Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try hits you like a firehose of knowledge. Dr. Srini Pillay looks into the depths of the brain and asks the central question – what are our brains doing when they are not focused? Why is unfocused time important? The zeitgeist, at least in Western culture, is that focus is king. If you haven’t started down the path of focused world domination by the time you’ve finished that first cup of coffee, you’re doing it wrong. And if you are not still focused on that goal of complete self-improvement by the time you’ve finished you’re second power scotch of the evening then you are an utter failure. How we acquired this attitude is the subject of countless other books. This book talks about why focusing all the time is a bad idea.
Fair warning: this book is not light reading. Dr. Pillay does his best to sprinkle antidotes and lightness throughout the book, even adding little sidebars that have the smell of a ‘for dummies’ book. For Dummies it is not as any green Jedi master might tell you. When reading the book it feels as if the author has too much to say and was told by a publisher somewhere that he had to fit all of these cool ideas into a book that’s under 200 pages long. This makes the transitions from chapter to chapter a little stilted. The flow from idea to idea disjointed. Please don’t let this discourage you from the read though because Dr. Pillay has a lot to teach. I took more notes in this book than I have in a long time.
Pillay opens the book by taking on the ‘cult of focus’. One of the examples he brings up is the famous gorilla suit experiment. This is the one where participants are asked to focus on a team passing a basketball back and forth and is asked to count the number of passes. Almost all participants miss the dude in the gorilla suit that walks right through the basketball game because they are so focused on counting passes. Dr. Pillay posits the right questions here: “If focus makes you miss seeing a gorilla, what else are you missing in life?”
Another interesting fact shared is that when we are hyper-focused we lose the ability to care. “Hyperfocus depletes the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), which helps us make moral decisions.” I can’t imagine a scenario where that is a good thing. Pillay goes on to talk about the importance both focus and unfocus have on the brain with a great analogy. “Focus and unfocus are two different settings. Focus is the close and narrow beam that illuminates the path directly ahead. Unfocus is the beam that reaches far and wide, enabling peripheral vision.” Both are important to living a valuable life, so why don’t we give ourselves the chance to let go more often?
One of the things I liked about the book is that Pillay had zero hesitation about diving into the science. The part of the brain that manages unfocus is called DMN or the default mode network. At first we did not understand much about this circuit and before the value of unfocus was discovered it used to be referred to as the ‘do mostly nothing’ circuit. After quite a bit more study, we discovered that this DMN circuit is actually one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain. Pillay shares a laundry list of things that it is used for:
- It acts as a distraction filter
- It builds mental flexibility
- It connects you more deeply with yourself and others
- It integrates the past, present and future
- It helps you express your creativity
- It helps you dredge up intangible memories
These are all traits we would be lost without. Pillay’s advice is take the focus with the unfocus. His personal experiments have led him to “strive for fifteen minutes of unfocus for every forty-five minutes of focus.”
He next dives into creativity and our first of the title topics, dabbling. He starts by talking about two of the great polymaths in recent history, Einstein and Picasso. Both men were great dabblers. “Einstein was strongly influenced by aesthetic theory and was fascinated by Freud’s work. Picasso was strongly influenced by photography and X-ray technology. Neither man felt he had to become expert in these side interests. Both indulged their curiosity, mulled over their responses, and discussed the resulting ideas with their respective think tanks. The results changed the world. Deciding to dabble can be a profound choice. It means being willing to try something out and be a student again.” Who doesn’t want to go back to beginner’s mind? Anytime you try a new sport or hobby, you typically gain huge strides early in the process. More importantly, trying something new opens the brain to new experience and lets a tsunami of new thoughts in. This is where breakthroughs are made. If you’re not trying new stuff, you’re not learning, you’re not expanding. Being static in this day and age is a recipe for disaster.
He dives more deeply into learning, specifically dynamic learning. Dynamic learning is “to own up to, talk about, learn from, and correct errors rather than following a hypothetical ‘right’ way.” If anyone thinks that there is only one right way to learn these days, they are eons behind the times. We have even started acknowledging failure as a big part of that learning – “As long as you ‘fail forward’, ‘fail fast’, and recognize that ‘done is better than perfect.’ When you do, you ostensibly avoid intellectual stagnation and overcome fear of failure. Put more simply. Talk is cheap, so keep on doing what you’re doing until you get it right.” This is more of his tinkering mindset shining through.
He dives into doodling through the side door of multitasking. Multitasking is not something I believe is ever effective but he makes an interesting argument about doodling. “One way to activate your unconscious brain and release yourself from the clutches of focus is to doodle. As we have previously seen, it activates the DMN and gets your focused, conscious brain out of the way.” He segues this nicely into play by talking about how play actually helps your brain become less distracted. Play is where we figure stuff out without the risks of commitment. Play is basically just another form of doodling.
He also draws some interesting parallels between authenticity and possibility. This naturally contrasts intrinsic rewards with external rewards. When we are naturally curious and solve things using that curiosity, the rewards we gain are often deeper than an external pat on the back. Yet we cannot find what will bring these intrinsic rewards without tinkering and finding what is meaningful to us. That’s where authenticity comes in. You’ve got to tinker your way down enough paths to find those that are authentic to you. This is also a great way to find purpose. He quotes Lao Tzu – “Lao Tzu once said, ‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.’ Possibility is about being and letting go; tinkering is the process of becoming.” Powerful stuff.