Choosing the right dish
From what I understand, despite its simplicity, there aren't many dishes held in higher esteem by the culinary community1 than the French omelette.
To all of you uncultured numskulls out there who don't spend hours upon hours watching YouTube videos about cooking like I do, a French omelette looks like this:
See how it's underdone and creamy inside? It's not the same thing that you cook for breakfast in the morning with ham and cheese. Adding cheese to a proper French omelette would be like adding ketchup to a good steak. A good steak doesn't need ketchup, and a good French omelette doesn't need cheese. It's perfect just the way it is and you'd be covering up that perfection if you added something to it.2
The French omelette looms large in kitchen legend, and the story you'll most often hear is that it was the dish chefs would use to test prospective cooks. They chose an omelette of all things because, in a matter of minutes, it could show a chef everything he needed to know about the cook. Did he make an egg-splattered mess or keep things clean? Was he wasteful, or did he scrape every last bit of egg into the pan? Did he handle the pan correctly, seasoning the traditional carbon steel to give it a perfect nonstick surface? Was he quick, deft, efficient? And, after everything, did he produce that textbook almond-shaped package? Was it baveuse?
I'd been making French omelettes for years at that point, but the depth of detail he gave in each step made it all seem new to me. The heat had to be high the whole time, with temperature controlled by moving the pan on and off of it. The pan had to be just hot enough that you couldn't press the back of your fingers on it for more than half a second. The butter had to foam but not brown. The eggs had to be beaten just until the last trace of whites vanished—but no more than that—and salted lightly at the last second. The pepper had to be white, to avoid little black flecks.
Then Soltner looked at me and said, "Now you try." I'm not sure I've ever been as nervous as when I cooked my omelette under his solitary gaze. It didn't matter that I'd made hundreds, if not thousands, of French omelettes during my restaurant career. My hands shook and my fingers trembled; my heart thumped up, pressing its way into my neck. All my moves became timid and uncertain as I realized I'd just been cast into that fabled omelette test. I had one shot to earn the approval of a godlike chef.
"It's not bad," Soltner said, inspecting my omelette after I'd plated it. Not exactly high praise, but I took it.
Wow. That's a lot.
Forgive me if I'm being naive, but does it really matter if there are little black flecks of pepper on it? If it is a perfect almond shape? If it is baveuse?
Kenji-Lopez Alt doesn't think so. He sees a lot of merit to a Thai-style omelette, and even prefers it to the French one.
Instead of being perfectly smooth, careful not to add any browning like the French omelette, the Thai one is unapologetically fried and crispy. Yum! It's served over rice for some balance and contrast, and often times people will throw in something like ground pork or aromatic herbs in there. It's also common to have it with a dipping sauce. Kenji used palm sugar, garlic, chilies, fish sauce, and lime for his, although it's traditional to just squeeze some fish sauce or sriracha on top. And unlike the French omelette, it doesn't take years to get past the point of "it's not bad".
I'm with Kenji. I think the Thai-style omelette is better. And I think this says something about ideas vs execution.
Even if you train for years and years and master the French omelette like that guy Soltner, I still don't think it's as good as a Thai-style one you'd find from any old street vendor in Thailand. At least in my opinion, flavor and textural variety are really important, and the Thai style omelette does a great job with those things. On the other hand, the French omelette does not. It doesn't even try to.
Here's a different example that I think is analogous. Consider pasta with butter and salt. That is analogous to a french omelette. How good could you get that dish? It's just pasta, butter and salt. Sure, there is something comforting and satisfying about simple dishes. But if you want to reach a certain level, simple dishes won't get you there. They can only take you so far.
This post isn't actually supposed to be about culinary stuff though, so let's just accept my premise that the Thai-style omelette is better (or at least has a higher ceiling) because of the more complex flavors and textures and move on.4
What is the implication of that? Well, we've got a situation where choosing the right dish yields you much better results than improving your ability to execute.
Richard Hamming understands this. He is a mathematician who is known for asking The Hamming Question: "what are the most important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on them?" Choosing the right problems to work on almost always yields vastly better results than executing better on the problem you're currently working on.
From his 1986 talk You and your research:
Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, "Do you mind if I join you?" They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?" And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?" And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?" I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.
In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, "Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research," he says, "but I think it was well worthwhile." And I said, "Thank you Dave," and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, "What are the important problems in my field?"
If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious.
I've seen various others make this point as well. Sam Altman is one.
I don't want to pretend that everything is always all about choosing the right dish. Sometimes execution is more important. Other times they're of similar importance. Often times it's just more complicated than a simple "more/less important".
I think that choosing a good career vs "executing" inside of a given career is a good example of this.
Basically, I'm a subscriber to Cal Newport's ideas on careers. He says that "follow your passion" is bad advice. What actually leads to satisfaction is autonomy, mastery and relationships, and the path towards those things involves becoming So Good They Can't Ignore You. Furthermore, as you become that good at what you do, passion starts to develop.
That sort of stuff sounds like it fits under "executing" as opposed to "choosing the right dish". "Choosing the right dish" would be exploring a different career. "Executing" would be making progress within your current career.
So maybe executing is the thing that is more important in the context of careers? Well, my one word answer would be "yes", but it's a little bit more complicated than that. Regardless, the point I want to get across in this section is a caveat: choosing the right dish is just something to consider, not an approach that is always appropriate.
In the context of business, Derek Sivers says Ideas are just a multiplier of execution. From that post:
As I alluded to in the previous section, I think reality is more complicated than this. But I also think that his post is a good way of framing things. As they say: all models are wrong, but some are useful.
That Derek Sivers post has always felt curious to me though. What's with the word "just"? How is the takeaway that execution is more important than ideas? Where did he get those numbers from?
My intuition is kinda the opposite actually. As an example, I had a weak idea with Premium Poker Tools. It never had the potential to be more than some sort of indie project. Brilliant execution wouldn't have gotten me to $10M. The market simply isn't large enough.
This is a really deep topic that I don't want to dive too far down in this post. Let's just say that I think ideas are super, super important for businesses.5 The multipliers are much larger than the values Sivers uses, and similar to the Hamming Question, you could have vastly more success by finding the right problem to solve than by executing better on the problem you are currently working on.
Over the past however many months, I had plans to build a calibration training web app. Then I listened to Phillip Tetlock's interview on the 80,000 Hours podcast. There I came across Open Philanthropy's version of the same app: https://80000hours.org/calibration-training.
It's pretty much what I planned on building and the logical part of me no longer thinks it's worth building my own version. But there's some emotional part of me that still wants to chug along anyway. Some sort of inertia. I had all of these plans and I feel a certain momentum that is carrying me towards these plans that is difficult to fight against, even though the logical part of me thinks it's ridiculous.
I suspect that this is common. More generally, I think that when you're working on a given dish, there's a similar inertia that makes you want to keep executing on it. Choosing a new dish is frequently an ugh field.
It makes me think back to Is That Your True Rejection? Sorta. Sure, people might agree that it's often wise to choose a new dish. But that doesn't hit at their true objection. The reason why people don't change dishes isn't because they think they should keep going with their current dish. The true reason is the emotional inertia.
It also makes me think back to How An Algorithm Feels From The Inside. One of the reasons I thought that post was cool is that it doesn't just explain the right thing, it shows you exactly what your brain is currently doing and why it's wrong. I'm not sure if I hit the nail on the head here with my emotional inertia hypothesis, but figuring out why exactly we feel compelled to stick to our current dish seems important.
There's a pretty sharp divide here between (mostly white) foreigners and locals, each of whom seem to have chosen a different dish. Both are pursuing happiness, however you want to define that, but each is taking a different path towards it. Foreigners tend to be focused on making money, whereas local Thais are much more lax about making money and much more focused on, for lack of a better term, inner enlightenment.
For example, let's consider a user persona of Alice the foreign entrepreneur. Alice used to work in a cubicle but decided that life isn't for her. Now she sells niche marketing software online.
Her business is doing pretty well. She is originally from Germany but moved to Thailand for the digital nomad scene. She hustles for about 10 hours a day, working out of various coffee shops and otherwise lives a pretty comfortable life. She gets massages, eats at high end restaurants, pays for people to do her laundry and clean her condo. She goes on cool vacations and retreats every so often. Since she is doing well financially, she helps her parents save for her little sister to go to grad school.
Nevertheless, Alice isn't particularly happy. Even with the most pessimistic forecasts, she could probably quit everything right now at the age of 30 and be able to retire. But she still feels compelled to work. She still feels pressure to hit her KPI goals, and she still checks her email throughout the night until she goes to sleep around 11pm.
One option Alice has is to continue focusing on execution.
- Cut her work day to 8 hours
- Maybe move to a 4 day work week instead of 5
- Set up Self Control blocks to prevent her from checking her email after 7pm
- Take a martial arts class to improve her mental resilience and toughness
- Sign up for that founder group therapy class to discuss the stresses of being an entrepreneur with others once a week
But will that lead to happiness? No. This is a fictional character so the question is kinda nonsensical but I don't care: I'm still going to claim that her focus on execution will not lead to happiness. Instead of focusing on execution, I claim that she needs to choose a better dish. And who knows, maybe that dish is staring her in the face right across the street.
If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, that's true for low class additions like cheese or ketchup. If you want to add something more bourgeois to a French omelette like chilled shrimp salad, it looks like that has been deemed acceptable, if slightly frowned upon. Similarly, I've seen steak sauces at fancy steakhouses before.↩
At least it's not sushi where chefs spend God knows how many years perfecting their sushi rice before they can ever touch a fish. But I suspect that is more about needing a costly signal to prove that young chefs are actually serious as opposed to them truly believing that the rice is that important. I wouldn't be surprised if there was some belief in belief though.↩
The way I see it, the larger point I'm making in this post (DH6 in Paul Graham's disagreement heirarchy) about "choosing the right dish" being a thing that is oftentimes very important doesn't actually depend on the particular examples of omelettes or pasta.↩
One comment I'll make is that I think the line between idea and execution can be very blurry. Personally I think that the idea has to include more than just the product. You have to have answers to questions like "how are customers going to discover this" and "how is this going to make money". High level answers to those questions are part of the idea to me, whereas lower level implementation details are part of the execution. From what I can tell, many people don't see that stuff as part of the idea.↩