Tinkering, theoretically

In my post about Complex Systems, I got sidetracked (shocking, I know) and ended up talking about something I referred to as Theoretical Tinkering. I wanted to expand on that a bit.

I have a nasty habit of getting myself injured at the most inopportune times. I’ve been dragged down a flight of cement stairs while working on a remodel project (torn rotator cuff, still dealing with this one nearly 10 years later). I’ve torn 3 out of 4 ligaments in my left knee in a wide variety of ski crashes. I’ve torn a ligament in my lower back carrying a steamer trunk (that one led to a bulging disc and years of discomfort and/or pain). I’ve slammed my thumb with a framing hammer so hard it…well…it sort of popped (no further detail required, right?). I’ve had a 2′ square of plywood sheathing shoot off a table saw and hit me in the inner thigh. And most recently I cut off the very tip of my left ring finger making lunch, leading to what is likely permanent nerve damage in that finger.

I go into this history to highlight why I say that I can’t really indulge in my tinkering tendencies as much as I would like without risking serious injury. In fact, my family has requested specifically that I NOT indulge, certainly not without adult supervision. At my last job, my co-workers took to hiding our box cutters and not letting me help unload deliveries. Not that I minded that last one, not really. When you combine this stifling of my natural tinkering tendencies with the rich inner life (meaning I live in my own head a lot) stemming from my intensely strong Introvert side – I had to find a workaround.

Allow me to explain the Introvert comment. You know those personality assessments you often have to take during an interview? The most famous is probably the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Well, among other things these rank you on an Introvert-Extrovert spectrum. Well, I generally come out in the 85-90% Introvert range.

To clear up a couple of common misconceptions about Introversion: No, I’m not a hermit, I don’t hate all people all the time, and I’m not in any way shy. These are all completely different aspects of a person’s personality, they often happen to correlate to one’s place on this Introversion/Extroversion spectrum – though not always.

What that ranking means to my daily life – I prefer to focus on making deeper connections with a small number of people over superficial social interaction. This means I would rather sit and chat with one person for an hour than meet-and-greet everyone in the room. It also means that being in intensely social settings, like after work cocktail hours, weekend music festivals, or even dinner at a crowded restaurant – leaves me more drained than energized. It can take a weekend for me to recover from a Friday social hour, and over that weekend I’m likely to stay in my apartment and read, maybe heading out for a long walk by myself.

Along with these facts, I also tend to have a rich inner life, meaning a lot more goes on in my head than I let on with what I might say out loud. For every sentence I utter, there are anywhere from 12-99 that I don’t. These other sentences run through my head all the time. Especially when I’m trying to get to sleep, or during a meeting when it’s particularly important that I pay attention.

So knowing that I’m prone to tinker and that I have this rich inner monologue going on – what’s a guy to do? Enter Theoretical Tinkering. Basically, I take what’s going on around me, all the things I’m NOT commenting on out loud – and I comment on them. To myself. Often in writing, because I find it useful to see some of this written out, it’s easier to rearrange the moving parts and make them work better together when you can actually see them interacting on the page.

Right now I’m reading through these amazingly concise summaries of the works of some of history’s great Philosophers by Alain De Botton. It’s fascinating to me to see the similarities between what some of these folks have been able to articulate to what I’ve had running through my brain for years without being able to.

There you go. I get to tinker and there’s little risk of nerve damage in fingers or of not being able to walk for several weeks. Now as for why I felt the need to name this habit, that’s another matter altogether.

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