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coffee: A Love Affair with Failure

Coffee saved my life. But not in the “white girl” way that some preteen ordering a pumpkin-spiced, milkshake from Starbucks might tweet. More realistically, the education and process of learning how to make coffee has taught me that I have a life worth learning from. Sure, it seems far-fetched to make such a statement about an activity that many of us will likely pass over to a minimum wage employee of a drive up window, but what I’ve found useful from the art of making coffee seems to be applicable in almost every facet of life.

Coffee is a drug, caffeine more specifically. But I am not addicted or dependent on the substance that most people seeking a hot cup of Joe are. It tastes nice and is a much needed boost when one didn’t get the prescribed 8-hours, but what I’ve really become addicted to, is the nature of failure that I can experience on any given morning in my kitchen when I am trying so desperately not to.

This explains my disdain for the sort of people that are pacified with a daily trip to any franchised coffee joint, or god forbid, the sort of people that accept the vile liquid that escapes a Nespresso pod. Sometimes, we outsource that which we value because we don’t know that the value is in the effort not the product.

I started learning to make espresso when I returned from movie-work in Bulgaria. I vowed to understand coffee because what they identified as “coffee” was a warm cup of ashtray remnants. Little did I know that what I was actually doing was distracting myself from the stress and uncertainty that my profession provided, I didn’t understand that learning how to make coffee was really teaching me how to learn about myself, and learning about myself was about accepting failure. 

Even after years of practice I am still not as proficient as I would like to be, which only means I fail more than I succeed, an aspect that I have come to appreciate. How many practices do you have in your life where the result of your effort and attention to detail are so direct and clear, but also so easy to refine and make better?

The variables involved in a successful espresso pull have hierarchy just like anything else:

-Grind

-Tamp pressure

-Dose

-Pull time

-Water temp.

-Bean selection/ level of roast

-The temp. of the cup the espresso hits

One mistake or an over looked detail is an exponent on the failure of the next variable—lets call it failure with compound interest. Knowledge of what you are aiming for (grind size, temp, pull duration) are simply understood aspects—primary goals, but become more important as you apply the physical input of tamping, a variable that—if off by more than 1lb of pressure—can change the smooth bitter sweet expectation to an astringent, acrid, vomit-worthy mistake. Knowledge is one thing, application of that knowledge in the form of physical ability is what separates those that know of from those that understand.

Strangely enough the act of getting it wrong does not affect my day or the possibility that it may in fact be a great one. It also doesn’t hinder my next attempt. In the world of coffee, any violation is forgiven. Just as surely as the sun will rise again, we should require ourselves to replicate success—so long as we can muster the effort. 

This is the single aspect that I hope to transfer to every other practice: to remove my past failures as an expectation of the future and of my future self. I make coffee to practice getting better at the act of making coffee, not in an attempt to satisfy my taste buds—that is a side effect of improvement, and a welcome reward that highlights my attention to detail. 

People quit when they realize that their expectations are mismatched with their outcome. They do not practice to get better; they practice for an end result, which is more often than not, no result. What we want and what we expect is of little value, what we can learn and how we can change our practices to achieve that is.

Be not afraid of failure, but of the part of you that is. That is the part of a person that is willing to deceive him or herself in order to succeed.