I came across this video for the first time about two years ago. Since then, I have found it multiple times in the contexts of life lessons, children’s educational videos, leadership training and most recently on a reality show in a Marathi TV channel.
The summary of the video is as follows:
Three materials – a potato, an egg and some coffee beans are immersed in three different containers of boiling water for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, they are examined.
- The potato, ‘hard and strong’ before becomes ‘soft and weak’ after exposure to boiling water.
- The egg, ‘fragile liquid protected by the outer shell’ before becomes ‘hard’ after exposure to boiling water.
- The coffee beans are a special case, instead of changing themselves, they change the water.
The lesson in this being that faced with the same adversity – boiling water – the three materials behaved very differently. So, who are you? Are you the potato, egg or coffee?
This video is intended to be a motivational message to reflect on our own behaviour and response in the face of adversity.
When I watched it for the first time however, my thoughts spiralled in a completely different direction and I articulate those thoughts below.
First, I analysed the activity quite literally to explain why the potato, egg and coffee beans ‘behaved’ in the way that they did. To do this, I examined the chemistry of all three and then looked at the purpose of boiling them.
The main nutrient constituent of potato is starch, which is unsuitable for human consumption in its raw form. Boiling converts the inedible form of starch to an edible form.
The main nutrient constituent of egg is a mixture of proteins. To make it suitable for preferred human consumption, it is boiled. When boiled, the proteins in the egg harden due to a combination of denaturation, aggregation and coagulation.
The main nutrient constituents of coffee are a mixture of caffeine, proteins, minerals, soluble fibre and chlorogenic acids. When coffee beans are added to boiling water or brewed in any other method, these nutrients are extracted into the water, so that coffee becomes suitable for drinking.
In summary, the commonality between these three processes is that the purpose is to convert them into a form suitable for human consumption. The difference lies in the internal composition of the materials themselves and hence their varied reactions in boiling water. It is debatable in this context though, whether boiling water can be considered an adversity.
In the video, they compare the reactions of the potato, the egg and the coffee beans in the same vein. It is an unfair comparison between three different materials of decidedly different compositions. To extend this to an educational scenario, it is something similar to comparing one child’s academic performance to another.
They also mention that hard is strong and soft is weak; isn’t that giving the wrong message? While the reactions are decidedly different, one is not better than the other. These reactions are driven by the internal composition of the materials concerned and each reacts differently, however meets the main objective of the reaction.
We don’t eat raw potatoes or raw eggs (generally) and certainly not roasted coffee beans. The softness of boiled potato, the hardness of the boiled egg and the extracted coffee brew all serve the same purpose – suitability for human consumption. Therefore, they all have their place, neither is better or worse, they are only different.
Looking at the context to which this entire lesson is extended, there is an assumption that as individuals we have control over our internal chemical composition. The human body is a complex chemical potpourri. Response to adversities are governed by complex combinations of neural synapses in our brain.
Our bodies are all physiologically similar, but our life experiences are decidedly different. We are as diverse as a species can possibly be.
I propose that the lesson to take from this would rather be to gain self-awareness. Am I a potato or an egg or a coffee bean? If I am a potato, can I be the best possible potato, without comparing myself to either eggs or coffee beans? Faced with an adversity, can I battle it to the best of my abilities given my inner mechanisms? And can I learn from these adversities to better myself on an on-going basis?
In the context of children’s education, every child comes with a unique set of abilities and intelligences. We would strengthen their inherent abilities and talent if we give children a common objective and allow them to reach that goal in their own ways, instead of comparing them at each step and therefore pitting them against one another.
The question to ask is, ‘am I a better person today than I was yesterday?’ rather than ‘am I a better person compared to my spouse, my parents, my neighbour or anyone else?’ To observe ourselves and learn from a personalised and contextualised developmental continuum will be a far more effective metric of personal growth than standardised metrics that may not prove useful.