Fearless Problem-Solving

Maker Faire Africa: Ghana 2009

Creative Commons License photo credit: whiteafrican (from the Maker Faire Africa, Ghana 2009)

What’s the difference between an artist and a technician? I suspect that the answer to that really depends on whom you’re talking to. I’m sure a lot of artists would say there’s all the difference in the world, but I’m not so sure I agree. I also think there are a lot of artists who get a lot done who might question the notion that there’s a cut-and-dried categorical difference between the two.

A lot of what really separates people who make art on an active, daily basis from people who don’t (but perhaps imagine that they could, or would like to) is not some mysterious source of ‘inspiration’ but technical skill and the experience it’s based on. And maybe even more than that, it’s about attitude. It’s about fearlessness.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been immersed in a task that was highly technical in nature, and less overtly ‘artistic’ than usual. However, it has in a way been highly creative and satisfying and I thought it would be interesting to explore that a little – and get around the music-and-art-bias that sometimes pervades things around here.

Out of my depth?

What I’ve been doing is building a website for a friend’s band. Now, I’ve made a number of sites over the years, usually for my own projects but occasionally I’ll take on a job for friends. I don’t consider myself any kind of expert but of course that’s all relative – compared to professional designer/programmers who do this all day every day, I’m a babe in the woods, but compared to most people who don’t, including the people who hire me because they don’t know who else to hire and trust me to put together something half-decent, I’m fairly skilled.

In this case there was even a designer, who gave me a PDF of her concept for the site and pages – so I was not designing, only manifesting what she had imagined and giving it structure. However, the band had some ideas about how it should function, and assembling the building blocks and getting it all working together and looking right across myriad browsers (curse you, IE!) involved some wizardry behind the curtain – and more specifically, some coding tricks I had not used, or only ever dabbled in, before.

I am not someone who studies manuals or reads documentation. I never have been. I like to learn by doing, by throwing the blocks on the floor and getting into it. In the case of code, I generally like to grab an example of something that kind of does roughly what I want to do, slam it in there and then start changing stuff around. If it breaks, I revert to the last version that worked and try something different. If it works, great; move on for now, I can come back later to see if it can be done better.

I call this process Fearless Problem Solving. It starts with two assumptions: first, that there is a way to make it work; and second, that I will find it eventually. If I accept these without question, if I simply believe that they are true, then the more immediate facts – that it doesn’t currently work, and that I don’t currently know how to make it work – seem less daunting. I’m simply in a kind of intermediate state between not-working and working, and I just have to let the process happen, keep throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

The middle way

I think this process is my way of bridging the gap between my artist-self and my technician-self. When I’m playing the piano, which is the only thing that I do at any level of mastery, I am not thinking about the technique; it disappears in to the experience, and if it’s going really well I kind of disappear too, and there is only the music. This is the artistic ideal (well, my version of it anyway).

At the opposite extreme on our continuum is the notion (perhaps a bit cliché, but so it goes) of a highly skilled technician – someone who knows his or her craft intimately, is properly trained, does things correctly, according to established rules. We hope that people building houses or cars or performing brain surgery are not making it up as they go along, mixing it up, trying things out and seeing what works. We trust that they know what they’re doing. Lives are at stake, don’t try this at home etc.

But what I’m beginning to think is that the grey area between these extremes is actually enormously wide, encompassing almost all of life and art and work. Mostly we’re problem-solvers, and mostly we are making it up as we go along, though we can certainly benefit from others’ experience… This website I’ve been building would have taken me a lot longer if I had to invent javascript and jQuery and write audio subroutines for everything I wanted to do. Lucky for me, others have been this way before and left breadcrumbs.

Conversely, of course, it would have been much faster if I knew exactly how all those things worked before I started, but therein lies the rub – how do you learn how all those things work? I have a designer-programmer friend who learned by reading dozens of books and absorbing the concepts thoroughly before starting to code anything. I have respect for that method, but it’s not me at all. I’m all about the Fearless Problem-Solving.

I am pretty sure that many of the people that do ‘really know what they’re doing’ got to the stage they’re at in much the same way I did – start by taking on something you don’t know how to do, assume that it can be done and that you’ll figure it out eventually, and get into it. Take note of what works and what doesn’t as you go along, and next time you face a similar problem it will go a bit quicker. It’s cumulative.

A little knowledge is at least a start!

There’s a kind of unspoken anti-assumption at work in this attitude, as well, and I think this is is the crux of what holds a lot of people back. What I choose not to accept, but which I think is widely accepted, is that there is a gaping chasm separating us from those who know what they’re doing – an enormous body of required knowledge between us and what we want to do – and that we can’t start to do anything at all before acquiring that knowledge.

I do not accept that it’s impossible to do things without years of training and acquiring fundamental skills with no context for understanding why they are fundamental. Our education system, from what I can see,  is largely based on this model, and I think this is one reason that creativity is often stifled by it.

Obviously in many cases there are fundamental safety considerations, and I am not advocating the complete abandonment of precaution and planning. But I think that if we adopted an attitude of Fearless Problem-Solving in more aspects of our lives, we could allow more creativity to seep into those lives.  We might just find that we get more done and have more fun while we’re at it.

Just act natural

The odd thing is, I actually think we already do this much of the time, without really thinking about it. Children do it almost all the time. We do it in small ways, and it’s the way we’ve learned most of the practical skills that carry us through our days. The underlying attitude is not explicit or conscious, but it’s there – as long as we feel we’re on safe ground, dealing with things we believe we can deal with.

But all too often, when facing an unfamiliar challenge or task, we freeze and unconsciously adopt the paralyzing belief that whatever it might be is impossible for us, because we don’t have the necessary background.

Hogwash. I say, take on the mantle of the Fearless Problem-Solver. Assume that there’s a solution and you’ll find it. The skills you’ll need you can pick up along the way, or get some help if necessary. But don’t give up at the first sign of adversity – it’s just part of the process, a stop along the way. An opportunity to figure what you need to learn and what skills you need to acquire next. Do some basic research, yes –  but not too much. You’re just looking for a promising-looking opening, a door to stick your foot into.

So, what about you? Are you an artist, a technician, or a Fearless Problem-Solver? Do you pore over books before dipping a toe in the water, or wade right in and start paddling? Any stories from the Problem-Solving trenches to share? Comments are always welcome…