Following directions is an excellent skill to have, and being able to do so is a great thing to put on your resume. But if we follow them with rigidity, whether it's for a DIY project, a recipe, or anything else, we lose the ability to problem solve on our own.
Photo by F Delventhal.
Over the weekend I was helping a friend put together an IKEA table. We glanced at the directions for a moment with all the Allen keys and bolts laid out everywhere, and got to work. As you'd expect with with any IKEA furniture, things progressed slowly as we tried to make sense of what their directions meant, and as we moved on we started to talk about the problems we were noticing. The shelf bottoms seemed weak and weren't held together well. The rails for the drawers were not lined up right.
But we continued to follow the directions. After all, this was a piece of manufactured material, it must be part of a bigger plan that we weren't seeing. When we got about 75 per cent of the way through this table, we realised it wasn't right. The directions were fine, but the table itself wasn't going to meet the needs of my friend.
So, we pulled out the power tools, made some quick modifications, and put it together how we wanted to. We didn't do anything drastic, the table still looked like the table on the box, but it had a couple customisations that made it suit my friend's needs.
That moment that we came to at the 75 per cent complete mark was a reminder though. Directions are suggestions. They're not exactly concrete, and they're made to appeal to a broad group of people.
When a well written (or illustrated) set of directions is laid out for you it's hard to push your brain to break free of them. Of course, when you're first learning something, directions are necessary, but at a point you're just following them because you can, not because you should. Directions always lead to the same conclusion. You know what you're going to get, but that endpoint isn't always made specifically for your needs.
Of course, when you don't follow the directions, you're setting yourself up for failure. Directions exist because they're a proven means to get things done, and in a lot of cases that's really helpful. But they're often not the only way, nor are they always the best way. Failure is one of the best ways to learn, so even if you're new to a skill, failure and experimentation is necessary.
Obviously this approach isn't necessary all the time. Sometimes directions are just fine, and following them is the quickest way to complete something. But sometimes they're not, or at least, sometimes they're leading you to something mediocre. In the case of the IKEA table, we should have recognised that what we were doing was inefficient earlier and stopped then to reconsider, but we just accepted the directions as fact and kept going. It's an easy loop to get caught up it.
One reason for the problem is that directions are linear, and often times I open the directions to step one, and then start working. I don't look at the whole process, I just start with what they tell me and blindly go until I'm finished. Had we looked at those table directions earlier, we would have realised the flimsy piece of "wood" was the bottom of a drawer, and we would have modified it earlier.
While an IKEA table might seem like an odd thing to break the mould from, it's something we can do with almost anything. Whether it's cooking, building a PC, coding, or even following GPS routes, the directions are always just a suggested way to do something, not the only way.