Between enablement and constraint

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 2, 2022, 8:10 PM | comments: 0

I spend time thinking about what it means to be creative. We value creativity in our culture, I suppose because it is in part a means to problem solving. Making things is enjoyable. Developing something, or even people, is exciting. Often in education, as it results to our boy, we think about the balance between accommodation and accountability, the squishy area where you want to enable him for success but ultimately leave it up to him. Another way to look at is to find the line between enablement and constraint. Jack White made the point in the documentary It Might Get Loud that constraints are a powerful means to facilitate creativity, whether it's painting with only two colors or playing music with one less guitar string. Robert Rodriguez has made a career talking about making movies with no money.

While we're on the subject or parenting, I have admittedly been letting Simon just kind of flail lately, leaving him to figure stuff out. I've come to realize that there are a lot of things that you can do for your kid that may contribute to his development in one way, but limit it in others. For example, you could leave out the things you need to make a sandwich, but then you deny him the opportunity to figure out how to gather things and plan it out (silly and trivial example, but you get the idea). I think about this in my own childhood, and I didn't have a lot of "stuff," but I sure could make things if I had some cardboard and my Erector set. Simon was the same way when he was little, as he would fill in the blanks on virtually everything he was interested in with blocks. In that sense, the constraints of not having some arbitrary toys forced him to figure things out.

There's a balance like this in software. In the days of managed code and open source software, the job is often more one of composition than invention, and that's OK. But it can go too far. Some of the more famous vulnerabilities in recent years came from using very small open source libraries that did things that wouldn't be that hard or time consuming to do yourself. The shortcut may have enabled the developer, but they may have missed out on some opportunity to learn or arrive at a creative solution.

The stuff that we buy may feel enabling, but after moving six times in eight years, mostly it just weighs you down. I wish I could have learned that earlier in life. I'm dangerously close to another "experiences not stuff" tangent, so I'll leave it there. But I think more carefully about buying things. I'm not saying you shouldn't if it enables something greater. You'll not likely find anyone who ever felt that buying an upright mixer for the kitchen was a bad idea. But there's a small appliance for literally everything now, and you probably don't need it. I mean, bread makers, panini presses, omelet makers... really? The fun thing about cooking is learning how to make stuff with what you have, to enjoy the process.

When I talk this out, I think what I'm really after is that constraints are good if they force you to be creative and exercise your brain. We shouldn't always take shortcuts. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't take advantage of technology, but I worry that we try to make everything easy, and that may turn us into the people in the movie Wall-E... overweight, oblivious and lazy. That doesn't seem like a satisfying way to exist.


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