Taking the time to tinker

Published in Features on 23 Feb 2015

I come from a family of tinkerers. My granddad was always in his shed hacking away at something or in the garage mucking about with his Morris Minor. He was a postman, not a carpenter or an engineer or a mechanic. Mostly, he didn’t know what he was doing. My grandparent’s house was full of botched repair jobs. (Putty, I remember a lot of putty. And gaffer tape.) And the car probably only just stayed on the right side of road worthiness.

My mum has a similar approach to digital technology. She likes to take her gadgets apart, put them back together and then improve them. A new motherboard here, some extra memory there. My house is littered with her cast offs – she gets a bit bored once she’s mastered something. Like my granddad, she doesn’t really know what she’s doing – she’s had no formal IT training – she just feels that the best way to learn about something is to get under its boot and work out for herself how it works.

Unfortunately, the tinkering gene seems to have bypassed me. I certainly did my fair share as a kid – I was a big Lego fan. But I seem to have grown out of it and once I reached the world of work, I became rather more interested in what technology could do than how it worked. Which is a shame.

Still, I guess it depends how you define ‘tinkering’.

The Oxford Dictionaries says that to tinker is to “attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory (unfocused) way.” The Free Dictionary says that a tinkerer is “one who enjoys experimenting with and repairing machine parts.”

These are helpful starting points, but hardly conclusive. I can see how tinkering can appear unfocussed to someone who observes it in action. But I’m not sure that a lack of purpose is crucial.

And sure, tinkering is most often associated with engineering, electronics, and programming. But it doesn’t have to be limited to machine parts and screwdrivers and motherboards, although it certainly finds a good home amongst these tools.

Tinkering is about hands-on experiences, learning from failures, and unstructured time to explore and invent. And its inherent in almost every creative endeavour. Doodling is tinkering with shapes and visual expression. Daydreaming is tinkering with new approaches to the millions of ideas running around in your brain. Writing is tinkering with language.

So, having tinkered with the definition, I’m thinking about something a bit more expansive that looks like this: A tinkerer is someone who experiments with materials and ideas to fully understand their capacities, and who further iterates on their learning to find better solutions to current problems.

What do you think? Does that sound like a reasonable definition? Are you a tinkerer?