Today is my mom’s birthday (Jan 18, 1929- March 25, 2013). Growing up, my mom created a home where people felt comfortable just stopping by, and when they did, mom would make them a cup of tea and serve them a sweet. Most days that sweet was her buttery homemade Scottish shortbread. Her shortbread was airy and would melt in your mouth. It was her mother Lily’s recipe, and people often asked for it. My mom would tell them it was just three ingredients – butter, sugar and flour. She would write it from memory and share it with anyone who asked.
Most people suspected my mom left something out of the recipe. When they attempted to recreate it, their shortbread didn’t have the same buttery melt-in-your-mouth texture. After baking, it was hard; so hard that it was difficult to bite into. Did they overcook it? Should they have added cream? Mom’s recipe has two steps in it that most people overlook. When mixing the butter and sugar, you have to mix it until it is “light and fluffy.” This takes a while, and when you are using a hand-mixer, it can feel like forever. And before you add the flour, the recipe calls for “sifting it four times.” Really? Four times? For most of us, even those of us who enjoy cooking and baking, multiple siftings just aren't a part of our normal practices.
When I first tried to duplicate my mom’s shortbread, I admit, I took a few shortcuts. The butter and sugar were mixed, but I’m not sure I would describe the mixture as light and fluffy. It, however, was fluffier than before mixing, so I moved on. Sifting the flour four times? I assumed that part of the recipe was just an artifact from when my grandmother lived on the farm in Northern Ireland and didn’t use the machine-milled flour we have today. I was sure one sifting would be sufficient. I was wrong. My lack of patience ruined the outcome.
In creative work, a lack of patience can also have detrimental consequences for the outcome. Nearly all theories of human creativity refer to an “incubation period” requiring we step away from our task at hand – take a walk or, as in the famous “Eureka” story, take a warm bath. Taking this incubation period is an exercise in patience. We often skip it, particularly when we work in deadline-driven environments. However, divergent thinking (making connections from diverse and seemingly unrelated areas – a creative process that often leads to solutions) requires us to be disciplined enough to set our project aside for a while. Creative work requires us to be disciplined enough to sift four times.