Magic Happens Beyond the Instructions


One of the saddest things I’ve heard lately is that kids no longer know how to play with Lego. Today’s kids get the sets, build them according to the instructions, and then move on to the next thing. They don’t build their own things. They don’t take the parts and throw them into a big bucket from which to construct their own masterpieces.

Lego has tried to address this by creating their “modular” Creator 3-1 sets. These sets are built according to the instructions, but then modules can be removed and rearranged as a “creativity” exercise. Bear in mind, there’s no rebuilding required. Simply pop out a piece and move it elsewhere. And what you end up with isn’t that far removed from the original model. Still, at least they’re trying to get kids to see the possibilities.

Why is this so sad to me? Because it points to a failure of imagination. People are becoming so conditioned to stay within the lines and be safe that creativity and problem solving is getting lost. I mean, really. If any toy is meant to do your own thing, it’s Lego. Next to a box of crayons and some blank paper, I can’t think of much else that offers such open-ended play opportunity. And yet… Somehow we’ve squashed even that with our rigid rules, over-scheduling, testing that discourages independent thought, and insistence that anything creative is a waste of time. (Yeah, those are all rants for another time.)

Here’s another rant: We’re all on a quest for perfection these days, helped in no small part by social media. Social media encourages us to post only the perfect aspects of our lives. That applies to everything from our outings to our hobbies. Everything must look nice and orderly. There’s no room for your Frankenstein creations, only finished works of art. And this is true whether the art we’re talking about here is paintings, sculpture, or Lego.

Kids and adults don’t feel comfortable posting anything that’s less than perfect. And since it’s obviously impossible to consider, oh, I don’t know, not posting at all, they aren’t willing to deviate beyond the perfect models. Perfection gets the likes. A random thing you built that looks weird doesn’t. Sure, you can eventually get to the point where the things you build on your own are as good as (or better than) the instructions, but it takes time and practice. Some of the best model builders in the world have spent years learning their craft. In the meantime, you make a lot of weird yet beautiful things.

Well, who has time for that? (Cue sarcasm.) Just build the thing according to its instructions and move on. Don’t try to be creative because people will punish you on social media. Heck, live your whole life that way because only perfection is rewarded. Experiments, imperfections, and oddities have no place in the social media, testing-obsessed world in which we live. (Still cuing that sarcasm, folks.)

(Side rant: Hollywood is too stuck to the instructions, as well. That’s why we have so many sequels, reboots, and origin stories. They are afraid of venturing into something new, so they stick with what worked in the past. The old movies provide instruction books for success, so the studios simply keep trying to use those old books. They’d be better served by creating something new, but again… A rant for another day.)

But here’s the thing: The magic happens when you tear up the instructions. And this applies not only to Lego, but to almost every aspect of life. Now, sure, there are times you have to follow directions. I’m not advocating for total anarchy here. But… When it comes to creative pursuits, instructions can only take you so far. They’re good for learning the craft and getting the basics down, but at some point you have to do your own thing.

It’s like when a budding artist begins by copying the masters. That’s great for building skill. It teaches brushwork, color selection, and a host of other skills. But the magic doesn’t happen until she starts making her own art. The first pieces might be a little dodgy, but eventually she’ll find her own way and begin creating wonderful things. Will they sell commercially? Who knows. But I can guarantee that they will matter more to her than any amount of copying she could do.

The same holds true in music, crafting, digital art, and even computer programming. As a writer, I find it especially liberating to ditch the instructions. Yes, I learned the basics of grammar in school. I learned story structure from reading other writer’s work. And I learned still more by reading books on craft and editing. My first stories stuck pretty close to those things I learned. Some of them clung heavily to the things I saw others doing. (Not plagiarism, but mimicking the style of others.) And they were boring, lacked a clear voice (mine), and never sold.

The magic happened when I said, “I know this is a ‘rule,’ but I think it makes more sense to break it.” Now, I didn’t throw all of my knowledge away and start composing stories with no rules at all. I stuck to the ones that mattered, when they mattered. But over time I also learned when it could be useful to break a few rules and do my own thing.

That’s been a far more liberating experience. The more I’ve done my own thing, the more my creativity has blossomed. Sure, some of the things I try don’t work out. Just like every other author, I have a drawer/hard drive folder filled with stuff that didn’t work out. But I learn from them, just as I learned from all of the other instructions over the years. The difference is that I’m now creating my own instruction book as I learn which things don’t work and which do. I’ve thrown out everyone else’s instructions and I’m working from my own. As a result, my creativity is stronger and my stories represent me and my voice, not the hundreds of voices of ghostly teachers.

The trick is to use instructions as just that: Instructors. In the case of Lego, the models in the books teach you various techniques and how the bricks might be used together. It’s up to you, then, to take those techniques and make something uniquely yours. So it is with any creative pursuit. We have to feel free enough to toss the instructions and let the creativity flow. Otherwise, we’re soon going to be living in an awfully boring world. (And we’re already there as far as Hollywood is concerned.)

Beyond boredom, almost everything in life requires creativity. Even fields that seem to lack any creativity at all (finance, mathematics, the law, medicine, etc.) all require some level of creativity in order to problem solve. Nothing in life always works exactly like it should. If kids (and adults) don’t know how to go beyond the instructions and figure crap out on their own, where are we headed? Nowhere good, I’ll tell you that.

We’re headed for a world where people will melt down at the first sign of trouble. Personally, I want the doctor who, in the middle of a surgery going wrong, says, “Okay, we can fix this if we do some things out of order or against the rules. I’ve tried this stuff before and I know it will work.” I don’t want the one who starts asking for the textbook and then freezes when the answer isn’t immediately forthcoming.


(Photo courtesy of 422737)

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