Pattern Minded

My happy place is an art studio where all of the items have their own section.

I love to draw. Ever since I can remember I’ve created doodles, pictures, paintings, and other kinds of art. And it generally comes naturally to me – the kind of skill that other people call “artistic” and that I call “just drawing” – until it doesn’t.

I’m not sure what this gap feels like to people who don’t draw, so I’ll try to describe it in terms most people find easy to understand: imposter syndrome. When I don’t “feel” like drawing, I come up with every excuse to avoid that practice. I stay away from art materials and all of those wonderful colors. I stop drawing because there’s no chance of messing up.

That’s really not fun. Sometimes it has lasted for years. I am not sure of the first time I had this feeling but I would guess it happened when I enrolled in a Ph.D program in History instead of renting an Art Studio and drawing for a living. Maybe not drawing was a good thing, though.

If I hadn’t taken a break from drawing I would have spent much less time with computers. I might have missed out on learning to program. I might also have not engaged with new technologies like mobile and social and local commerce.

I am drawing again.

 It doesn’t take much to get started again on drawing. Just a little bit of time.
The hack that got me going again? Repetition. Small pictures. Doodling. Pretending “this drawing doesn’t matter.” Because the real benefit to creating and writing about it is a pattern itself – the self-reinforcing loop that happens when you make stuff, and look back later to see whether it’s good – and its absence is an anti-pattern.

So if you see me stop drawing, ask me to draw you something. Give me a commission. It doesn’t need to be paid, and it can be just enough to give me an idea. Making art pays off for me in many more areas of my life than the artwork I create. That process of making is a pattern that leads me to a place where I build amazing things. 

Go ahead, build a Thingamajig.

Morse Code Machine, made with LittleBits
Morse Code Machine, made with LittleBits

When the folks at LittleBits asked me to test their latest kit of snap-together DIY electronics, I was really excited. As a gadget-loving person, I love the idea of creating a Rube Goldbergian perpetual motion machine. I even the idea of putting together models and understanding how electronic circuits work. Yet I’ve never gotten around to learning how to solder, putting electronics boards together by hand, and building electronics from the ground up.

LittleBits prides itself as being an educational, open company, and you can even dream up new bits in their GitHub repo. The company produces sets of “bits” – individual units that perform different functions and snap together with magnets – that you can use to make projects. It’s dead simple. Bits come for Power (e.g. a battery or USB), Input (a dimmer or motion switch), Wire (connect all of that stuff together and branch it if necessary), and Output (a buzzer, motor, light, or fan).

LittleBits is great because it gives you the feeling of building electronic gizmos from scratch while providing a color-coded, magnetized set of pieces that you just can’t screw up. Buck Rogers ingenuity with no-brainer simplicity and instant benefit: I love it. The sets are deceptively simple because you start playing with something and how it goes together, and then almost instantly rearrange it into a new configuration because there is almost no switching cost to putting it back together again. Need a diagram? Take a quick photo of the pieces snapped together.

LittleBits allow you to play with electronics in the same way you might sketch a quick drawing, play a piece on an instrument or just goof around. They are a great way to learn about circuits and motors visually – there are lights, pressure switches, motion sensors, and lots of fun switches to make your “stay out of my room motion sensing alarm with buzzer” device, or just to make the simple morse code machine my assistant and I built tonight. It’s time to build more what-is-that-thing-calleds.

(disclaimer: LittleBits provided me with the Extended Kit free of charge in exchange for help testing the product. My young assistant and I are still doing the testing and are enjoying ourselves profusely.)

Makers need to make in the real world.

Makers need to make in the real world

Get out of the (electronic) building

Last evening, as the Pacific Northwest sunshine (yes, we do have that here in the Spring and Summer and Fall) was blazing, I was weeding my garden. There were no electronic devices in force. Although I did share this picture when I was done working, most of the time I used was just to move dirt. To get rid of weeds. And to appreciate the garden’s progress.

One of the things we often lose in the tech world – especially in our zest to communicate with each other – is the ability to slow down and see the life around us. I work in a garden with my neighbors because I love the whole process of taking plants from seed to plate. I’m not the best gardener, and I love the end product. I also really enjoy the ability to think less and do more. Working in the garden gives me energy to go back and interact more with people (in person or otherwise.)

This year, we expanded our garden. This is a little like a lean startup, where you take a chance that your idea for your vegetables matches up with what you can produce and what your individual market can bear. Granted, it’s not as bound by market forces, but it does literally force you to get out of the building (sorry for the bad pun, Steve Blank.) We don’t know which of our garden experiments will work yet. One set of potatoes is being cultivated one way, and another in a way that’s completely different.

What can we take away from the garden experience? First, that making things with your hands helps you to make things with your mind. If nothing else, killing weeds with a hoe is therapeutic and useful. (Just imagine that project, client, or line of code that you need to remove.)

Secondly, it’s important to remember that building a garden is a process, requiring resources, diligence, hard work, and persistence. The garden doesn’t get finished in a day, and does follow a work plan that proceeds in a reasonable order. There are some things you can only do in the spring, and there are other decisions cause irrevocable change (don’t buy enough seed, and don’t get enough plants.)

Finally, a garden is a lesson in resilience. You’re not sure what’s going to happen to the ground, the plants, or the vegetables over the course of the year. You simply can tend the garden, head off the problems as they occur, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. It’s kind of like a startup.

(originally posted on Medium)

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