The Tinker’s Dilemma

The Tinker’s Dilemma

I have a developing friendship with a gentleman who used to be an HP exec.  To say the least, he doesn’t waste words.  His philosophies on human interaction have given me a lot of food for thought.

Know Thyself

Like many programmers, entrepreneurs, artists, and creatives, I’m a natural tinkerer.  I like to get under the hood and see how things work, change it up a little, and maybe get a better result.  Sometimes the outcome is something really special.  Or maybe it’s a deeper understanding of how stuff works.  But a lot of the time it is just lost time, or maybe a broken thing.

Yes, sometimes I can’t get it put back together again.

Are you a tinkerer?  If so, know there’s a cost involved.  Learning and exploring are powerful and compelling experiences, but sometimes if you need to solve a problem, tinkering is the most expensive path.  That’s money and time; the former is in short supply and the latter can never be refunded.

Well-Solved Problems

“If someone else has found a solution to your problem, buy it.”  That was a comment in a conversation this last weekend with my new friend.  That’s a message we all understand on some level, but he led with it.  And then he stopped talking.

Buy-in doesn’t necessarily mean spending money.  Sometimes it’s a matter of changing your point of view.  I’m a big proponent of Open Source software.  It’s free in the financial sense, but truly buying into the Open Source ecosystem takes a mental, emotional, and cultural shift.  That’s hard for one person to do, so getting an organization on board will take effort and time.  Then it will take maintenance and evangelism.

These days we do amazing things everyday with the phones in our pockets.  There are apps for personal and business needs, software for travel or publishing web content, marketing automation tools, or video conferencing software to keep you close to your friends and coworkers.  These are all amazing things.  They are also so cheap and easy to use, the idea of building your own from scratch seems crazy.  Sadly, businesses recreate their own versions on a regular basis because they think there is some intrinsic value in building it “in house.”

Remember though, most of your problems are the same as everyone else’s problems.  Learn how they solved them and save yourself some time.

Busy Isn’t the Same as Productive

There’s a famous logical fallacy called “the parable of the broken window.”  In short, the fallacy is that breaking things will stimulate the economy because the owner has to pay to repair it, and it generates economic activity.  It ignores the fact that the owner can no longer spend that money on other new things he may need, such as shoes.  The owner would then have a working window and new shoes.

I bring this up because so many of us mistake our mad shuffle of busy business for productivity, just like we mistake economic activity for economic growth.  We keep busy at work, keep busy at home, keep busy on those projects, but are we getting any closer to being done?  Or are we merely using up time and resources we can never get back?


There is a place for tinkering.  In fact, you can probably label the entire human experience as “Research and Development” and not be too far off.  But that doesn’t mean we need to repeat our mistakes, or the mistakes of others.

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