Thinkers and Tinkerers

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of people in this world: thinkers and tinkerers. I bet you love this overly simplified categorization of humanity. So to appease all you haters, let’s break it down into four instead of two: Pure thinkers, pure tinkerers, combination of both and those who have neither of these attributes. Obviously the last category of people are only contributing to global warming (meaning only breathing), so less said about them the better. A lot of you might think of yourself as too complicated of a person to fit into my neat little categories. My response to that is: don’t be vain, stop whingeing and read on. Categorization of any kind is by nature simplistic and I am using that only as a tool to provide a general framework for discussion, it is not a conclusion by any means (if you thought that sounded clever, I am in absolute agreement with you). OK so let’s start from extremes first and we will end up in the middle. Tinkerers at their very core basically like working with their hands and are fascinated with the “how” question. Edison is one of history’s well-known tinkerers. John Dyson, the British inventor of fancy vacuum cleaners, would be a modern example in the same spirit. On the other hand, thinkers indulge themselves in thought experiments and like to come up with theories, asking the “why” question; great philosophers from ancient Greece and theoretical physicists from the early part of 20th century (Einstein is the most renowned example) are two specific types of the thinker variety. I am certainly not implying that tinkering is thoughtless and thinking is passive. Any successful tinkerer has to put a lot of thought to see his/her vision take physical shape. Theoretical thinking on its own may appear passive but it can drive stupendous material/physical advances in society. The actual process of thinking can also benefit from tinkering. I personally get my best ideas while I am busy doing something in the yard or around the house. While my hands are busy my thought gets sharpened and some concepts/ideas that I maybe normally resistant to can gradually enter my brain through a sort of side door. Edison apparently tried hundreds of different materials before he came up with the material that could work as the filament for his lamp. He could have shortened his labors by theorizing a bit more. As we can see, there’s an obvious overlap between the two categories, the benefits of using one facet to help the other are also apparent. What is the difference then that’s leading me to create two separate categories? I don’t think it has anything to do with other personality traits or preferences. For example, it is not obvious whether a tinkerer would be an extrovert or an introvert, a person who likes the outdoors may be a tinkerer or a thinker. I believe the real explanation is rooted in the relative sense of joy derived from the above mentioned activities. A tinkerer will derive more happiness and satisfaction from the actual implementation of his/her little schemes whereas a thinker would be happiest during the actual scheming phase and would probably get bored with the “real” stuff. Most people will derive enjoyment from tinkering and thinking under different circumstances. You may like doing your thinking with somebody else but perhaps you would be tinkering when alone or vice versa (this is not a double entendre). As I mentioned earlier I am more of a thinker than a tinkerer. I am usually thinking about something (That may explain the look of boredom on my face when around other people).

So who do you think you are — thinker or tinkerer?

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3 comments on “Thinkers and Tinkerers

  1. Interesting! Thanks for another enjoyable post! (this is the 3rd I am reading in the past hour, the first one was beautiful, as commented by many, and the other two just as thought-provoking)

    I’d like to add another perspective, or better to say, elaborate on how this post expanded on my own perspective!

    Triggered by my professional environment, I came to see minds in two equally simple categories: Hunters and Gatherers.
    In the extremes, a Hunter invents and a Gatherer reads [papers].
    Inventing takes the traits of a hunter, racing with your own ideas, agility and pursuit.
    Opposed to that, reading papers is gathering knowledge others have hunted in the past.

    Unfortunately you need both. Someone who hunts a chicken in front of the meat section at Safeway’s is a fool. I have tendencies to be that fool, just because I rather find something myself, than read someone’s findings.

    So to me the distinction in this blog post between “why?” and “how?” seemed counter-intuitive, both are interesting to me, and both require thinking and not necessarily tinkering.

    But tinkering can be seen as gathering experimental data :-p and so it all comes together again:
    Thinkers are Hunters and Tinkerers are Gatherers.

    And indeed, the person I thought to be a prime example of a Gatherer (not me!), I come to realize after reading this post, is quite the tinkerer! He doesn’t just read, but he keeps trying things out as well!

    • Here are 2 more perspectives: First is action and contemplation. From a “wordly” success point of view, you need to be able to do both as the situation demands. Very fine line between failure and success sometimes due to the use of action in a situation that demands more careful thought (i.e hot headedness) or contemplation when situation demands action (i.e dithering). Sometimes you just gotta “do it” and other times you need to take a chill pill.
      The second perspective has nothing to do with success, it is all about the sheer joy of doing something you like. A person would usually do more of a thing that makes him/her happy though they might not be aware of it. Only real purpose to pondering the hunter/gatherer, thinker/tinkerer or action/contemplation themes is to become more aware of one’s own inclinations. I personally place a very high value on awareness of the self.

  2. it took me a long time to respond to this post, mostly because I was annoyed that I’m not the great thinker I thought I was…well, I am both a thinker and great 🙂 , but after much reflection I am definitely a tinkerer and proud of it!

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