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Clear and Verifiable

The way in which Aaron Sorkin describes Intention and Obstacle in the early bits of his Masterclass is so simple, so easy to comprehend, and most importantly, so easy to test [1]. In just a few minutes, he offers a simple way to detect whether there is an appropriate level of conflict in any story. You can apply this lesson to any screenplay or script that you read, including your own.

Sadly, that sort of simple clarity is a rare thing these days. I recall when I was getting into coffee, I would hear over and over again about the famous 30-second “bloom.” You wet the ground beans and wait about 30 seconds before pouring in more water. Every expert I read recommended it. The instructions for my Chemex recommended it. I even included it in my long blog post about coffee methodology last year, though I had to confess I had no idea why I was doing it or
whether it made any difference.

And then one day a barista at San Francisco’s Four Barrel Coffee explained it to me. He said carbon dioxide gets trapped in the beans during the roasting process, which gets released when the beans first come in contact with water. You don’t want carbon dioxide trapped in your coffee, because it contributes a sour taste. So you wait about 30 seconds until most of the carbon dioxide is released into the air, rather than into your liquid.

Boom. Simple. Easy to verify online. And easy to test myself with my own coffee, since I now knew what to be looking for (a sour taste) when this step was skipped.

Who knows? Maybe you want your coffee a little sour. In that case, go ahead and skip the bloom, or shorten it a bit. Once you know why you are waiting, you can manipulate that timing to your liking, rather than blindly following the rule for its own sake.

I had never met a barista who didn’t do the 30-second bloom. But I also hadn’t met one who could tell me why it was important until that day.

So much “common practice” in various fields is accepted without question. I think experts are often intentionally ambiguous, as if they are protecting the secrets of a magic trick. And yet, it’s so important for newcomers to learn the why, not just the what.

No matter the field, when you are teaching people new things, try to use clear language that allows the learner to repeat and test concepts in their own work. And encourage them to actually experiment. Ideally, you want your students to surpass your own abilities, and they can’t do that if they haven’t taken those lessons to the lab, so to speak.

You are a technician. And techniques are hard-won over years of practice. You shouldn’t expect others to blindly accept your “rules” just because they work for you.

Your students need to know the why behind the rules before they can start breaking them. Otherwise, they end up breaking rules in a desperate attempt to be different. And that doesn’t elevate anyone’s work.

  1. While I don’t worship at the altar of all things Sorkin, as some do, I have tremendous respect for his talent for words. And now I have a new-gained respect for his ability to articulate his process. ↩︎