More thoughts on the primacy of doing: Shinya Kimura, Jeep, Corvette, and the cultural zeitgeist of life in 2010

My last post on Shinya Kimura created some great discussions, both in email, on forums across the internets, and around my workplace.  That video certainly struck a deep chord with me, as it has with many other folks.  Kimura combines an extremely strong point of view with a strong bias for doing, and the combination is entrancing.  As I watched it again over the weekend, it made me think of two commercials which aired earlier this year, one for Jeep, the other for Corvette.

Here's the Jeep spot, which, if you listen carefully, sounds more like the manifesto for a social movement than it does an ad trying to hawk sheetmetal (and that's a Good Thing):

And then there's these amazing 45 seconds of brand building from Chevrolet:

Warning: rant approaching.

For me, the cultural zeitgeist of life in 2010 America is clearly saying "We need to start thinking with our hands again", and that we need at least to have confidence in our decision making as we seek to create things of intrinsic value — be they forged in metal, hacked in bits, or whipped out of the air via meticulous planning and rigorous execution.  It's not difficult to get to a strong, compelling point of view.  That's what design thinking can do for you.  But in each of these videos I sense our society expressing a strong yearning for something beyond process, the courage to make decisions and to act.  Talking and thinking is easy, shipping is tough. 

I think that courage comes from foundational experiences messing with stuff.  We're still in hard times, undergoing a structural shift away from the economic flows which underpinned the 20th century.  The imagery expressed in the Jeep and Chevy videos is from that receding economic period, which still exists here in places, but which will continue to drain away unless we can grasp the essence of what those images are saying to us.  We need to start thinking with our hands again.  The Corvette piece pines wistfully for Apollo rockets and the like… and implies that we can't make them anymore.  Which is probably true.

However, we are indeed still creating Apollo-like icons for the future — for example, Facebook, Google, and even the Chevy Volt — but we certainly need more people who, like Kimura, can't keep themselves from hacking away at stuff.  Tinkering, hacking, experimenting, they're all ways of experiencing the world which are more apt than not to lead to generative, highly creative outcomes.  I firmly believe that kids and young adults who are allowed to hack, break, tear apart, and generally probe the world around them develop an innate sense of courage when it comes time to make a decision to actually do something.  I see this all the time at Stanford: people build their creative confidence by doing things which are difficult, rather than by mastering theoretical concepts, which, though complex and difficult in and of themselves, are not transformative in a personal sense.  In my training as an engineer, I took years of complex math, and it was incredibly useful to me as I applied it to thermodynamic and fluid mechanics issues I encountered as a design engineer, but nothing gave me the courage to act as the experience I had creating a casting pattern on a lathe and milling machine and then pouring molten aluminum in the negative space left by the handiwork of my mind.  It was my I can do this moment.  If we want more people to fall in love with the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life, we need to help them have that moment, wherever and however it may come.

Brian W. Jones left a wonderful comment under my Kimura post, one which I think sums it all up really well:

“The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.”  – Jacob Bronowski

How will you grasp the world?  What can your hands tell you?  We need to start thinking with our hands again.

What can you ship today?