Chef and The Line Cook: Going Deeper

Published: 2022-03-29

In 2015, Wait But Why author, Tim Urban, popularized the analogy of "The Chef and The Line Cook" in a 4-part blog series about Elon Musk. In the post, he described Elon as being a chef, someone who can take pieces of a puzzle apart and put them back together in a new, creative way.

Alternatively, he described line cook as being those who understand how to follow recipes. They know how to make a delicious steak with all the right ingredients, but if they're out of seasoning or something goes wrong, they can't salvage the dish. A chef, on the other hand, is able to make something just as scrumptious without the necessary components. In other words, they understand each ingredient enough to know how it reacts with something else.

Urban put it this way (emphasis mine):

The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds.\ \ The cook works off of some version of what's already out there---a recipe of some kind, a meal she tried and liked, a dish she watched someone else make.\ \ ...But what all of these cooks have in common is their starting point is something that already exists. Even the innovative cook is still making an iteration of a burger, a pizza, and a cake.\ \ At the very end of the spectrum, you have the chef. A chef might make good food or terrible food, but whatever she makes, it's a result of her own reasoning process, from the selection of raw ingredients at the bottom to the finished dish at the top.

For me, that analogy has been instrumental as a mental model to view certain professions and people in those professions. Being a cook is incredible, but I have mad respect for the "chef's" of their field. But today, I'd like to take that brilliant analogy one step further by examining some of the best golfers out there.

What I Learned Watching Golf

Golf has been a great fascination for me as of late. Not just playing golf, but watching it, studying the mechanics of a swing, understanding the history and the golfers who shaped what the game is today. Of course that would be impossible to do without looking at Tiger Woods.

The raw talent, enthusiasm, and grit are obviously some of the defining characteristics of Tiger, but what fascinates me the most with him, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, and other professional golfers is their ability to manipulate the golf ball in their favor.

Amateur golfers hit hooks (when the ball hooks at a sharp left) and slices (when the ball slices at a sharp right) all the time, but not on purpose. They do it because the club face is too open or closed at impact, their swing isn't shallow enough, or they are swinging from outside-in instead of inside-out.

Professional golfers are able to hit fades, draws, hooks, slices, and stingers on command. Sometimes they need to do this because of where the pin is placed on the green, but other times it's because their tee shot went 15-feet into the woods and they have to hit through trees. These shots are known as "Escape shots" and Phil Mickelson might be the most infamous at doing these. Just check out this video:

What him and Tiger understand are all of the tiny factors that play into how the golf ball will travel. What amateurs do on accident, professionals can do on purpose. They understand if the ball is further back in the stance it will fly lower, if the club face is open it will go much higher but not as far, and so on. They understand the ingredients to create the "dish" they're looking for.

But what they do even better than the fundamentals of the golf swing are the feel of the game of golf. The things we can't see with our eyes, they are consciously aware of. If you could copy the exact swing of Phil Mickelson, you still wouldn't be able to manipulate the ball like he does. He has one extra component of understanding how everything in the game of golf works together and is able to manipulate it.

This extra step, understanding not just the ingredients but the invisible force that affects those ingredients in any skill or field of talent is what the ancient Chinese call the Tao or Way. Robert Greene calls the Way *the dynamic *and explains it as "The living force that operates in anything we study or do."

If becoming a master is at 10,000 hours, understanding the dynamic comes at 20,000 hours.

But it's not that simple.

Playing golf for 20,000 hours will not make you as good as a professional golfer, just like going to the gym for 20,000 hours won't make you an athlete, or running track for 20,000 hours won't make you an Olympian.

To understand the dynamic, one must have an insane amount of practice time. But they also must reflect on every second of that practice time.

When Tiger Woods hits a shot into the trees, he knows exactly why it went into the trees. He knows this because he's studied his swing at practice, at the driving range, and on film to know what he does that makes the ball go left when he doesn't want it to. To understand the dynamic, each failure, victory, challenge, and setback must be viewed with a lens of reflection to answer the question, "How can this make me better?"

It sounds cliche, but it's true. Only by reflecting on your failure can you get any better and that much closer to becoming a master and understanding the dynamic in life, work, and relationships.

Disclaimer: The Dynamic is not a new age, spiritual force that you can manipulate with crystals. It's simply an analogy to explain what happens when all the aspects of a certain field and profession are working together as one.