Keeping the sense of wonder… and why that’s good.

We’re going to start off this one with a great piece of video: Adam Savage’s TED talk about making his own dodo bird skeleton out of Sculpey and his obsession with making a dead-nuts-accurate copy of The Maltese Falcon. Seriously, take the 15 minutes or so to watch this. If you’ve ever seen Adam on one of his stream-of-consciousness explanations of something on “Mythbusters” (a show that demonstrates the wonders of tinkering-as-learning on a weekly basis. Talk about “Dream Jobs For Geeks”!), this is that, turned up to 11.

Did you go watch it? Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Okay, you’ve watched it.

The money quote is right at the end: “But really, if we’re all going to be honest with ourselves, I have to admit that achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with, was it?”

BING! The journey is the point of the exercise, not the destination. That, right there, sums up the open sense of wonder, the “tinkering instinct” as it were.

Adam’s about a year older than I am. And every new episode of “Mythbusters”, you see him tackle that week’s myth with the same sense of exploration and wonder that we all had when we were kids and the world was new. Now, I have to admit that I had wondered if he was that manic about it In Real Life as he was on TV, and this TED talk pretty much confirmed it: he didn’t create the persona for the TV role, he got the TV role because of his personality. If you look at all of the “Mythbusters” team, in fact, they’re all like that. Adam’s just the most outwardly manic about it.

I would kill for a shot at being involved with “Mythbusters”. Getting paid for Mad Science is my ultimate career goal. I’ve gotten close a couple times, and to be honest, what I do for a living now is mighty close. It’s certainly Applied Mad Science: client comes to us with a problem. Sometimes something we have on the shelf or in the catalog can solve it. Sometimes it’s a derivative of something we’ve done previously. But sometimes it’s a “hey, nobody’s ever attempted this before” problem. Which is how I end up designing a tool to apply a total of about 1,000,000 pounds of force, distributed between 4 hydraulic actuators, to unstick the latching mechanism on a piece of subsea equipment in about 3600 feet of seawater. Or a tool to reach inside a 13 in x 20 in opening — the only access to the inside of the device — to remove and replace a gasket — all without direct human involvement.

Getting back to my point, with many adults, the sense of wonder has been suppressed, if not outright beaten down. And this is a total shame. It kills the creative urge. It leads to cynical, jaded, unhappy people who don’t see the extraordinary things that surround them in their daily life, or if they do, don’t give a flying care about how extraordinary they are. I’m a mechanical guy, and I don’t pretend to understand how digital data transfer really works (I have a broad clue, just not the details), yet I’m sitting here in Texas typing this on a computer connected to a server in a completely different state, if not country, and once I publish it, it will be readable to anyone with any type of network connection anywhere in the world. Including the folks on the International Space Station in orbit.

Wow.

Just, wow.

I still don’t understand exactly how it all works, something about packets of data being routed from one node to another and somehow getting reassembled at the desired destination even though they may not arrive in the same sequence they left and indeed may not have taken the same path from origin to destination. It’s all Mysterious Spark Chaser Stuff to me.

Which is fine. We have our specialities. I spent the first part of my career in a speciality that even other automotive engineers thought was bordering on witchcraft. There *is* math that governs multi-phase fluid flow and heat transfer, but it’s really unspeakably hairy math with partial differential equations and a whole lot of handwaving, and as a result, most folks who do cooling systems end up learning the ropes and the rules of thumb from one of the Old Guys… and when they achieve Old Guy status themselves, pass it on to the next generation.

I was 35 when I found myself regarded as The Old Guy for the first time. This was bothersome in some respects, because I didn’t, and still don’t, consider myself old (granted, my body sometimes reminds me that I’m not in my 20s anymore, but “old” and “young” is an attitude, not a physical state).

My point is designing a centrifugal pump or a cooling system is every bit as mysterious to the Sparkies as their stuff is to my fellow Gearheads and me. All I know is I do machines. Mechanical stuff. With electronics sometimes, too, but lots of nuts and bolts and gears and pumps and hoses and valves and…

Sorry, getting excited there.

I don’t understand the minute details of the Sparky stuff, but I still have a healthy appreciation for it, and I learn what I can about it when I can. Why? Well, I’m curious.

The person who’s lost that sense of wonder, when presented with a situation they have no experience with, retreats. They shut down. They ask “why?” Why do they have to deal with this?

The tinkerer — someone whose sense of wonder is intact and active — grabs hold of the situation with both hands and says “Why not?!?” And sometimes the end result is amazingly wonderful, and sometimes it’s an amazing train wreck — on the first attempt (“Oops. Guess we’re gonna have to do that a bit differently next time. Anyone have a mop? And a shop vac?” And the phone number for the window company? And have you seen where my lab coat went?”).

Reading through some of the reviews and blogs from folks who have bought Fifty Dangerous Things, one of the more interesting common threads is the awakening of the dormant sense of wonder in the parents… it’s as if they’ve had a chance to throw open the door to a long-shut closet and let all that curiosity about the world and its endless amazements back out into the open.

I’m not sure if Gever had that intention when he put the book together, but it’s certainly a pleasant side effect.

And my message to those folks who have re-found their sense of wonder is: Don’t put it away again, ever! The sense of wonder leads to exploration which leads to learning which leads to appreciation which leads to knowledge which leads to competence which leads to confidence which leads to self-sufficiency which leads to sharing and teaching by example and that spreads it around to more and more people and this is an insane run-on sentence worthy of the Bulwer-Lytton Contest.

Whew. Needed to breathe there.

Here’s an open question for the folks who have done this (public answers not required, but a little feedback would be appreciated): With the reawakening of your sense of wonder, are you happier than you were when it was dormant? I’m willing to wager on the answer being yes.

That’s because shutting down the sense of wonder, locking it up in a dark closet at the back of our mind, runs counter to our genetic programming. We are creatures of exploration and learning. It’s our natural state. Parts of society have gone to a lot of effort to suppress it for their own reasons (control/subjugation being the most prominent) on both a micro and a macro level, and in big business, particularly, “toeing the line” is rewarded far more often than being the loose cannon.

Which is ironic… no, sorry, it’s tragic, because pretty much every single big company that makes a saleable product was founded by a loose cannon (“Hey, I wonder what happens if I do this?”) and built upon the innovations of other loose cannons (“That was cool! But if we now do this, it’ll be even better!”) — that’s how they got big in the first place! Those of us in the United States live in a country founded by loose cannons. Toeing the line is a static, stagnant way to go.

As to why keeping the sense of wonder active is good? Well, if our goal in this life is to make the world a little better place than it was when we found it, how better to do that than to encourage and grow self-sufficient competence amongst our fellow humans?

Those of us who have children in our sphere of influence owe it to them to show them, by example, that retaining that sense of wonder, actively, into adulthood is, in fact, a Good Thing Indeed.

Our kind host, Gever Tulley, is off at Tinkering School doing just that right now.

What’s more, willing to bet there’s a smile on his face. People with the sense of wonder active and “on” also seem to be happier people. Coincidence? I think not.

Will it become universal in our lifetimes? Unlikely. There are a lot of extraordinarily incurious people out there. “But really, if we’re all going to be honest with ourselves, I have to admit that achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with, was it?”

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