Tinkering as a form of creative expression

When I get a new phone, my free time is absorbed by the new toy. Be it on the bus, in between conference call meetings, or waiting for someone to get ready to leave, I am constantly tinkering with it, changing settings, discovering features.  I don’t feel comfortable with it in my pocket until I know, more or less, what all it can do.  A lifetime of this type of curiosity has, thankfully, helped me to do this type of inspection quickly;  a career in technology, now focused on software and product design, helps me even more because it’s part of my job to stay up to date, more or less, on how things like mobile operating systems work.

Tinkerer, by design

But why?  Why do I know off the top of my head three different keystroke sequences to control the “wifi on / off” feature of my phone? Why do I have a secondary gestural security system setup, where you have to know a few slide manuevers to actually launch programs?

Cause I’m a huuuggeee geek?


But also because I was raised to value that experience.  I was raised to explore electronics, to dissect them, to figure out how they really work.  And perhaps most important on this list: I was raised to tinker.

Tinkerer, by design.  Proud of it.

My dad — happy father’s day! — is a tinkerer at heart.  He joins a long and proud list.  From Wozniak to Edison, the people of MAKER FAIRE to the Wright Brothers, my dad and I are people who love a good Saturday afternoon in the garage, fixing a broken appliance, making a gift for a loved one or just taking apart something to see how it works.  Some of my favorite memories from childhood revolve around my dad’s workbench.  In retrospect, I was given an extraordinary amount of opportunity, leniency and patience in that workshop:  and it made me who I am today.

There’s been enough talk about a “debate” between Thinkers & Tinkerers that back in 1999 “Thinkers vs. Tinkerers, and Other Debates” as a part of their millennial series on the “100 Most Influential People” roundup.   I’d argue that the continuum of thinkers to tinkerers is more of a set of modules that can be combined.  I know many great thinkers who are thinkering while they’re tinkering.

I would also argue that tinkering is, and can be, a form of creative expression wherein the tinkerer attains a state of flow.  One theory about flow suggests that there are three components necessary for the state of flow to be experienced by a person:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

source: Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A.,Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698.  Found via wikipedia.

In that form, the expected benefits of having a good tinkering session might include a general sense of positive feelings and a healthy social-emotional state, which may lead to advanced or optimized thinking, design output or creative caliber.

So, in honor of my dad, I want to say this:  teaching me to thinker my way through problems has helped me solve so many of the toughest challenges I’ve faced.  I think you were smart to to teach me to behave that way, Dad, and I hope that we at the Reality Inspectors can find a way to spark that same passion for thinkering in a thousand more kids.

For anyone involved in the Reality Inspectors, let’s always build technology that appeals to the thinking and the tinkering kids out there, especially the those who’ve never been told that they’re allowed to and encouraged to tinker with technology so they can better inspect the reality of the devices they deal with every day.

Leave a Reply