On doing

I was never one of those kids who tinkered. I didn’t take things apart or rebuild them or concoct mad experiments. When my parents bought me Lego sets, I followed the instructions. It wasn’t that I wasn’t creative – I built entire worlds with my younger brother, played out elaborate stories with my toys, and drew constantly. In my mind, the world was segregated into very clear categories of “do” and “do not” change. Art was in the do category, because the point of art was to make a drawing or a painting or a clay sculpture from an idea in your head. Most other things were in the don’t category.

It wasn’t until college that I realized there was any other way to think about it. Maybe getting thrown into building circuits or writing Matlab simulations should have done the trick, but Nerf guns are what ended up changing my life.

Nerf guns were all the rage on campus my freshman year, so the first time I made it out to Target with some classmates I made sure to pick up some foam armament. Just having the Nerf gun wasn’t enough though – you had to modify it. I wasn’t so sure about this, but it was what everyone was doing. The implicit rules of my social sphere said that I ought to take my gun apart and shove some pennies behind the spring, so I did*. I grabbed a screwdriver and a handful of change, and set to work on my desk. I probably looked up a few tutorials online. A short while later, with almost no blood, sweat, or tears, I had a functional gun that shot twice as far as it had.

This blew my mind. In following the implicit rules of my friends (“mod your gun!”), I had broken the explicit rules of the manufacturer. I had changed something that was not to be touched. And it had worked better afterwards.

This prompted a spree of experimentation, a “CHANGE ALL THE THINGS!” phase, if you will. Part of this process involved failure, but I learned how to work around that. I crippled my Nerf gun trying to create a more directed airflow. I had to get my computer reimaged multiple times. I wrote all kinds of hacky HTML. But that didn’t matter, because I had finally realized that the rest of life wasn’t actually that different from art. My life became a blank canvas. I could see the rules and structures that governed everything around me, just as I had before, but now I had the power to change them.

I’ve been struggling to write this for quite a while. I know the story, but it’s hard for me to figure out where I’m going with it. It wasn’t until I saw a talk by UW Professor Beth Kolko about her research on creating functional, not accredited, engineers that everything clicked into place: I want to tell this story, because I want people to read it and understand that they can also be makers and doers. All too often the story of being a maker gets told by the tinkerers and hackers – the people who were making robots out of the toaster and building their own websites by the age of 8. And that’s great. That’s fantastic. But we aren’t all those people, and furthermore, those aren’t the people who need to be told that they too can change the world. This is for the rest of us.

* If you can’t tell by now, I’ve always been good with rules. My mother jokes that I was born on my due date because I didn’t want to start off out of line.

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