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Theoretical Tinkering

In my post about Complex Systems I got sidetracked and ended up talking about something I referred to as Theoretical Tinkering. I wanted to expand on that somewhat.

I am a tinkerer. When an alarm clock died when I was like 7, the first thing I did was find the screws and take the cover off. I wasn’t trying to fix it, I just wanted to see the insides. That curiosity grew into a habit of taking computers apart and putting them back together again. They worked, too. Well, most of the time.

Theoretical tinkering is the act of using your constant background thoughts to your benefit.
Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

When Tinkering Hurts

The thing is, I also 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 more than 10 years later). I tore 3 out of 4 ligaments in my left knee in a variety of ski crashes. I’ve torn a ligament in my lower back (that led to a bulging disc and years of discomfort and/or pain). I slammed my thumb with a framing hammer so hard it…well…it sort of popped (no further detail required, right?). Then I cut off the very tip of my left ring finger making lunch, leading to what is likely permanent nerve damage in that finger. And most recently I was knocked off my motorcycle by an inattentive driver and broke my other shoulder.

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 grievous bodily harm. In fact, my family has requested specifically that I NOT indulge, certainly not without adult supervision. Co-workers at a previous job took to hiding the 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 Introverted nature – I had to find a work around.

Using Introversion As The Strength It Is

OK, time for a digression: The Introvert comment. You know those personality assessments you often have to take during an interview? The most famous is probably the Myers-Briggs. Well, among other things these rank you on an Introvert-Extrovert spectrum. Well I generally come out in the 85-90% Introvert range. And now 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. Yes, they can correlate to one’s place on this Introversion/Extroversion spectrum – but they don’t always.

What all of this means for my daily life is simply that I prefer to focus on making deeper connections with a small number of people over superficial social interaction. And that I read. Like a LOT. I would rather sit and chat with one person for an hour than do a meet-and-greet with 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 family dinner out. And over that weekend I’m likely to stay on the couch and read. Or maybe head out for a long walk by myself.

Take Control Of Your Thoughts

Along with all that, I also have a rich inner life. That means a lot more goes on in my head than what I say out loud. For every sentence I utter, there were probably a dozen that I didn’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.

Turning ruminations into theoretical tinkering was the trick that opened new horizons for me.
Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

They run the gamut from mundane thoughts about the weather (not frequently, we introverts don’t go in for small talk topics like that, even when the conversation is with ourselves); to seriously deep ruminations on life, the universe, and everything (little Hitchhiker’s Guide reference for ya).

It’s those latter ones, the ruminations, that can become worrying. See, technically, ruminating is when your thoughts dwell on past situations where you screwed something up, real or perceived. And for folks like me who hold on to these negative thoughts way longer than is healthy—well you see where this is going. I’ve got to be careful.

So I’m a born tinkerer with an unhealthy propensity to hurt myself both physically and psychically. And I have this rich inner monologue running 24/7—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. I find it easier to rearrange the moving parts and make them work better together when I can actually see the words interacting on the page.

By reframing the ruminating that has, on more than one occasion led me to the precipice of depression, I’ve taken control of my thoughts. This power flip means that the thoughts no longer control my behavior. They’ve lost their ability to lead me around like that.

An example: I recently read these amazingly concise summaries of the works of some of history’s great Philosophers by Allain De Botton. It’s fascinating to me 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 get the damn words out. And I’ve got something like a dozen pages of notes diagramming and hashing out those similarities.

Perspective Shifts Help You See What Is

I would say that this shift is also in large part responsible for my being able to successfully make the transition to freelance writing. I’ve learned how to corral my thoughts and funnel them onto the page. Which means I can do the same with other people’s topics just as well. And all that practice means I have the language I need on hand to make even complex subject matter easy to understand.

I’ve got dozens more examples I could go into, but I’d rather leave it open for you to fill in YOUR situations and life experiences. Does rebranding rumination as theoretical tinkering sound like something that could help you get more out of your mental wanderings? Do you feel like these thoughts sometimes develop a mind of their own, so to say, leading you around by the psyche until you’re too exhausted to argue?

Changing your perspective can make all the difference in the world, no matter the scenario.
Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash

As for me, with this simple shift in perspective I’ve been able to reclaim my own thoughts and at the same time indulge in my love for tinkering without risking nerve damage or being unable to walk for weeks at a time. And I’m back from that precipice far enough to have a really good view of it and how to avoid it.

I sincerely hope these ideas help someone out there. If you feel like it, drop me a comment and we can continue the conversation.

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  1. Pingback: Reframing: How To Make Progress On Tricky Issues - Jesse Kelber

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