The value of being a tinkerer.

Geek Confession: When I was 8, I had a cardboard box in my closet filled with odds and ends that I intended to use to build a pinball machine.

The pinball machine was to be called Chink-a-Bonk (yes, a total ripoff of the old school Pachinko, but at the time I thought the name was downright revolutionary). And it would be so breathtaking and impressive that I'd be the hit of the entire 3rd grade.

Never mind that the parts in my cardboard box included such things as paper clips, a nail clipper,  a super ball that my cat had chewed on, some twisty metal thingies I'd found in my dad's toolbox and a bunch of binder clips.

Chink-a-Bonk was going to be huge.

I plotted and planned. I drew pictures. I laid the parts out, over and over, in various configurations. I dreamed.

Unfortunately for the world of gaming, my pinball machine never came together quite as I'd envisioned. I just couldn't figure out how to transform all of the rubble I'd collected into a working mechanical device. But you know what?

I had a hell of a lot of fun trying

And in retrospect, I gained a lot from the effort.

After I'd put Chink-a-Bonk to rest, I channeled that energy into dozens of other projects -- I made up recipes, I reinvented latch-hook kits, I attempted to sew my own pants (oh, how I wish I still had those pants), I spent 945 hours trying to solve Rubik's Cube, I conducted experiments ... 

I became a world-class tinkerer. And I loved it.

Flash forward to 2012. I am raising a tinkerer. Few days go by that I'm not asked such questions as:

"Do we have a ball of yarn, some tape and an egg beater?" or

"Can I have a glass bowl, a screwdriver and some packing peanuts?" or

"What will happen if I stick this Tootsie Roll into that flame?"

On one hand, it can be maddening.

I literally never know when I'm going to walk into a full-scale "spider web" covering her bedroom, or be commanded mid-dinner-prep to come watch the Build-a-Bear use his new pulley system to get down from the bunkbed.

But even when exasperated, I realize very clearly that this kid is harnessing her curiosity, in much the same way her mother did throughout her youth.

She's problem-solving.

She's learning how to use tools.

She's figuring out how gravity works (and, in Build-a-Bear's case, how it doesn't).

She's strategizing.

She's hypothesizing.

She's interpreting.

And all of that is going to serve her very well one day, as she prepares for and then enters her chosen profession.


Because the world rewards those who don't just sit around and contemplate all damned day. Of course tinkerers think. They often think quite hard. But after pondering, they ACT.

They try stuff, even when they're not 100% sure it'll work.

They consider new ways, even when the loud, groupthink voices are insisting on one, specific way.

They innovate.

They fine-tune.

There is tremendous value in being a tinkerer in today's economy. Employers love tinkerers.

I have a recruiting client (a major corporate client) who gives high priority to candidates who do things like welding or auto repair or woodworking in their spare time, because they realize that these people tend to be more bold, confident and resourceful than those who learn primarily through reading or watching (without any followup action).

So as a job seeker or professional, what does this mean for you?

If you're already a tinkerer, keep at it.

Then think about how the stuff you do out of curiosity and for fun makes you better, stronger or more appealing in your profession. Market yourself accordingly. Seriously, showcase that stuff to your current employer, or weave it into an interview conversation if you're a job seeker.

If you're not a tinkerer, roll up your sleeves and dig into something, already.

Start loading up a box of parts and make something.  Invent a new game. Take apart that vaccuum cleaner that hasn't worked for a year and see if you can fix the thing.  Allow yourself to be curious. DO.

And if you're a parent? Good God, let the kid be a tinkerer.

I don't care how many times you have to set your wine down and go watch a science experiment, or find the ball bearings in the garage, or cut a four-foot strip of Velcro in the name of some crazy project. Let your kids tinker. Because those silly projects of today, could well position them for amazing jobs, amazing feats, amazing futures.

p.s. Tootsie Rolls melt when you put them into a flame. Of course they do. (Fondue, anyone?) 

Are you a tinkerer? Hobbyist? Artist? How have your curiosities or hobbies benefited you professionally? Please be sure and share in the comments below!

photo: Creative Commons (Fuzzy Gerdes)