Learning a craft to better appreciate its fruits

On how I learned to brew specialty coffee so I can enjoy a cup of cortado more

Posted on April 03, 2024

During my studies, I visited a conference about lighting at my university. It was quite a large event for specialists in the field. While I was pretty sure I didn't want to work with lamps, I was mildly curious, and for us students, it was free. And did I learn a lot about lighting! It's not just about illumination; it can fundamentally affect how you experience the inside of a building or public space. When it's about signaling, like traffic lights and brake lights of cars, lighting fixtures need to be visible in various conditions, resistant to weather and vandalism, and bright enough to be seen, but not in a way that blinds people...

Did I receive my new professional calling? No, but I became a much brighter person (please comply with the "APPLAUSE" sign and appreciate the pun), as well as got a bit of an eye for the details of the fine art and engineering of lighting all around me.

Recently, I went to a one-day home barista course. I only gave a little chance of switching over from my single daily "push button and receive espresso 30 seconds later" capsule coffee routine, but I was curious. And did I learn a lot about making coffee! Starting from how coffee beans are farmed and selected, sourced and roasted, all the way to tuning the grinder and the espresso machine to brew a cup that's actually enjoyable. I learned to recognize a few basic components of a coffee's taste, and what kind of common mistakes to look out for.

Will I open my own coffee shop on the corner, or invest in a very reasonably priced $20k coffee miracle? No, but the next time I indulge myself with a cup of specialty coffee prepared by a professional barista, I'll have a tiny bit better understanding of what they had to do to create that delightful drink for me. Or if they mess up, I'll have a clue about how they messed up, and be able to go back to the counter to roast them (*APPLAUSE*).

You surely start to get the idea. It's the same thing why as pupils we had to analyze poems, essays, novels, and even do our best to write a few. Not because the goal was to turn everyone into a poet, essayist, or novelist (though that's a welcome side effect), but to heighten our senses when consuming literature, and hopefully learn to enjoy it. Similarly, if you can cook a meal, you have a much more educated point of view when ordering it in a restaurant. If you know how to code, your computer stops being a piece of magic (OK, not really) and becomes a tool that you can instruct to work for you...

My knowledge of lighting compared to some entry-level was previously perhaps at 1%, and after the conference, it became 2%. Before the barista course, I was maybe at a confident 2% of understanding coffee making on an amateur level, and now I'm at 5. Still nothing in absolute terms, but compared to myself, my domain knowledge vastly increased. And this brought whole new universes for me.

I read that when looking for a job, supposedly not your close friends, but your more distant acquaintances can help more since they are your connections to different social circles. When it comes to shaping your worldview, and if you allow me a commonplace, make you a better person, I think learning something completely new (visiting a completely new place, getting to know a completely new community...) is what matters more than putting the same amount of effort into a craft that you're already exceedingly good at.

For example, I know a lot about the programming language C#, having worked with it professionally for almost two decades. After spending 5 hours practicing new C# language features, my capabilities will have moved by basically zero, my productivity will be indistinguishable, and at most I'll be able to impress some of my colleagues with a quirk they didn't know about. However, learning about coffee or lighting for 5 hours opens up avenues I never even knew existed. Without exaggeration, I'll see the world differently. In the case of everyday things, I'll be able to appreciate them consciously instead of just being largely ignorant of their existence, making life all the more enjoyable.

When did you learn something completely new, simply out of curiosity, just for itself?