Some time ago I was visiting my in-laws in Michigan, and had to learn how to make coffee all over again.
The thing is, living in Seattle, and having a daughter who’d worked at a, shall we say, ‘Moby Dick’ sized purveyor of coffee (therefore getting me the beans at a lower price than normal) I’d gotten quite used to grinding my own beans, brewing my own coffee, and knowing what I’d get in the end.
It wasn’t scientific perfection I was after, it was simple things, like knowing how much water to put in (until it looked right), and how much coffee to put in (until it looked right), and then letting it brew (until it dissolved any spoon used to stir it) and then it WAS right.
But their coffee maker was different, and at the time, I don’t think there was a Starbuck’s anywhere near there.
I tried to make coffee using their little coffee maker, and did manage to succeed at that, but the next step was so remarkably unsuccessful that I could do nothing but stand there and wonder what had gone wrong.
In trying to pour coffee into a mug (note: you shouldn’t need a degree in physics or thermodynamics to do this) – I managed to pour it all over the counter.
At first, I just thought just wasn’t quite awake enough and maybe I’d just missed, but later tried it again, and realized that the lip of the coffee pot was bent in such a way that instead of the coffee shooting out toward the cup, a good part of it would actually shoot backward under the coffee pot as I was pouring – and miss the mug entirely.
And I’d have almost a third of the coffee on the counter, not in the cup.
Day after day I tried to fix this, pouring faster, slower, different angles, aiming at different spots in the cup – didn’t matter, it just poured out onto the counter, and I’d clean it up.
One day, my father in law walked up and watched with mild amusement while I was trying once again to pour a mug of coffee. This was the guy who’d made coffee with this crazy little coffee maker for years, and I figured that over that time, he must have found some sort of secret way to do this right. So that morning, out of just a touch of frustration, I asked him, “How on earth do you pour this without getting it all over the counter?”
And the answer was simultaneously simple, basic, and brilliant.
“I just pour it over the sink.”
And he showed me.
He poured the coffee into his cup, and it spilled just about as much as it did when I poured it –but he did it over the sink, and while it spilled, it didn’t get on the counter.
And it made me think about the question I was asking and the problem I was trying to solve.
Which was more important?
Getting coffee into the mug?
Or keeping it off the counter?
Because if I could solve one of the problems (getting a decent amount of coffee into the mug) while keeping it off the counter, I could effectively solve both problems at once.
And if spilling a little coffee was irrelevant, then the problem was solved.
You could substitute anything for the two options there, and in this case, a simple solution that didn’t even cross my mind solved all the problems I was concerned with at once.
It was a win-win…
I got the coffee I wanted.
I kept the counter clean.
…and I learned a lot about solving problems from a little off the cuff comment from my father in law Bruce.