DIY by layers

DIY is everywhere. And while the basic notion of creative self-sufficiency holds great appeal in an age that can feel mass-produced and impersonal, there might come a moment when we (or at least I) will get turned off, saturated to the point of no return with talk of the most intriguing new way to make something. The problem is not that these ideas aren’t innovative; we constantly come across impressive ventures that offer a better way forward. What gets me is when the broader concept of DIY seems to generate more excitement than the actual project at hand, its goals, and how the people at the helm manage to make an impact. Many different labors of love have contributed to the momentum behind DIY. Just look at the growing popularity of the Maker Faire series, which came in June to our own backyard; or ShopBot Tools, headquartered in Durham since 1996; or the tiny personal projects that will never make the news. There are real-world applications in all such ventures, but the buzz about DIY often seems to overshadow them. As for the permeation of the trend, consider the “How to Make Stuff” cover spread on Wired magazine’s DIY-centric April issue, or the fact that in just a two-week period of June, Fast Company issued four articles whose titles included the term “DIY.”

So in the face of a movement that has become pervasive, how do we make sure people focus on the nitty-gritty details, too? Lest DIY fall down the rabbit hole and be seen in hindsight as a fad, it’s time to recall how it can be both useful and extraordinarily powerful, all while still being fun and inspired. After all, if we can’t articulate exactly why an undertaking is so great, we risk becoming lazy makers, creating throwaway projects with no lasting value.

Of course, there is some intrinsic merit in learning by doing; as we’ve said before, making things with your own two hands is pretty vital to being human. But something can be both new and creative without changing the world. And that’s the best place to start discussing the merits of a DIY project -- by asking whether a maker has figured out how to do something better.

Take d.light, a project that changes lives by distributing solar lanterns, increasing the capabilities of entire populations in developing areas (thanks, Martha Nussbaum).

“At d.light, we use the best design principles -- usually reserved for the 10 percent wealthiest -- and apply them to meet the needs of households without access to reliable electricity.”

Talk about turning the world on its head.

There are lots of DIY-related initiatives that break free of existing conventions in constructive ways, but this is a good example of a project that’s been presented to the public skillfully. Because d.light talks about specifics, we can wrap our heads around why it does something better.

The next time someone raves about a DIY idea they saw put into action, ask the same questions that the folks at d.light did: What is the root problem that’s being solved? Whom is being helped? Why is this solution better? Is it efficient? How will this product continue to improve people’s lives after they receive it?

Those aren’t the only questions to ask, but they get us thinking about the inner workings of DIY, not just the sexy surface.

Durham Makes It Big by Thinking Small

We Durhamites love our town. It’s undeniable. At the suggestion that the area still needs to grow into a better version of itself, we cast a sidelong glance, purse our lips, and feel sorry for the person who is blind to how fantastic Durham already is. With such eager supporters, it might seem as if Durham were on a permanent path to greatness. Truth be told, we’ve come this far because of good old-fashioned moxie. We are where we are thanks to the very real ingenuity of the individuals, families, philanthropists, activists, bloggers, athletes, artists, huge technology companies, and tiny neighborhood businesses that have stuck their necks out for Durham over years and decades. Our countless small initiatives managed to come together in harmony and built something big -- a wonderfully gritty, smart, and impassioned community.

Up to now, we’ve kept that trend going by being both creative and prolific in our efforts to kickstart and sustain budding projects, and by being willing to take the right risks at the right time. It can feel as if we’re on an unstoppable roll, with The Cookery opening its food business incubator last month, the Bull City Startup Stampede giving new downtown businesses a leg up through the end of May, and this summer’s scheduled renovation of the old Chesterfield Building on the corner of Duke and Main, which promises to add a fresh spot for mixed-use space to the downtown revitalization. And that’s just to name a few reasons why Durham is the envy of personality-deficient towns and entrepreneurial-wannabes everywhere.

With so much buzz in the air, it’s easy to assume we can ride the wave forever. But here’s the rub: Doing more of what’s worked in the past doesn’t guarantee success. For a new project to catch on, it should be conceived carefully. And to be innovative, it should offer something clearly better. Continuing to churn up tiny, effective waves of influence is how we will end up buttressing this vibrant city of ours. In other words, to make something great, we have to remember to think small.

I got to thinking about this a little while back when Chris Heivly, executive director of seed-stage investment program LaunchBox Digital, said that the “big picture” of Durham has to develop organically out of everything we do. As Heivly told Durham Magazine on 6 April: “I don’t want to be the next Boston, the next Austin, the next anything. I want to be Durham.”

The man makes a good point. So to help keep Durham a thriving, authentic place, take a closer look at your latest project idea. Is it small enough to work on its own merits, producing immediate results? Is it digestible enough? Those are the questions to ask, because the short-term is where it’s at. Being precise and timely, small ideas can be developed, tested, and implemented while they are still relevant and inspiring. Smaller thinking lets you act in real time and effect tangible change. Right now. Any long-term, lofty effects you want it to have on the character of Durham are just icing on the cake.

With that in mind, if your project needs a fresh start, try sketching out how you would begin to experiment with a small idea. Identify a current and pressing issue with local implications, and use these tips to help get the process started.

Don’t burden your idea with fluff.

Take the lines of your favorite car. Maybe an Aston Martin does it for you. What about that particular year makes it more beautiful than any other? I’d be willing to bet that the designer followed one small idea, and it paid off.

Translation: Start by articulating the problem you’re trying to solve. Dig deep and jot down a word or short phrase that sums up your purpose. Refer back to it whenever you feel yourself getting lost in decision-making.

Just go.

Before I left to spend a year of college in Freiburg, Germany, a favorite professor told me, “If anyone asks you to go anywhere with them, go. Just go.” That kernel of an idea was both simple and inspiring enough to put into action, and through a series of small moments, it led to a richer, more colorful experience.

Translation: Experiment. The beauty of small ideas is that you can test out new waters constantly. And if something isn’t working, you can let it fail without worrying about having wasted months on it. Go, and go often.

Virtues of Smaller Thinking Vol. 03: Ingenuity

Things happen for a reason. A common enough sentiment, but one that also holds much truth. In every endeavor we have a reason. In an ideal world, this reason is consistently tied to creating better ways of doing something whether it's growing an herb garden, serving inner-city youth or constructing a research methodology. In a not so ideal world (the one we live in), our raison d'être is the effort of at least looking for needed improvements in our world. In this, the third installment of our Virtues of Smaller Thinking, we will explore ingenuity and how it impacts our reaching the goals we've set.

We've established that ingenuity is the act of finding better ways of doing stuff. But how? What's the impact for ourselves? For others?

You might expect me to say that ingenuity begins with innovation or inspiration, but this is where ingenuity eventually points us. Ingenuity is harder, and is first about honesty. An altogether honest assessment of the condition of our being or the quality of an object under consideration. This is not the honesty of family reunions -- this is the brutal honesty of credit reports and blood pressure tests. In Shift, Peter Arnell tells us of his own reluctance to see himself as a 400 lb. man in favor of a more benign self-identification as merely a creative person, without all the baggage. He got past this with an unsettling realization -- his reality -- which led to a better way of living and his losing 250 pounds. Like Peter, only after we assess the subject at hand can we focus on how best to improve upon it and truly move into wider worlds of possibility. Without this candid conversation, we're probably having the wrong conversations as we move forward.

So how does this impact our work? Our processes? This is what we'll explore in more depth over the next few weeks, but know there's a good chance it might not always be pretty. We have to trust ourselves. Ingenuity can sometimes be found in fundamental changes in how we perceive ourselves and our outputs. In other words, something like epiphanies and bolts of lightning. A lot of the time, though, ingenuity manifests itself in lots of tiny revolutions as we constantly refine the way we do things. Constantly. These incremental improvements do add up and they do improve our lives. So keep your mind open to possibilities no matter where they lie. And never suppress the little voice that cries out "What if?" before hearing it out.

As for the impact of ingenuity, let's travel back in time for a moment. All the way back to the 15th century. The world is awakening from what we now call the Dark Ages. Feudal life is not a charmed one. There is no internet and no Facebook. Hell, there are hardly even any books -- and even these aren't available en masse. Along comes Johannes Gutenberg and his magical mechanical moving type. He found a better, faster way of printing books, most famously his 42-line Bible. Before his ingenuity took root, books took months or even years to transcribe by hand. Turns out, even though he changed the world, Gutenberg never became a Renaissance rock star because of his Bibles and Latin texts. He had to borrow money to keep his operations going and was even taken to court. But he persevered. And if we look closer his ingenuity produced a radical contribution to the world that continues to give.

Many folks trace everything in our modern world right back to Gutenberg's dingy workshop. Skyscrapers, VoIP, Gatorade and the combustion engine. Indeed, Mark Twain wrote, "What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg."

Movable type fed the awakening of Europe and subsequently the entire world. It helped bring about the Renaissance because texts were suddenly easier to distribute. Learning took off. On second thought, it was more like learning blasted off. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were printed and circulated widely due to Gutenberg's advancements and then eventually issued as broadsheets which led to the development of the newspaper. And now everything we know is doubled every 900 days. So while ingenuity spawned an original contribution in this instance it inspired many more to come, both directly and indirectly. Another way of saying ingenuity doesn't sleep.

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Virtues of Smaller Thinking Vol. 2: Instinct

In the first installment of our 12 Virtues of Smaller Thinking, we got hungry. Or at least hungrier than we'd been before. Hunger is our starting point, the origination of our direction. But once we press this "start" button, where do we go? We have a few ideas of where not to go and a few that make more sense. Trust us. We've seen it happen. There's a spark, an idea or even just a gesture of an idea. We immediately want to go out and quantify or qualify (pick your poison, in this case) the merits of our concept. But wait -- do we really need a measuring stick for a hunch? Can we even measure a hunch? This is a critical point, because this is the juncture between killing ideas and stoking them.

When our initial hunger leads us to action, there's an internal shift of momentum. A hunch that something is good or bad. In other words, our instincts tell us if something is worth an investment of time, money or other assets. The beauty is that we can do this all on our own. We are pre-wired to detect the quality of our own ideas. Delphine de Girardin said, "Instinct is the nose of the mind." This feels right to me -- that our minds, not just our heads, would have noses.

This early in the game it would be a shame to get caught up in analytics and statistics. We're still operating on the nebulous playing field of concepts. So a little (or a lot of) trust is needed in ourselves to allow our ideas to germinate a bit. Not always easy to do, but essential early in the life of a project. By hopping right into a swirling pool of research and analytics, we become focused on the vortex of information and not our idea. Before we know it, our concept is awash in reasons to live or die. Pretty heavy stuff for an infant.

So our point is to allow your instincts to guide you early on as you are working through a project. There's a lot we can learn from ourselves. Plus, there's plenty of time to measure and test a little further down the road.

For the next few weeks, we'll be exploring our instincts here on the PARAGRAPH blog. Specifically, we're pondering how trusting instincts early on can lead to quick victories that help establish momentum. We want to delve a little deeper into how our internal hunches can positively direct our productivity.

For every virtue of smaller thinking, we create a custom desktop and make it available to you, the people. This time is no exception. Check out the desktop below that captures a bit of the indescribable, yet potent nature of instinct and how trusting it can produce unexpected and beautiful results. Trusting my instincts, the author will eat a chocolate chip cookie for every download of the desktops. I'll even tape the proceedings when they occur.

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Words Worth Repeating #7: Richard Tait

“Orville Wright didn’t have a pilot’s license.” - Richard Tait

I’ve never heard of Richard Tait, but he sure does illustrate the point. With all our talk lately about how to channel an initial pang of hunger into a plan of action, we’d do well to zero in on how the transition from sheer passion to impassioned work realistically happens.

So, that’s where we find ourselves. There are plenty of personal anecdotes out there that would provide ideas for how to get started. But you can talk amongst yourselves about those. If we were to boil it down, taking that first step depends on one fundamental rule.

Don’t waste too much time in the ramp-up phase. It’s a recipe for inaction. This translates into many things, one of which has to do with schoolin’. As Mr. Wright could have told us, making changes to the world doesn’t necessarily require a third party to announce your legitimacy before you’re allowed lift a finger.

Of course this doesn’t apply to everything. Me, I like my doctor to have a shiny diploma hanging where I can see it.

But sometimes, the ready-made framework for doing something can be more stifling than enabling. Don’t let a degree distract you from earning real-world chops. If you feel a sense of injustice about the society that surrounds you, go be the next Che Guevara. If you find you have a knack for entrepreneurship and for a budding technology, go be the next Bill Gates. And who didn’t love Good Will Hunting? Or Ernest Hemingway, for that matter. I, at least, have a soft spot for writers who craft their own voice by working through trial and error -- not with excessive formal training.

The point is that if you have the zeal and the skill to do something, there’s a good chance you can make a go of it now. Not after you do this, that, or the other thing.

Try honing your own ability to set the right goals at the right time. Doing that is a question of being able to take calculated risks, and it’s a matter of trusting your instinct. But that’s a subject we’ll take up next time.