Prelude to “The Myth of the Best Practice”

I’ve been working on a longer piece, more in-depth and thoughtful post, prompted by this article by Clive Thompson, which was brought to my attention by Peter Steinlauf, chairman of Edmunds.com, the preeminent automotive information company in the world.

As a prelude to that longer post, which I’ve tentatively entitled “The Myth of the Best Practice,” and in deference to my current penchant for the storyform of fables and parables for their ability to impart digestible wisdom, I give you this quick bite.

Once upon a time, a man was served a dessert of home baked apple pie at a dinner hosted by his neighbor. The man had never before tasted such a perfect pie crust. “What is your secret?” he asked his host. “You are welcome to my recipe,” replied the neighbor. “There’s no secret. It’s all right there in black and white.”

Once home, the man enthusiastically planned his first apple pie. To his surprise, the new recipe contained most of the same ingredients as his own pie crust, and the procedure was quite similar. Nevertheless, he followed the recipe for the crust to the letter. Unfortunately, his first attempt yielded a crust that was inferior compared to that of his neighbor’s. He decided to pay his neighbor a visit to speak with him.

During their discussion, the neighbor revealed a number of techniques not in the printed recipe, such as the kind pie plate used. With renewed excitement, the man made his second attempt. This crust was better, yet the result was still not as good as the neighbor’s. A return visit seemed in order.

“May I watch you prepare your crust?” the man asked his neighbor. “Of course,” the neighbor replied. As he watched the crust being prepared, the man noted several nuances that were neither in the recipe nor revealed on his previous visit. Curious, he inquired of his neighbor the reasoning behind these nuances. Convinced that he now knew all of the secrets, the man made his third pie.

The result of this third attempt was much closer, but still not satisfactory. The man decided to invite his neighbor over to watch him prepare the crust. When the neighbor arrived, he immediately noted the temperature and humidity of the kitchen, as well as the type of oven being used.

“This changes everything!” the neighbor exclaimed. “It would take me many attempts in this very kitchen to perfect the crust. And it will take you many times as well. You have the right recipe, but you must search for your own secrets.”