Vaughan Rimbault, SAIMechE

A few months ago my son suggested we learn to make sourdough bread as a joint exercise. Sourdough is considered to be the original leavened or risen bread, using natural yeasts and bacteria in the flour to produce the rise and flavour of the bread. Home-made sourdough bread is very much a hands-on, artisanal process, and as we both enjoy learning new skills, this seemed like fun.  

Neither of us had any significant baking experience, so this would be learning something basically as complete beginners. We also live a considerable distance apart, so our experiences would be remote from each other, shared via chats and the exchanges of photos and videos.  

Less confusion and frustration

After much “blood, sweat and tears” I can now consistently produce a loaf which tastes as good as it looks.  I’m certainly no master-baker, but what I produce satisfies my needs and gets good reviews from family and friends. I was reflecting on the process of learning this new skill when it struck me that learning a professional engineering skill and learning a skill like bread-making were very similar at some level. 

To acquire any skill in as little time as possible you need three things: information; practice; and mentorship – and of those mentorship has the biggest impact on how well you handle the other two. That’s not to say that you can’t learn new skills on your own with only information and practice – it’s just that effective mentorship can speed up the process considerably, saving you time, effort, confusion and frustration.  This applies as much to making sourdough bread as it does to professional engineering practice.

Information overload

Back to baking. There is no shortage of information on the internet about making sourdough bread – just try your favourite search engine or social media platform. Many good people with the best intentions have uploaded content, but the information overload makes it all quite confusing. Everyone has their own variations at certain parts of the process, and it’s difficult to get a big picture of the process in the midst of all the detail. You can’t be sure which is important, and so you take a deep dive into the topic and find yourself swallowed up by the information. 

Effectively managing large quantities of information is a skill that is very necessary nowadays, where quantity often trumps quality. You need a guide through the ocean of text, pictures and videos that confront the newcomer – a friendly, wise adviser – a mentor. Having a mentor steer you is invaluable, as they can help you to focus on the specific direction that is required, and not waste time gathering useless information. 

Stretching and folding

My son (who was already baking at this stage!) was an unexpected mentor during my first steps into sourdough bread. He helped to focus my attention on the information that I was watching and reading so that I started to gather the data into understandable processes and not just a series of confusing steps.

With a better idea of what was required, it was time to try my hand. Mixing all the ingredients was simple enough, but the delicate art of forming strength in the dough by stretching and folding was where the wheels started to come off in a serious way. While this was clearly demonstrated in most videos and seemed simple enough, it was another thing entirely to get it right myself. No matter how much I practised I was still struggling with a sticky, gooey mess that attached itself to everything – the walls, the toaster, the kitchen window, and of course myself.  

First-hand advice

Practising the wrong thing over and over will never lead to success, and there was just something wrong with what I was doing. What I needed was someone to stand next to me and show me what to do. I plucked up the courage to ask a local baker for his advice, and was grateful that he was very happy to share his knowledge and experience. After a relatively short discussion and demonstration, and a few practises on my part, he offered some comments on my technique and showed me a few tricks. Problem solved.  

It still took some practice to handle the dough properly (the nuances thereof take years to truly master), but at least my practice was correct and it was just a matter of time before I got the hang of things. Again, my progress in learning this skill only really took place under the guidance of a mentor, and I would have saved a lot of time and frustration had I visited him sooner.  

Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship

The importance of mentorship came through clearly from this learning experience with sourdough bread, and it’s the same in engineering (with less yeast of course). We all take pride in sorting things out ourselves, but someone with knowledge and experience can ease the steep learning curve we would otherwise have to overcome alone. 

A mentor can guide you in what information is important (and what is irrelevant), and how to handle that information.  A mentor can show you how to do things properly, and can then watch you doing the tasks to make sure you do them correctly. Whether it is professional engineering skills or baking bread, a mentor adds significant value to the learning process. I would definitely recommend seeking out a good, respected mentor in your chosen field of professional engineering sooner rather than later.

Vaughan Rimbault, SAIMechE

3 Responses

  1. Vaughan, your sourdough experience is an extremely good example that encompasses all important aspects of living – research, learning, reaching out to others for help, serving others and sharing the enjoyment of your product, absolute quality family time, failure, success and so much more. All-in all it comes down to good life balance. Well done!!

  2. So true… mentorship is essential to so many aspects of life.

    In my life as a proofreader of academic articles, it saddens me to see how few people understand the basics of what is required of them to produce a document that summarises succinctly the various aspects of their research. And yet, when I show them the steps required to produce a piece of good academic writing, an “aha” moment is triggered. Sad that this moment shows up so near the end of their academic journey.

    Those who I have mentored and/or tutored since the beginning of their research journey have a better grasp of the route they will follow and produce a good write-up of the journey taken. The proofreading and checking of their documents are much easier and the results of their submissions are mostly good, evidenced by the few corrections required.

    Extra inputs before mistakes are made save many hours of rewriting and the student enjoys a successful, less frustrating, more direct research journey.

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