The Line of Charm

Sunday Letter | #353

The other week, this passage jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

[T]he direct line is the line of instinct and if we wish to make a hole interesting we must break up that line and create the line of charm.

It came by way of golf course architect Alister MacKenzie in his book, The Spirit of St. Andrews, recounting the words of another architect, Max Behr. In the context of the sport, it’s about impeding the player, putting hazards and doglegs in the way of their direct line to the target. With greater challenge comes greater risk—and a corresponding thrill of success. Not only that—these lines of charm also let the smarter player to outscore the power hitter. They alchemize physical prowess into mental acuity; they give you more ways to win.

It makes me think of the desire lines so commonly talked about in product design—the cowpaths big tech companies are so quick to pave. Good design is invisible (and frictionless), or so goes the dominant school of thought. And aside from frugality of both action and money, other virtues rarely show up in product review sites, whose ideal is something like the cheapest, longest-lasting machine capable of producing a uniformly brown piece of toast.

Storytellers know that the direct line is the boring one. One does not simply walk into Mordor—for if one could, there would be no epic quest. That’s not to say that there aren’t times, particularly in emergencies, when you need the most direct and efficient path. But a majority of our everyday interactions aren’t so high-staked. A bit of friction can turn an action, thoughtlessly performed, its own little story.