21 Jul 2011
I love to build things. Maybe the legos worked too well on me: there’s just something about taking little pieces, connecting them together, and watching something interesting take shape. Maybe it’s the inherent surprise of the process–the way the reality compares to the imagination. It’s different, richer and more convincing; and you’re different, because you can now compare what you imagined and what you built, and see what worked and what didn’t.
People sometimes talk about imagination as if it sets a standard too high for reality. Imagination doesn’t feel flawless to me, though. It feels like a pencil sketch of a 3-D object: mostly a bunch of rough guesses. Some things over-precise in unuseful ways. And all of it is flattened by necessity of the medium. Imagination is limited: I can’t remember all of the details of a big project well enough to move around it all in my mind. So part of the reward of building is that I can test and refine that imagined sketch, and another part is the freedom to turn my imagination to something new, whether it’s the next step or a whole new project.
The ability to turn the imagination to something new satisfies two fundamental human desires: learning and mastering your environment. You learn by figuring out problems, and you master your environment by solving problems that affect you. Those sorts of problems are so rewarding to solve that I’m sometimes too aggressive about discovering them. Just ask my wife about some of the “while I’m at it” projects I’ve done around the house. The trick, if you want to be efficient about mastering your environment over the long term, is to know when that feeling of mastery you gain from an activity–say, trying a new time management system–is an accurate signal of problems being solved, and when it’s an illusion of a solution. The illusions are mental gimmicks: it feels like you’re doing important work, breaking down barriers. But before long you’re facing the same problem again, no better equipped. On the bright side, at least you know there’s a nontrivial goal motivating you. And then you can invoke the whole process recursively: imagine all the previous attempts at a solution, attempt to discern the pattern, and master that. The more you do it, the weaker the illusions become: instead of believing a gimmick, the temptation to believe signals something more tangible, more personal. And the easier the process gets.