What Seems Simple Rarely Is Simple

I enjoy watching cooking shows – you know, the ones where they actually focus on presenting a recipe and show off some of the techniques used in preparing that recipe.

My favorite cooking show host is Julia Child, by a fair margin. There’s something I’ve always found really comforting about her – I don’t quite know what it is. Anyway, here’s a prime example of her work, in which Julia prepares beef bourguignon in a classic episode of The French Chef:

I would not describe Julia Child as a truly expert chef. She is probably best described as a highly skillful amateur with a strong knack for presentation. Even so, she does have more than enough skill to prepare something like coq au vin or beef bourguignon from scratch.

When you sit down and watch an episode of The French Chef, you see enough of the steps and techniques for preparing the recipe that you can conceivably know how to do it in your head. It seems pretty straightforward, and you go away convinced that you could indeed prepare a pretty good beef bourguignon at home.

You know what the end goal is. You know what the basic steps are. It’s all very simple, right?

The first roadblock is that it’s impossible to show every detail of preparing a complex dish in a half hour program. You just can’t do it. Cooking show hosts tend to focus on just a few techniques from the recipe to show you – they simply can’t show every technique that they use. There isn’t time.

Still, someone who has spent some time in the kitchen can roughly fill in the blanks, right? I have enough skill that I could make a pretty solid shrimp etoufee in my kitchen if I saw a half hour cooking show on the recipe. Even given that, it would still be pretty challenging to make a good meal at this point.

The next roadblock – and this is a big one – is that completing something that seems simple still requires a lot of skill, subtlety, nuance, and continuous effort.

A few years ago, I pulled off an amazing coq au vin in my kitchen. Still, there were pretty big imperfections in my recipe. It was good – even very good – but it was still flawed.

The end lesson here is that even in things that seem incredibly simple and straightforward, it takes a lot to pull it off with excellence.

One of the most common things that home cooks are recommended to master is the simple scrambled egg. Can you scramble two eggs well? Even in that simple task, there are tons of techniques, talents, and efforts. In order to truly master even a simple scrambled egg, you must be skillful in many different areas.

Have you scrubbed your pan clean? Did you beat the eggs in a clean bowl? Did you wash the bowl properly first? Did you beat the eggs enough to mix them, but not so much to disturb the molecular composition of the egg whites? Have you turned up the heat to the proper level? Have you heated the pan enough, or is it too hot?

All of these questions – and we’ve not even put the eggs in the pan yet!

Here’s another example, in which Richard Paterson, a master blender of Scotch whisky, demonstrates some of the technique in maximizing enjoyment out of something as simple as drinking a bit of Scotch:

The things that seem simple rarely are, once you start digging into them.

This is absolutely true for personal finance.

The goal of personal finance is simple. You want to increase your net worth over time and provide financial security for yourself and for your family – that’s the goal for most people, anyway. It’s straightforward.

But how do you get there? Investing is one piece. So is frugality. So is self-reliance. So is psychology. The list goes on and on.

A person that’s successful at some areas can fail in others and everything will fall apart on them, much like a baker who remembers everything but the baking powder in a cake.

Within each of those areas, there’s a ton of technique as well. Every time a dollar crosses your fingers, you’re managing psychology. You’re managing time. You’re making buying decisions.

A person who succeeds at making a great meal isn’t perfect. They’re simply focused enough that they manage to perform all of the necessary tasks well enough to result in a successful meal. They might be particularly strong at some elements – say, making sauces – but they’re able to do other things well enough to achieve the result they want.

A person who succeeds at creating financial security isn’t perfect. They’re simply focused enough that they manage to perform all of the necessary tasks well enough to result in financial success. They might be particularly strong at some elements – say, frugality – but they’re able to do other things well enough to achieve the result they want.

A person who succeeds in either of these areas – or any area – is strong enough at the multitude of little things that they make it all come together and seem really easy.

For example, when you go into a store and focus on your grocery list, you’re not only saving money, you’re honing a better technique for shopping. You’re becoming a better personal financier by strengthening one technique, much like a person in the kitchen who chops vegetables for a few hours.

In a given day, I overcome temptation a lot of times. I make countless little decisions about how to spend my time. I’m often faced with lots of little purchasing decisions, too. I have to make sensible professional choices, and I also have to look for ways to improve other income streams, too. I have to stay focused along the way.

The end result – financial independence – is so simple and straightforward, but there are so many little techniques needed to get there. Each of those little techniques are very simple themselves, but it is the blend of all of those techniques that create the sweet taste of success.

The big thing seems simple, but when you look closer, it’s actually complex. So, instead, focus on the little things. You’ll find that eventually the big thing starts to fall right into place.

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