When I was a little kid, you could easily group my toys into two distinct categories: Legos and everything else. “Everything else” including things like action figures, your occasional gun, fighter planes (I really liked planes) and a Transformer here and there. But the life span of those toys was very limited. I’d play with them, act out some imaginary storyline, and then eventually get tired of creating a world around this toy in my hand. Yeh, I’d seen Star Wars five times already so I was definitely into the characters, but how many action scenes am I supposed to re-enact? I was playing out a soap opera. And seven year-old boys aren’t really into soap operas.
Legos were a whole other story. Yeh, the box they came in suggested what to assemble (fire truck or fighter plane or whatever) but I never paid much attention to that. I had my own ideas. Almost immediately, I wanted to build something – from nothing. And that single Lego piece really is nothing. It is, both figuratively and literally, a building block. At first glance, it’s far less impressive than an intricately detailed action figure. Yet by having so little going on, the burden shifted to me to create something meaningful out of it. With all due respect to Han Solo, someone else already had their fun building that world. I’m just getting their leftovers.
So there’s an odd irony here. Tools (and these really are “tools” that are used to achieve another end) that appear more constraining (“What am i supposed to do with this?”) in fact better position us to do something creative and amazing.
In the 1970’s, Steve Wozniak holed himself up in his living room with a set of chips, some circuit boards and a handful of technical manuals. With those constraints in place (due to lack of money and access to more expensive and elaborate equipment), he was left with little more than a collection of electronic parts, his own tenacity and some wild ambition.
The result? Some of the earliest innovations in personal computing came out of that living room. The constraints Wozniak was confronted with fueled his determination, and in a sense, forced him to focus on a narrower set of possibilities. Wozniak is legend today and the Apple II (the direct descendent of his work) was an enormous success.
What if Wozniak had been hired by IBM to head up their R&D group? He probably would have had all kinds of hardware, software and people at his disposal. Would he have made the same headway in the same amount of time? I highly doubt it.
Technology moves fast. Really fast. It seems as though as soon as you’ve mastered a scripting language or some graphics tool, the next version comes out with a whole new set of features. I personally love that its in constant motion, but it can feel overwhelming at times. I get a little bit excited and a little bit depressed all at once when I read about yet another tool or function or library that I should know about but don’t. Yet at the same time, I feel like shutting down all those channels, picking a smaller set of tools (i.e. constraining myself) and going from there.
So close all those unnecessary programs. Uninstall all that extraneous stuff. Unsubscribe from all those feeds that you’re not really that interested in anyway. Also, and I know this one is tough: stop upgrading. Stick with what you have and make better use of it. Faster and bigger isn’t always better. In fact, it’s a deceptive crutch that can hinder us in many ways.
Hmmm…I wonder if there are any Pentium II’s out there for sale…