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January 17th, 2023
The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.
Part IV: What’s in a Name?
Years ago the idea of riding a bicycle across North America wiggled it’s way deep into my brain and took over the person that I am. When I was negotiating the logistics of exactly how I would satisfy this new resident in my brain, I took my road bike - which is older than I am - to a bike shop and told the mechanic that I wanted to outfit it with a mountain bike gear set and install racks for panniers. When the mechanic understood what my full vision for these changes was, he shook his head and said “but this bike wasn’t designed to do what you’re talking about.”
My idea-infected brain didn’t miss a beat:
I don’t care what it was designed to do, I care about what it CAN do.
Perhaps the quintessential component of resourcefulness is an ability to see beyond the names and categories that we give things. If a road bike can only ever be a road bike in someone’s mind, then that person will never Frankenstein it with mountain bike components and take it from ocean to ocean. Or here’s a simpler, humble example: once a friend was getting frustrated in their small kitchen and exclaimed they needed a place to put the paper towel roll because it was in their way. I noticed a plastic clothes hanger in the trash which was broken along the bottom edge. I picked up, slipped the paper towel roll onto the bottom bar through the broken part and then hung the paper towels from a cabinet handle. “This is why we’re friends,” was the response.
Resourcefulness is the ability to look at things for what they really are, not just what we’ve named them or what we assume them to be. Leverage is often hidden because we are blinded by the category we’ve applied to the things we see. Leverage hides in plain sight because when people see the lever, they don’t see leverage, they see something else, they see the accepted category, the traditional name.
Most people would see the clothes hanger in the garbage and simply see a clothes hanger that got thrown out. A resourceful person see’s something roughly the length of a roll of paper towels with a hook and a way to usefully combine it with that roll of paper towels. To the resourceful person the clothes hanger isn’t a clothes hanger, it’s a particular organization of matter which has a shape suitable to fit the current need. Think about this for a moment, how often do you look at all the stuff around you and see all that stuff as just different organizations of matter? Usually we see a couch, a bookcase with books in it, some chairs, a table, etc. We see categories instead of seeing things for what they really are.
Shakespeare put it well:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as a sweet.”
Juliet’s point in the play is that names are irrelevant. But larger point is that for most people names are terribly relevant. So relevant, in fact, that they blind us from seeing things for what they could be. We get stuck on the name, or the category, and as a result, we fail to notice how the thing under consideration could be used in a way that isn’t included in the definition attached to that name or category. The definition of a clothes hanger does not include paper towels. Unless you are willing to see things for what they really are - a particular organization of matter. The convenient thing here is that most things can be labelled as “a particular organization of matter.”
Imagine what my bike mechanic might have said if he’d seen me hang paper towels with a clothes hanger: But that’s for clothes, not paper towels!
Some would call this train of thought First Principles Thinking. Elon Musk talks about First Principles Thinking quite a bit and it’s particularly showcased by the birth of SpaceX. Elon realized that a rocket is just a bunch of atoms organized in a particular way. The raw materials - the aluminum, the oxygen fuel, the copper for wiring, etc. - all those raw materials are relatively cheap, so the bulk of the expense was bundled up in the process of organizing those raw materials into a rocket. But this realization didn’t occur to Elon at first when he was beginning to explore his agency with regards to outer space. At first Elon was hung up on the idea of buying a rocket for a single space mission to reignite the public’s passion in space. He could not see past the category of “rocket”. It wasn’t until Government officials in Russia refused to sell him an ICBM that Elon finally ask himself, wait, what exactly is a rocket? This moved his thinking beyond the category of ‘rocket’, and as a result he discovered an enormous pool of potential leverage: the cost of rocket assembly can be much lower. Once SpaceX actually had orbital class rockets, the next lever they sought to uncover was reusability. Traditionally, rockets were a single-use technology. SpaceX figured out how to land rockets, and suddenly the amount of work a rocket can do was amplified because it can be used multiple times.. much like our little business owner who hires their first employee and amplifies their agency because now the amount of work that can be done in the name of their vision, multiplies.
Whether it be reusing cheaply built rockets, or hiring an employee, or seeing a clothes hanger in the garbage, the point is that hidden levers exist all around us, and they are often hidden because of the way we see them. We see them not as levers, but by the names and the categories that culture has given us.
The resourceful person does not take the language given to us as the final word about what things are. The resourceful person looks at the elements of their situation and sees more than the traditional way of describing those elements. The resourceful person sees an entire imaginative territory for interpreting each element, like a child who can create a whole world of adventure out of the most mundane objects. This is the reason why we admire the creativity of children and bemoan our departure from childhood. That departure is an acceptance of the larger culture’s view of reality. The names and categories of things become static, and we fail to see things as anything other than what we’ve been told to see.
Creative and innovative people are often described as iconoclast because resourcefulness requires a bit of rebellion against the way we are told to interpret the components of reality. For a cog in the system a van is always a van, and a a couch is always a couch. But this is not so for the creative and innovative person. A couch can be flipped end-on-end against a wall and turned into an impromptu ladder to reach a high (and annoying) fire alarm, and a van can be a sleeping space and a mobile office.
So what is in a name?
A limited way of seeing the world. That’s what. Certainly it’s part of a highly effective and functional way of seeing the world, because names and categories allow us the ability to agree about what we’re seeing, but that solitary task handed to Adam from God pens in our imaginations just as much as it enables us to communicate and collaborate.
What does it mean when someone is called a “visionary”? It means they are seeing something the rest of us can’t see. They see something that’s apart from our common view of reality. They see hidden leverage. And more importantly, they are willing to see things as more than just the categories we place on them. Take Einstein for example. What was his profound realization? It boils down to the same thing. He realized that space and time might not be separate things. We have two words for them, and think about how those two words constrained our thinking about the concepts they represent. Einstein came up with spacetime, which is just space and time without the categorical border between them. And his famous formula E = mc2 ? Well here the same thing is happening again. The equation basically means that matter and energy are the same thing. C is a constant, in this case the speed of light, and m stands for mass. So Mass equals energy. Energy equals mass. This is a revelation that requires a deterioration of the borders of category, and look at the power that alteration of category created: years later that formula was put to use in the development of nuclear weapons and we literally turned mass into energy - a lot of it.
So what’s in name? Yesterday. The past. The traditional way of thinking and seeing.
The future and the innovations that lie hidden inside of tomorrow depend on the ability to see past a name and a category, to abandon the perspectives handed to us in order to see some kind of leverage no one has ever seen before.
But this also applies on a personal basis. Luck can be as simple as realizing that an opportunity has been hiding in plain sight, right in front of you, this whole time.