On Tinkering

 By: Kelly McDonald

If the path before you is clear, you are
probably on someone else’s.
Joseph Campbell

I was the youngest of five brothers, growing up in a rural Utah community. As a child, I looked to my older siblings to discover activities that could become my own interests. One older brother was consumed with electrical and mechanical things. He collected discarded appliances, radios, and other household equipment. He filled his bedroom with projects of disassembly, often repairing broken devices, then giving them back to family and friends for their continued use. He often rode his bicycle to the nearby garbage dump to retrieve discarded equipment from other households. My parents called this endeavor his ‘tinkering’. I followed in his footsteps, though not in the equipment repair, but still adopting the tinkering moniker. And the tinkering paradigm has governed my learning, development, and mindset ever since.

When I was a youngster, my Christmas presents were hand tools, chemistry sets, and toys for disassembly. Throughout my elementary, high school, and university learning, scientific classes dominated my educational interests, eventually leading to a long and satisfying career in computer science and information technologies. Although I was interested in the humanities, I didn’t have time for them. There weren’t enough hours to pursue both art and computer programming classes—literary endeavors and electrical engineering. I focused my youthful tinkering on immediate, visible results with technology. I was good at it, and that led me to a successful career tinkering with technical things. Frequently, my desire to improve the working conditions of my colleagues resulted in the development of software tools which changed their way of work. My intrigue with computer networking in the 1980s led to introducing the Internet to Brigham Young University.

But not everyone praises the concepts that the word ‘tinkering’ engenders. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first use of the word to the 15th century: “To occupy oneself, fiddle with something, especially by way of attempted repair or improvement; to mend a material object, especially in a clumsy, makeshift, or imperfect way.” That’s not a complimentary description of what I had adopted as the basis for my mindset. This negative connotation of tinkering seems to extend from the 12th century description of a ‘tinker’, who was a person who made a living by mending pots and other metal household utensils, (especially traveling from place to place). The OED states such tinkering people were in low repute.

Perhaps for this personal essay, I should have a more positive description of my philosophy. Reaching back into my career in computer science, I’m reminded of a similar description for developing software, not mending pots and pans. ‘Stepwise refinement’ is a software development process in which the programmer breaks a problem into manageable parts and then tackles each part as a simpler software design and implementation process. Each subsequently developed software process is then iteratively combined into software versions, growing in complexity, eventually implementing all the aspects of the original problem into a final software release. But stepwise refinement seems like too complex of a definition simply to overcome the negative connotations of tinkering. I’ll stick with my original word.

Beyond my career in computer science and information technologies, where else has this tinkering philosophy affected me? As I reflect, many of the endeavors of my life have been subject to tinkering. Take leadership: When I moved into a management role during my career, I found it didn’t work to edict a subordinate’s career development. They and I would tinker with the possibilities of growth until their outcome felt about right. Take friendships: My experience has been that they take time to grow after experimenting with friendly interactions. If the friending experiment was successful, I moved on to another interaction with the person. If not, I respectfully moved on to someone else. Take family: My wife Beverly and I quickly discovered, early in our marriage, that there was no complete set of instructions for parenting. Each child was unique, and they didn’t seem to match the lessons we had learned from their older siblings, nor the examples outlined in those parenting manuals we had purchased. Often we tinkered with our expectations for a child’s achievement to reach the best outcome, which their unique circumstances seemed to allow. Though I haven’t queried our children, who are now adults, about our parenting style, our tinkered approach to child-rearing doesn’t seem to have tainted their love for us or for each other.

But for me, tinkering doesn't come without some governing boundaries. Even through all my tinkering, there has been a long-term overall goal or purpose in mind. As a ten-year-old, I wanted to learn the laws of chemistry and electronics. As a software engineer, I was looking for a strategy for overcoming complexity. As a friend and coworker, I was finding appropriate interactions to create meaningful relationships. As an overwhelmed parent, my goal was fostering a child’s growth and seeking to create a harmonious family life. After each tinkering cycle in all these endeavors, I judged the results of the tinker against my original goal or purpose. If I drew closer to the goal, the tinker became a practice. If not, I abandoned it as nonproductive. 

And what about those humanities propensities I never experienced? After retirement, I audited creative writing classes to investigate my literary inclinations. Not only did I tinker my way through the learning of literature, but I also made some wonderful friends with the twenty- to thirty-year-olds who studied with me. I realized that tinkering with finding the right word to convey a thought, or developing this literary journal, rivaled the satisfaction of creating a correct line of software code or finding the best configuration for my home Internet.

In a recent essay, my cofounder for this journal, Elizabeth, described her dilemma with the topic of iteration while learning to write poetry: “To use a word I learned from Kelly, I ‘tinkered’ with the poem. The small edits fit into place rather nicely. But I suppose Kelly has more to teach me in the art of tinkering, because the more I tinkered with a prized metaphor, the worse it became. My poetic creativity was exhausted.” No other endeavor for me has been such a validation of the tinkering process than creative writing. Like Elizabeth, my tinkering with words has been both a frustrating and a rewarding process. Now I better understand Mark Twain when he said, “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.”

Whatever I have called it—tinkering, stepwise refinement—there has never been a guarantee, when I started an endeavor, for total success. There has just been the internal desire that I must move forward in some direction. Only then did I feel a confirmation that, through dabbling and iteration, my life had become better. Psychiatrist Srini Pillay defines tinkering as the process of becoming. Now, as a septuagenarian looking back over my many years and observing those close to me, I’ve come to believe that all our lives are a grand experiment. No matter the endeavor, we all tinker to reach our dreams.


Julia B. said…
'...we all tinker to reach our dreams.'
Such a cute word.
Loved this essay. Shared it with a friend.
Thank you.
MB said…
Love this Kelly. Merry Christmas!
I loved this! We all tinker in some way, whether for fun or complexity tinkering is a good word to describe many things! Thanks for your description of what it means to you! ♥️
andy8mcdonalds said…
If you’ve ever seen the movies, I now know why hazel loves tinkerbell so much. She gets the tinkering from you. Thanks for sharing some great memories I’ve never known before

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