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The Tinkered Mind
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September 17th, 2019
This episode is dedicated to @DeeperThrill who inspired the topic on Twitter with this reply:
“You might tinker with it for a while when you’re excited about the idea, but when that excitement wanes, you still want a simple thing that works.”
What does it mean to tinker?
There’s something noncommittal about the word, almost whimsical. Your boss certainly wouldn’t come into your office and toss you a new project and say “here, tinker with this for a while.”
It’s more like “Get this done for Monday morning.”
“You want me to de-prioritize my current reports until you advise a status upgrade?
You need to make these your primary ‘action items’.” *
Such business lingo encapsulates a perspective that has little room for something as diffuse as tinkering. This is true for one reason:
Do we associate the act of tinkering with a deadline?
Not really, if at all. Tinkering is an open-ended endeavor, like a question that cannot be readily answered. For example, take this question:
Will this new business idea make money?
No one can answer that question. The idea needs to be implemented, and tinkered with in order to see if it can gain some kind of footing in the market. Juxtaposing this undeniable fact with the business lingo from Fight Club presented earlier evokes a paradoxical flaw in the perspective that pervades much of the business world:
We cannot know what will work until we try, and yet we constantly attempt to create a deadline for success.
So what exactly does it mean to Tinker?
The dictionary defines the verb ‘tinker’ as: an attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way, often to no useful effect.
Note for a moment how we would phrase the story of repairing something:
Oh, after tinkering with it for a while I figured out what was wrong and I fixed it.
The conclusive verb ‘fixed’ subsumes the liminal verb of tinkering. As with many aspects of life, our constant desire for certainty trumps the importance of a process which is indeterminate and open-ended.
At it’s heart, and in it’s simplest form,
tinkering is the art of trial and error.
As we delve into a new topic or project, we make little hypotheses about the nature of the subject and we test them. By testing these hypotheses, we falsify aspects of the emerging mental model that we are forming about the subject.
Falsifying hypotheses is the only way we update mental models.
Any hypothesis-based action that results in a predictable outcome does not update our mental model, it’s simply a use-case of the mental-model that shows some accuracy. Be sure to note the distinction:
Confirming the accuracy of some aspect of a mental-model does not actually improve it because nothing about the mental-model has to change as a result. It stays the same.
What changes is our feeling towards the mental model.
Tinkering is the process of building a mental-model through trial that results in error.
Zooming out to look at the process, we see a whole bunch of attempts, or hypotheticals tested with trials. Many of those simply fail, but every once in a while, a hypothesis holds it’s salt and becomes a robust aspect of our mental model. It’s like sculpting something out of marble. A lot of useless material needs to be moved to get at the actual part of the stone that will make up the sculpture.
Inevitably, tinkering is a process of whittling away our assumptions about a topic as we gain real-world, hands-on experience.
What this whittling away yields is a lean and useful understanding of a subject.
Tinkering is simply the laborious and time consuming process that yields this rare fruit.
Our preoccupation with certainty and deadlines is completely counter to this process, and it begs a large question of the world and the way many people currently spend their time:
If we were freed, even for some portion of time from the tedium and time-consuming chore of bullshit jobs,
How much more fruitful might we be, tinkering away at the whim and will of curiosity?
*from Fight Club