Noah Brier | May 19, 2021

The Tinkering Edition

On experimentation, learning, and being in the weeds

Recommended Products

The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto Book 2)
The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto Book 2)

Book by Nassim Taleb that discusses the essence of tinkering in the discovery of fundamentally new ideas.

This is both a reaction to a WITI this week from Josh Reich and also a build on a post I wrote for the Variance blog. Hope you enjoy. - Noah (NRB)

Noah here. Selfishly, part of the reason I was so eager for Josh Reich to turn his tweet into yesterday’s Micro to Macro Edition is that I wanted to layer some of my own ideas on top of it. His original thread had thoroughly lodged itself in my head, leaving me thinking a lot about how my own experience playing with technology and working with data had left me with many of the same conclusions about the need to understand the underlying structure of things. 

Specifically, I am fascinated by the ways tinkering has frequently forced me to reassess the model I had for how something works. In fact, one of the lessons I’ve learned over and over in my life is that nothing beats getting your hands dirty. I can point to any number of occasions—including just this weekend—when I thought I had a good handle on a bit of tech and then decided to check that understanding against the reality by playing with the thing and realized that it wasn’t quite as clear as I had initially believed. 

In a lot of ways, writing works similarly. We’ve all sat down to an empty doc thinking we had a handle on something only to find the page impossible to fill. Often, the grasp we think we have on a topic isn’t quite as firm when fingers hit keys. In the law, this is apparently sometimes referred to as “does it write?” which has become a favorite concept of mine. Moving from brain to page lays bare the clarity of thought.

Why is this interesting?

One place where I’ve frequently relearned this lesson is with technology. The gap between the way I think something works and how it actually functions when I get myself embedded in it is often much wider than I would have originally believed. I remember spinning up my first virtual server, for instance, and gaining a completely different understanding of how building websites and applications would be different moving forward. I then had a very similar experience the first time I played with serverless computing. Instead of even having to spin up a server, I could just write some javascript that would only run when a specific URL was called. This is still a thing that shocks me as I write small serverless applications to take on little tasks and transform small bits of data. The idea that the thing only runs when I ask it to is still something I’ve only partly internalized.

Nassim Taleb has an interesting take on tinkering in Black Swan, arguing that it is central to discovering fundamentally new ideas. “The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning,” he explains, “and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves.” That’s certainly my experience as both a tinkerer and entrepreneur. Each time what came out of the hands-on experience was a realignment of my thinking and a recognition of new possibilities. I’m not an expert in any of these things, but by diving into them I was able to give myself a much more high-fidelity mental model than I had before. (NB

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

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