The secret to boiling an egg (and mastering EVERYTHING ELSE)


A remarkable fact about the world: how difficult it is to boil an egg. Perhaps you're thinking right now, "what, in the universe of cooking, could possibly be simpler? You plop the egg in the water, you set a timer, boil the water, and take out the egg! Violà! A hard-boiled egg!"

Oh, I too was once naïve!

For a few months now my daily breakfast has consisted of four hard-boiled eggs, and so I've had ample opportunity to get this right. And I do, sometimes — I cook the yolk to the perfect consistency, in a manner that leaves the shell uncracked yet easy to peel off the albumen.

Sometimes. But not always. 

It's surprisingly hard. Though: I'm getting better.

Making precisely the same food every day has made me recognize that there are so many factors, even in this, the world's simplest dish:

  • Do I bring the water to a boil first?
  • Should it be a low boil, or a high boil? Does it matter?
  • Should I do anything to the water? (Some swear by vinegar; others by salt.)
  • After I take it out, should I let the eggs cool in the air, or plunge them into cool water? Iced water?

Over the last few months I've varied each of these factors, experimenting around until I've found the nigh-perfect recipe. (Which is, in case you're interested, to place the eggs in the pot, fill it with hot tap water, shake in some salt, and set the stove on "medium/medium-high" for 11 minutes. Afterwards, I take the eggs out and juggle them into an old pickle jar filled with ice water. C'est magnifique!)

Why am I talking about this?

Because in my breakfast-hacking, there is a lesson that pertains to everything we do:

Mastery comes from cycles.

Try something, get feedback — make a small change. Repeat it, get feedback — make another small change. And again. And again. And again.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett writes about this eloquently in his answer to the question, "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?" I first read it in the book This Will Make You Smarter; it's also online here.

Dennett suggests that these cycles of repetition are at the heart of what makes the natural world complex and wonderful: the biochemical Krebs cycle, Darwinian evolution — even the gasoline engine.

And then Dennett goes to human skill:

At a completely different scale, our ancestors discovered the efficacy of cycles in one of the great advances of human prehistory: the role of repetition in manufacture. Take a stick and rub it with a stone and almost nothing happens — few scratches are the only visible sign of change. Rub it a hundred times and there is still nothing much to see. But rub it just so, for a few thousand times, and you can turn it into an uncannily straight arrow shaft. By the accumulation of imperceptible increments, the cyclical process creates something altogether new.

Dennett concludes his essay:

A good rule of thumb, then, when confronting the apparent magic of the world of life and mind is: look for the cycles that are doing all the hard work.

This is how skill is made: repetition with feedback.

As I've laid out earlier, one of the three major values of our type of school is mastery. A new kind of schooling needs to lay out for students the route to building expertise — in math, in writing, in thinking, in art, in everything. And we need to do more than lay it out — we need to help excite students to achieve it, and work to achieve it with them.

Every student, and every teacher, can make stirring advancement in a great number of fields.

Our schools can be talent workshops. 

And to do it, we need to set students at the task of lovingly crafting their work, seeking advice, and experimenting with small changes.

This is how to boil an egg, and master everything else.