Problem-Solving Series

Guessing Takes More Effort Than Knowing

Nicole Dieker welcomes suggestions on how to make her baguettes even better.

We’ll start this with a story about bread.

Every few days or so, I bake two loaves of baguette-style bread using Mireille Guiliano’s recipe.

(I actually make four loaves’ worth of dough in advance — that is, I knead everything together and send it through the first proofing stage — and put whatever dough we don’t use right away into the freezer.)

For the first two months of baguette-making, my loaves were extraordinarily (or perhaps just ordinarily) inconsistent. Sometimes the dough would be too wet. Other times the dough would be too dry. Sometimes the dough wouldn’t rise as much during the first or second proofing, and sometimes the loaves would come out oddly shaped, with scoring marks that looked more like knife gouges.

Sometimes I’d forget to score the loaves altogether. Once I forgot to add the pan of water during the baking process — you still get bread at the end of it, so it wasn’t a total loss, but the texture was different when the loaves weren’t steamed and baked simultaneously.

For a while I told myself that I was “still learning,” but then I realized that I wasn’t. I was just making mistakes, and putting a lot of effort into adding dribbles of water here (whoops, dough too wet) and spoonfuls of flour there (whoops, now it’s too dry) without asking myself what I didn’t know and how I might come to know it.

Essentially, I was using Mireille Guiliano’s recipe as a template for guessing.

It took a Betty Crocker recipe to start me on the path towards knowing.

Last month, L asked me to make him cinnamon rolls for Valentine’s Day — and there was only one recipe, from one cookbook, that I was going to use for this particular treat.

This needs a bit of backstory.

When I was growing up my dad cooked dinner while my mom taught piano lessons, and my dad always used this old Betty Crocker cookbook from the 1960s, and every seminal recipe from my childhood — including the cinnamon rolls he would make every few months or so — came out of that book, and when L was moving out of his old house and into the one we had just bought together he pulled an absolutely pristine copy of the same Betty Crocker cookbook out of a cupboard and said “should I give this to Goodwill?” and I said “NO, YOU SHOULD GIVE IT TO ME.”

The cookbook is no longer pristine.

More importantly, it taught me that you didn’t have to guess to get bread dough. The cinnamon roll recipe noted that the way to get a consistent yeast dough was to mix up the yeast, water, and salt with roughly half of the flour you planned to use — and then to add the rest of the flour and start incorporating and kneading until the perfect dough ball just appeared.

You won’t use all the flour, Betty Crocker explained. Once the dough has all of the flour it needs, it will stop accepting more.

Wow, I thought. I just learned something.

Then I began asking myself what else I needed to learn to get consistent baguettes every time. How exactly does one score bread, for example? The recipe I was using simply said “score,” but it turns out there’s a specific angle you should use and a specific depth you should cut (and if you want to be really, really specific about it, you can buy a special scoring tool called a “bread lame”), and once I knew how to score a loaf of bread instead of guessing at what “score” meant,” I stopped needing to put so much time and trouble into asking myself “Well, if I cut this much will it be all right? Last time I cut a bit less, and it looked like someone had barely tapped the knife against the bread, but the other time I cut a bit more and it looked like the loaves had been mangled by squirrels…”

That’s the difference between guessing and knowing.

Guessing takes so much more unnecessary effort.

I think this can stop being a story about bread now.

It could be a story about practicing the piano, as I wrote last Friday. The moment when I realized that it was taking so much more effort and strain and literal work to play the third movement of Mozart’s K332 poorly than it took to play the first and second movements well.

Or maybe it isn’t “literal work,” because I haven’t done all of the work I need to on that third movement yet. Maybe it’s some kind of illiteral work, or figurative work, or — no, wait — illiterate work. The work being done by someone who does not yet know, but might know in the future if they took the time to learn.

(And the thing is that I know exactly where that movement needs work. I just don’t always remember that work is the thing it needs. Sometimes I think it just needs “more practice,” which isn’t the same thing at all.)

This could also be a story about pitching freelance articles, or writing freelance articles, or learning how to play chess, or anything else that involves a process of going from guessing to knowing. The more you know about how to get to knowing, the more time you can save along the way — and the better your work will become.

Both the work of getting to knowing and the work you create after you know.

I originally called this post “You Have to Work Harder at What You Haven’t Learned.”

But that isn’t true. Doing something you know takes work, and that’s not even counting the work it takes to know something.

What’s true — so true that it feels like another secret to life — is that doing something you don’t know takes a lot of effort.

And once you know how to do something, the work starts to feel effortless.

It isn’t, of course. This kind of work still requires focus and discipline and specificity and all of that.

But it stops requiring stress and strain and anxiety.

And it yields much better music, much better writing, much better relationships, and much better bread. ❤️

p.s. if you want to go from guessing to knowing in terms of “pitching freelance articles”, read the Pitch Fix series I wrote for The Write Life.

4 thoughts on “Guessing Takes More Effort Than Knowing”

  1. The bread metaphor is on point. As a speaker of English as a second language, I often experience something similar when it comes to the pronunciation of certain words. The “g” sound in “gibberish”. The stress pattern in “innovative”. Having to guess all the time not only takes more effort than knowing, it can also have the cumulative effect of eating away at your confidence and sense of competence. Every time I decide to just look up the word in the dictionary feels like a gift to myself.

    1. Yes! Guessing does eat at your confidence and competence. That’s another reason why people don’t always want to do the work of going from guessing to knowing — because they’ll have to deal with feeling like they can’t do something before they start feeling like they can.

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