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most things don’t work

May 6, 2011

Creative people and scientists are used to following their curiosity down a rabbit hole, and encountering detours, dead ends, and disasters. But they don’t give up, instead they often dig deeper in pursuit of intriguing questions.

Design thinking holds that a design problem and a solution coevolve as the designer figures out which particular problem (out of the universe of available problems that fit their constraints) they wish to solve. The process, like most creative endeavors, comes alive only as you do it. You can have ideas ahead of time, you can have plans, you can be fairly certain you know how things will go … but it’s only when you fully engage with the problem in its context/environment, when you converse with it, that significant solutions arise. There are no shortcuts. And the best, most innovative solutions are not ones you could have predicted, as they will be nonlinear — they are examples of emergent phenomena.

Since you can’t know ahead of time how a really excellent design problem will work out, you have to try anything and everything, “iteratively and adaptively”, until the solution is reached.

I’ve been working on a meta-design problem for the last 30 years, that includes the following questions:

  1. How can I best make a contribution to the world?
  2. What activities do I want to participate in?
  3. Where can I find interesting people to connect to?
  4. Which art media will I most enjoy working with, to celebrate my worldview?
  5. How can I optimize lifelong learning opportunities?
  6. What jobs can I do that will be challenging, interesting, and sustain my values?
  7. How do I maximize the variety of experiences I have?

Exploring these questions, I’ve tried a quintillion avenues, and it’s inescapable that Most Things Don’t Work.  (You may have heard it expressed as Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.”) That could be daunting (and it always is when I’m depressed), but it can also be an impetus to try absolutely everything, because you can’t know ahead of time how you will succeed, only that you will if you persist long enough. Often the unlikeliest things prevail, while the things you had your heart set on, don’t. Serendipity is your friend.

How this approach has unfolded in my life –

  • I’ve attended 6 colleges/universities in 4 states.
  • It took me 15 years to finish college (going mostly at night, taking one or two classes at a time), and I had 14 majors, including botany, philosophy, engineering, and computer science. My degree is in geography.
  • In 24 years of working, I’ve held 24 jobs. My longest tenure was 4.25 years, my shortest was a week (as a temp); most were for 6 to 8 months.
  • I’ve joined at least 29 organizations, most social, professional and/or work-related. To date, I’m still a member of 10 of them.
  • I’ve taken classes or lessons in: 2 musical instruments; ballet, tap, modern and ballroom dancing; drawing, botanical illustration; graphic design; painting with both oils and acrylics; pottery; fabric painting and dyeing; tapestry weaving, weaving on a floor loom; sewing; and knitting. I still modern dance, paint, draw, weave tapestry, and sew. I also photograph, embroider, and quilt (without having taken lessons).
  • Of my photographs, only about 20% get posted to Flickr.
  • I’ve volunteered for 8 organizations; only 1 at the moment.

Most things I’ve tried haven’t worked (at least for the long term), but I’ve met some fascinating people, and I learned from every experience. I wouldn’t trade any of them, even (especially?) the terrifying ones — like the fireline of a controlled burn changing direction and heading right for me. So, failure is good. Expanding or disrupting your comfort zone is even better. Making unfamiliar things part of your life will transform your ideas of what’s possible.

Go ahead and try something that scares you!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Nenya permalink
    May 8, 2011 03:06

    Laiima, these last two posts hit me right where I’m at. Thank you!

    I’m at a point where I’m both testing out a new relationship that matters deeply to me, and also having to make some choices regarding work. I am bored to death with the job I have, and need something that both pays more and is uses my actual skills. And yet the concept of change is not only terrifying, but something I can’t quite, well, conceptualize yet.

    Anyway, between you and my therapist, this idea of “Go! Try things! Try anything! Get out there!” is starting to seem intriguing. Now if only I can summon the energy for it. Baby steps, I guess.

    • May 8, 2011 15:02

      Nenya, You are in a place that I have been many times. I’m there right now in
      fact. 🙂 My advice — if you want it — is to unleash your curiosity, and let it
      direct your next move. (Baby steps are fine!) So, if some activity or idea seems
      especially interesting, even if (especially if) you don’t know why it appeals to
      you, figure out some way to explore it. That that idea or activity seems
      attractive because your unconscious mind is *seeking* change and uncertainty.

      Oddly enough, dealing (capably) with uncertainty and change is a SKILL. It can
      be learned, and improved upon. I think the world is currently in a period of
      upheaval that is only going to increase in the near future, so anyone who is
      adept at dealing with change and discomfort will be advantaged compared to those
      who are still yearning for certainty and stability.

  2. Nenya permalink
    May 10, 2011 16:17

    Laiima, these are very cheering words. 😀 I especially like the idea of trying random things that look like fun, even if you don’t know why. I spent the morning today wandering around my once (and hopefully future) university campus looking at cool things, and it was very satisfying, even if I know that for several reasons I won’t be able to be a student there again for quite some time yet. But I saw some beautiful art and read some interesting things about study habits and looked at pretty flowers and bought a travel mug. Most importantly it reminded me that there are more things to life and more options than what I see every day in my boring!job. So…lovely thinky thoughts, and I thought of your post here all day too.

    Big hugs.

    • May 10, 2011 16:31

      Nenya, that sounds like a great beginning! Just keeping an open mind when you’re
      in unfamiliar surroundings can seed your imagination, and you don’t know what
      will flower later. Be compassionate with yourself — you can only start where
      you’re at. (I always want to start from some “better”/less humble place, but
      that’s not how it works.)

      I have often been comforted by thinking that my tenure in any job I haven’t
      liked is limited. I’m not a person who stays long anywhere, so perhaps six
      months from now this job will be in the past, and you will barely remember the
      specific things that are driving you crazy now. We can hope, right? 🙂


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