t exist. It’s a concept only. An ideal. But deliberate practice does make us better.
And it does the job rapidly.
I’m talking about exponential growth here. Sure, we can learn through mindless repetition; that’s how we all learned our multiplication tables, right? But that kind of rote practice can never compare to practice that’s driven by deliberate and purposeful intent.
It’s what separates the pros from the amateurs.
3. Observation and Experimentation
This goes hand in hand with deliberate practice. But instead of improving skills, this is improving understanding. The Master must have a deep understanding of the nature of his craft.
That takes time.
But time alone isn’t enough. Time spent with a wandering mind is just time wasted. The aspiring Master is always paying attention to what’s going on. Once again, he is present. Always observing cause and effect.
Because if you weren’t paying attention during the previous steps, how can you ever trace an effect back to its cause?
This constant in-depth absorption during each and every step of the process is a requirement for mastery – especially when it comes to baking. Baking is a feel-based craft. The baker who is constantly observing every minute detail of the process will always advance much faster and much further than the baker whose mind drifts elsewhere.
In addition, since the aspiring Master is so fascinated with the process, he will constantly experiment with different methods or techniques. Curiosity is a powerful thing. It drives us deeper and deeper into the process.
Over time, through ongoing observation and experimentation, the curious baker will develop a strong and accurate intuitive sense for his craft. This allows him to see cause and effect with much more clarity, giving him a strong predictive ability when it comes to even the most subtle changes in the process.
Simply combining observation, experimentation, and deliberate practice can allow an inexperienced baker to quickly catch up to, and surpass, the ability of bakers who might have much more experience, but are lacking in these qualities. Indeed, even after just a couple years like this, the aspiring Master can outperform even a 20 year veteran of the craft if that veteran has only been showing up all those years in return for a mere paycheck.
Yes, curiosity and deliberate practice are that effective. That powerful. But in the quest for mastery, that’s still not enough . . .
4. Ceaseless Refinement
Refine, refine, refine. I love refinement. No matter how far you’ve come, there’s always room for a little more refinement. I mean, what’s better than taking something your already skilled at and getting just a little bit better at it. And then doing it again . . . and again . . .
It’s beautiful. It’s like art. Like sculpture. Chipping away, bit by bit, anything extraneous. Smoothing the edges. Polishing the stone. A highly refined skill is a masterpiece unto itself.
The thing about refinement is that you take an ability that’s “good enough” and turn it into something much more – astounding proficiency. And it’s accomplished almost seamlessly, little by little. Each and every tiny little change, seemingly insignificant on its own, adds up over time. Compounding.
Take shaping as an example. Sure, a new baker can learn to mold a variety of different shapes in the span of a few months. Boules, batards, baguettes, braids. But it won’t be long before he sees his learning curve start to flatten. If he’s content to leave well enough alone, then this is where progress ends. And if he’s content to that, then he’s content to an average ability and an average career.
The baker who seeks mastery is not content to “well enough.” Because it’s not. Not for him. Continual improvement is the goal. And so this baker is always trying something new. Incessantly refining his technique. From minor tweaks in handling to experimentation with different shaping styles entirely. Even if he must take a temporary step back at times, it’s a small price to pay in the quest for progress.
5. Relentless Pursuit
In the end, this is what it all boils down to. It’s what separates those who travel the path to mastery from those who walk that well-worn road to mediocrity. The Master will always be engaged in the relentless pursuit of growth. Whether it be through deliberate practice, constant refinement, education or experimentation, the Master moves forward where the rest fall behind.
For the Master Baker, this means developing a deep insight into every step of the process. And every little sub-step, as well. It’s not good enough to know how to make nice dough, shape well and bake well. You have to have thorough understanding and command over every minute detail along the way.
For instance, are you simply content to shape a good loaf? Or are you trying to shape the perfect loaf? Because if it’s the perfect loaf you’re after, you’ll find that developing and refining your shaping skills is only one part of the process. The Master understands that it’s the little things that count.
So what’s it to be? Mediocrity or Mastery?
Now, I’m no Master, but this is the mindset I try to maintain at all times. And I’d like to think that anyone who’s chosen a craft such as baking for their profession has done so with a desire to pursue excellence. Isn’t that what truly separates a craftsman, or artisan, from just another day laborer? It’s the desire to always do better, to always take that next leap forward, which elevates the craftsman above the rest of the stock.
We’ve chosen a skilled trade as our career. Or maybe it’s chosen us. Whatever the case may be, mastery must be the goal. If we’re not continually seeking to improve our abilities – every single hour of the workday – then we’re just wasting our time and talent. We might as well be shoveling shit.
Trevor J. Wilson