tinkering_header2My Dad was an inveterate tinkerer. Even in his later years as age and Alzheimer’s claimed him, he could be found in his room fiddling with stuff he had collected. To be honest, I am not certain how much ever came of his tinkering. What I do know is that he passed the gene along to me.

I had never realized this until I began preparing for Dad’s memorial. At first, I struggled to identify and articulate those defining characteristics that we shared and that grounded us both. All I could picture was my Dad’s workbench and his desk, both cluttered with unfinished projects, bits and pieces of gizmos disassembled and never put back together, and constructions whose purposes were universally unfathomable. But then the revelation took me by surprise. These memories were not mirror images of my own work surfaces, but rather a view inside of my head.

Practical Curiosity
Tinkering is a practical form of curiosity. Some people tinker with things in order to grasp basic concepts about how things work. Others are trying to solve a particular problem. I have always done a little of both. Remembering back to my youth, I tinkered even then. I tinkered with erector sets, wood and metal scraps, chemistry sets, and more. During my University days, I tinkered a lot with ideas, not with the prospect of seeking expertise, but just to know “what that was about.” Soon after entering the workforce, I began tinkering with software. I figured that if I understood something about how it worked, there would be practical things I could do with it.

My proclivity for tinkering has served me well because it has engendered a diverse range of practical skills without the burden of expertise, while at the same time stimulating a neural network of concepts and relationships that nourish intuition. These skills and viewpoints have served as an ever-expanding toolbox for problem solving both professionally and personally.

A practical skill can be either a competency or an expertise. As a competency, one can perform the action sufficiently well to add value in a given circumstance. As an expertise, it is true mastery of that skill to a level that few others share. Not many of us are truly expert in more than one or two skills. Some very capable and productive individuals are master of none.

Gateway to Growth
The interesting thing about tinkering is that it does not require an explicit commitment. In most cases there is no cost and no specific objective other than to satisfy curiosity. But tinkering is a gateway to as many new topics as one is inclined to explore. Most may be abandoned quickly, but some of these gateways will lead to handy skills that can be repurposed. Further, some may lead to more formal training or even to a complete course of study that leads to mastery. By then, of course, commitment and objectives have become involved. Nevertheless, there will still be opportunities for tinkering along the way.

If one tinkers often enough and long enough, a network of relationships will emerge. One will find oneself recognizing similarities in how disparate things work which leads to being able to identify an approach or a solution more effectively, often intuitively. One may also begin to recognize correlation among concepts and associations.

As each new skill and correlation comes into the toolbox, it opens up new possibilities that were not available before, much in the manner of Stuart Kauffman’s concept of “the adjacent possible.” Essentially, as you explore your boundaries, your boundaries expand.

Tactile Learning
Tinkering works because it is tactile. Putting ones hands directly on it and actually doing it is a far better teacher. One can buy a book on programming, for instance, but the real learning is in going “off book” and playing with the code independently. What happens if I try it this way? What if I wanted to accomplish some other specific thing? The same is true of experimenting with spices in a recipe or figuring out finger joins in the woodshop. Reading or watching a video is simply not as rich an experience as hands-on doing. And while I will never be a master chef or master woodworker, I have opened new doors to skills and perception in a real and visceral way.

There is an innate messiness in tinkering that goes beyond the workbench or desk. The spice rack becomes overstocked with obscure and exotic flavors. The computer becomes clogged with folders on a vast variety of arcane topics. Even one’s head can be filled with distractions that deflect from the real objectives of the day. In view of this clutter, I planned originally to create a short list of guidelines for tinkering. I abandoned this idea once I realized that tinkering is too individual. None of the things that I find useful could be applied universally. Each individual must find his/her own means of managing the chaos.

Continue Exploring
I suspect that I will continue tinkering with just about everything I encounter right up to the day my children have to start planning my own memorial. I have a long list in my head of things I am curious about and likely to put my hands on in the coming years. In addition, there will always be plenty of shiny new items to catch my attention as well.

In the meantime, I raise a tankard of gratitude to my Dad for the gift of hands-on learning. Hopefully the inclination runs in the family and I have passed it on to my offspring. After all, who knows when a little bit of idle know-how will come in useful?


Do you tinker? How do you encourage your teams to expand their boundaries?


You may be interested in reading:
The Genius of the Tinkerer
Blogging, empowerment, and the “adjacent possible”