Journal entry 052412: Prototype

Where do you get your best ideas?

I recently pulled a book that I’d previously read from my library shelf, something I do on a regular basis to refresh my memory of the highlighted parts. This time I grabbed Speechless, by Stephen Curtis Chapman and Scotty Smith. On page 20 is says, “For me, music is more than a vocation or ministry. It’s a means by which I come to a deeper understanding of the heart of God and the astonishing reality of his grace.”

There was a time I couldn’t imagine song writing as a discovery tool. I thought it was a giving-away tool; not a “means of understanding,” but a “revelation of understanding;” not how you learned truth but how you told truth. I say that because that’s also how I viewed writers and writing. I didn’t suspect that writers wrote to learn more; I thought they wrote to give away what they’d already learned.

I was exactly wrong about that. The more I write, the more I realize I seldom know what I’m writing about until after my pen starts moving. Many times the meaning of something I wrote doesn’t show up until I began editing. As I move words around and tweak grammar, the real idea slowly shows up.

Because of writing, I’ve begun to understand how so many other parts of life behave the same way. The best ideas come after beginning. My engineering roots want me to think through a process from beginning to end, work out objectives and goals, understand resources and purpose, all before beginning. However, I seldom know the most important questions to ask at the beginning, I only get those after I start.

It’s hard for me to believe, but I am now much more comfortable learning and designing on the fly, leaving wiggle room for change along the process, knowing that my own idea at the beginning won’t be as good as a consensus idea at the end. I think now that too much planning in the beginning can be restrictive and limiting.

What does this mean? For writing it means I don’t expect to understand something I write until after I finish it. I look forward to learning what it will be about and don’t’ try to force a direction or a path.

Even in my current assignment in petroleum engineering I’ve learned not to apply too much structure in the beginning of a new assignment. Instead, I’ll start gathering data, draw some graphs, try manipulating numbers, and wait to see if something leaps off my computer screen. I am much more likely to have an original insight if I don’t direct the process so much from the beginning.

I understand why planning and process is important, and when I load my backpack for a backcountry trip I think long and hard about every item I load. I am pretty rigid about things that are important for survival.

And I also realize that when running a large organization, or even a church, there has to be structure and discipline or it will be an ineffective mess. But to depend totally on structure, well where is the rhythm and blues in that?

And another thing: God speaks most directly to me on-the-fly. I have few examples of God’s guidance in the beginning of a project, but countless examples of God speaking once the process has begun.

I track my change in thinking back to another library-shelf book, The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley, a book I read in 2001, then again in 2011. The biggest idea I learned from this book was to use prototypes. Before then I had the habit of spending too much time working and reworking a system (process, spreadsheet, marathon training schedule, garage clean-out, calendar, and on and on) before I’d actually begin anything. I wanted my plans to be comprehensive yet flexible, complete yet sustainable. Even more, I didn’t want to have to stop and rethink or design once I had started. And as you’ve already guessed, I often exhausted my initiative on the design and never actually started the project.

That word, prototype, changed my life. Nowadays I consider everything I do to be a prototype and I start looking for changes and improvements immediately. And I expect God to speak loudest after the prototype phase begins.

I suppose it’s accurate to say that spiritual maturity is only a prototype. As in, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NLT)

We are always growing. We are never the finished product. Consider yourself a spiritual prototype and throw yourself into ministry. The only time to learn where you need improving is after you’ve started.


QUESTION: What is one big idea you learned after you got started?

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

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