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Reinvent the Wheel
AWM #97: There's really no other option
Reinvent the wheel. I mean it, literally. Build a small toy, and make it mobile with some spinning parts, but without using pre-made wheels. What will you use? Look around the house, or to be more authentic still, go walk in a forest. Take stock of what the natural world offers you. Perhaps you could take this round-ish stone and polish it to make it evenly circular. Or you could cut a slice of a small tree. Several, in fact, since you’ll probably need multiple wheels. How many? Do they need to be all of the same size? How will you attach them together? Will you allow the wheels to turn left and right, and if so, how will that be controlled?
Reinvent the wheel, because it’s less trivial than it sounds. There are many challenges to consider! For instance, how to steer: you want the wheels to turn at different angle, instead of being both on a fixed axle.
If you reinvent the wheel from scratch, you probably won’t (and shouldn’t) think about such things from the beginning. You’ll solve problems that have had solutions for centuries or millennia. Is that bad? Shouldn’t you begin by reading a book about wheels, maybe? Get a degree in wheel engineering? Make sure you’re all caught up with the current state of wheel knowledge before you begin to presume you can productively reinvent it?
Well, it depends. Are you more likely to reinvent the wheel if you read that book or get that degree? Or is it more likely to drain out all the excitement and thrill of thinking about wheel design right now?
You should reinvent the wheel because it’s fun. Doing things directly, instead of reading or listening about them, is more satisfying. It gives you something to be proud of. It can be frustrating, the same way that working on a tough puzzle can be, but the elation you feel once you have solved your problem will make it worth it — far more than reading a textbook ever could.
You should reinvent the wheel because it’s a good way to learn, too. This is not a separate point from the “fun” one: the best way to learn anything is to have fun with it! Plus, practical experience will teach you a myriad small details than a book or instructor might miss (or that you might miss because the boredom made you distracted as you were trying to learn).
These are reasons for you, an individual, to reinvent the wheel. Should we, a society, want you to reinvent the wheel? Wouldn’t there be a more productive use of your time?
I say that we should. We should all encourage each other to reinvent wheels, because that is the best way to come up with totally new knowledge.
Inevitably, as you reinvent the wheel, you will want to apply it to new problems. It took forever for humanity to add wheels to suitcases, even though that’s a very simple concept and there was no technological barrier preventing it. What else is like this? I don’t know, and neither does anyone, but the person who’s closest to discovering it is the person who’s been busy reinventing wheels for fun and learning.
Besides, you should reinvent the wheel without going through the books and the degrees first, because that’s a good way to avoid the bias in the books and degrees. Perhaps there exists a better solution to wheel design, but no one will ever find it if they study the existing solutions first. Society may be trapped into a local maximum.
So you should reinvent the wheel as a way to increase cultural diversity. There’s always a tension between diversity and uniformity — in theory, if there’s a “best” solution to a problem, like wheel design, then the obvious right move is for everyone to adopt it. Diversity, then, means voluntarily accepting that not everything be optimal. The reason that diversity is valuable anyway is that we can almost never be totally sure that there does not exist a better design out there! We need the diversity as a way to hedge our bets. Don’t put all your money into that single best-performing stock — because you may be wrong that it’s actually the best strategy. Don’t put all your efforts in teaching everyone the same wheel design — because there might be something else out there, and we want to find it.
Of course, reinvent the wheel while being conscious of the associated risks. If you’re totally clueless, and you happen to be reinventing wheels for a scythed chariot, you might hurt yourself or someone you love.
So you should reinvent the wheel while using good judgement. If you suspect that you may be doing something dangerous, pause, think, take precautions. If you find yourself hindered by the lack of background knowledge, you should go and read that textbook on wheels! It is your personal mission as a wheel reinventor to figure out the best path forward. Seek help when you feel that help is needed.
But do trust your own judgment. If you’re publicly open about reinventing the wheel — and for many reasons, you probably should be — then tons of people will criticize you for it. They’ll suggest you first read a book. They’ll say you should listen to existing wheel experts. They’ll say that what you’re doing is “embarrassing.”
Usually, such people haven’t reinvented anything. It’s fine to just ignore them.
It doesn’t mean that everything the critics say is wrong, of course. In your wheel reinvention, you may very well be — in fact, you almost certainly are — somewhat naïve about certain aspects. It’s possible that your new wheel design was actually invented in the 1980s and rejected as a pretty bad solution. If you were expecting to make money from selling your wheel design, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. And then you’ll feel sorry about yourself, and wonder if maybe you should have listened to the critics.
The obvious workaround is to not expect to make money or reach any big life goals from your playful reinvention of the wheel. You’re doing this for fun and learning, remember? But sometimes making money is nice. It can be worth taking a project seriously. In that case, of course, new considerations arise, and criticism may contain a lot of useful information that would be useful to you. You’ll have to strike the right balance: listen to the critics enough that you cover your weaknesses, but not enough that you stop reinventing the wheel out of fear of “embarrassment.”
Yet even then, I want to say: start by reinventing the wheel unseriously — that is actually the best way to get to serious innovation. “The Beatles were a cover band, Sony was a radio repair, all learning begins with imitation and reverse-engineering.” Play around, find out, and start taking it the criticism only once you’re pretty confident that you’ve found a valuable idea.
Reinvent the wheel. Rediscover an ancient philosophical insight. Rewrite a common fairy tale. Remix an old piece of art. Revive retro visions of the future. These are actually your only options: you can’t come up with new ideas and inventions ex nihilo. If you don’t reinvent the wheel, then you won’t invent anything, and one day you’re going to wake up and wonder why you’ve never achieved any of the grand ambitions you once dreamed of.
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