Fear of Improvisation (and Clunkers)

Late Saturday afternoon, I headed out from my apartment to pick up my wife from the airport, about 30 miles away. It was pouring and cold. Traffic was heavy and slow as I caught 395 North into the district. Just as I was about to enter the tunnel that leads into Washington, DC, I heard it: a loud, ugly CLUNK! followed by the jarring tinny racket that tells you that your car is dragging something metallic along. A minute later, I heard the harsh throb of an unmuffled engine. I took the first exit I could, which unfortunately, dumped me right into the heart of Washington, DC. I found a parking spot and stepped out. As I’d suspected, it was my exhaust. A bracket had broken and the exhaust assembly was being dragged along. Here’s a picture of the fix I improvised with my belt, before driving back home. I expect it will hold up fine for the additional mile or so to my repair shop on Monday.


The fix, as you can see, is not a particularly clever one. What struck me though, as I thought of it, was how just how long I spent on dumb, unproductive by-the-book “call AAA” thoughts before giving myself permission to figure out this obvious fix. It strikes me that quite often, what holds us back from improvising creative options is not lack of creativity or ingenuity, but a vague fear of improvisation itself. So I poked around the idea a little bit and realized that the fear of improvisation is really the fear of death. Here’s why.

Growing Pains and Dying Pains

We improvise under two circumstances: growth and decay. Growth-improvisation is the sort of wing-and-prayer derring-do start-ups love, which goes by various names such as “Ready Fire Aim,”  “get it roughly right,” “agile” and “perennial beta.”  We put up temporary scaffolding, hack ugly solutions and deliberately procrastinate on doing things “right” (there is even a famous justification called the procrastination principle, credited with much of the genius of the Internet age).

This kind of improvisation is great fun. It is still hard for a lot of people, but at least for those who think this way, it is very natural. Call it enlightened myopia. In such situations you improvise as part of learning. Half-done is halfway to fully done, and it serves at once as a sign of future potential and current momentum. It breeds optimism, sustains acceleration and avoids analysis-paralysis. You could call this “ugly is beautiful” in the sense that a baby’s stumbling walk is beautiful, while that of an adult drunk is not.

But there is the other sort of improvisation. The sort that occurs when products, processes, services and even entire cultures are in decline and decay. When exceptions are starting to overwhelm the routine cases. The kind of jury-rigged improvisation that signals that half-working is halfway to completely useless. The sort of improvisation that squeezes more usable life out of something. The sort that accepts certain compromises and reduced functionality. The sort of improvisation where the ugliness is not the charming ugliness of babyhood, but the grimmer ugliness of aging, a preview of the absolute ugliness — to some — of death. My car, for instance, is pushing 105,000 miles and is 9 years old.

This is when we preferentially turn to official “by the book” solutions because official procedures maintain the fiction that things can last forever. That they can always be maintained in pristine, mint condition. We avoid considering improvised solutions because they would be an admission of the possibility of death.

But there is a perspective that lends beauty to aging and decay, and allows us to enjoy the sort of improvisation we normally fear. Nursing an old clunker along for another 1000 miles is a beautiful thing if you see its broken odometer, constantly on engine light and coughing starts as signs of personality and history. A product fresh off the assembly line has no personality. One nearing the end of its life has bucketloads. Outside of pre-faded jeans, marketers do not make much use of the fact that every product or service is the start of a story that ends in a fully-realized personality. Instead we are sold maintenance plans designed to keep things in mint condition far longer than is economically rational, and help sustain our delusions of product immortality. More often than we like to admit, it is smarter and more beautiful to let something gradually limp to the grave than to keep restoring an increasingly strained facade of youthfulness.

Once you get into this mindset, every instance of use is a story in its own right.  There are no routine car trips in an old 200,000 mile clunker. Every trip is an adventure. Even a trip with no breakdowns is remarkable — it is a miracle. I grew up with a car like this. My dad nursed his 1958 Fiat (of which he was the third owner) from 1970 to 1991.

Eventually, when you do put the old and tired to rest, it is with a sense of a life fully lived. Sometimes it makes me sad that I now live in America which has no appreciation for the romance of aging. Instead we have a pathological fear of aging that attempts to fix the smallest and most harmless of dents. Americans battle signs of death and decay with a ferocious intensity. The battle is most intense when it comes to the most important products we own — ourselves. Wrinkles as personality lose to wrinkles as imperfection, and we attack them with Botox. There are often good reasons not to improvise to extend the life of an aging thing, but more often than not, we rationalize and overstate whatever case we are making because we haven’t learned to see the apparent ugliness differently.  Sure, clunkers pollute more, but yeah, prematurely sending stuff to landfills is also a concern. Whether you analyze such tradeoffs honestly depends on whether you are able to see beauty in decay.

Every time you improvise, you and the object of your hacking acquire personality. Every time you play it by the book, you resist  natural aging processes. Most of the stories about my car are unremarkable, but I will always remember the day I drove it home with the exhaust held up by my belt. For both the things I own and my own body, I like to remind myself of this idea with the following epigram (appropriately enough, a hack of a more familiar one): you are the sum total of all your hacks.

p.s. It’s been a busy couple of weeks at work, and though I would have liked to blog a lot more (and deeper pieces) to welcome all you new readers who just found this blog, unfortunately, I couldn’t. I hope to pick up the pace again shortly.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Venkatash, this is Rasul. We met at Jeremy’s “art exhibit” outing. This is a great piece my friend – from so many different angles. Trying to point out all the gems, and why I like them would be too much for a blog comment. One of my favorite lines though, “Wrinkles as personality lose to wrinkles as imperfection.” Awesome. Very few people, blogs, articles, do I come across, that talk about improvisation and its value in the business realm. So I think you would appreciate Mike Bonifer. He’s a close friend and colleague of mine and he is one of the few people that I know who is engaging the corporate world in the idea of improvisation. We interviewed him for my blog last year http://www.cnvrgnc.com/journal-old/2008/2/2/so-you-got-game-but-can-you-improvise.html and we are developing a few projects as well. If you get a chance check out his blog I think you’ll like it. Looking forward to more of your writing. Rasul

  2. I’m traveling on the east coast right now and this post resonates with a lot of what I experience every time I come here.

    Traveling to Italy makes me feel almost claustrophobic because it seems like the entire country is trapped by it’s history. Everything there is older than anything from Seattle and their entire legacy seems to be to preserve their history.

    The east coast is interesting because I feel the same thing, but from a social perspective. All of the institutions are established, everyone knows how the game is played and it’s just a matter of execution. You go to this school and then that college and then you experience your requisite number of life changing experiences before slotting into your career.

    My plane’s about to board so I’ll figure out if I have anything more interesting to say about this later…

    • Interesting thought. Reminds me of the Meryl Streep “death becomes her” movie.

      Part of it is that societies that have the money to preserve stuff in pristine condition cannot resist the temptation to do so. In India, there is a minority of those who have a hand-wringing reverence for the old and struggle to keep it up with very limited resources. On the other hand, there are those who cheerfully hack ancient stuff with Microsoftian service packs until it becomes a hacked-together monster. In services, modern Indian land measurement schemes for taxation are basically 300 year old British systems retrofitted on 500 year old Mughal systems retrofitted on 2500 year old Hindu systems. A delightful mess that is only now being slowly dismantled and rebuilt ground-up. Until very recently, there was no sense of “heritage” monuments — high quality bricks and stones from ancient buildings would be cheerfully ripped out and reused in newer construction. The ancient city of Varanasi is a clunker among clunkers. There is very little attempt at preservation for the sake of preservation.

      I find that sort of cannibalization very satisfying in some sense. It is at once improvisation, renewal and creative destruction.

  3. Venkat,
    I think that this one is a bit of a stretch. To me, fear of improvisation is simply fear of wasting time. If I have an electrical problem in my house, I can usually open things up, poke and prod, check the connections, and more often than not, figure out the problem myself and fix it. But it takes me longer to do it, that it would to call an electrician. And, of course, there is the significant probability that after I waste my own time, I’ll still end up having to call an electrician. So the decision of whether to improvise or not really boils down to a judgment of whether it will be the best use of my time, and whether I’ll enjoy the process.

    Notwithstanding the tenuous (in my mind) connection between improvisation and aging, I think the whole tension between trying to keep something in its pristine condition vs. letting it age gracefully is a very interesting one in its own right.

    • So the decision of whether to improvise or not really boils down to a judgment of whether it will be the best use of my time, and whether I’ll enjoy the process.

      You are probably right that quite often it is simply a time optimization decision. But when it is not, I find it interesting that few people enjoy troubleshooting at all.

      In the rational part, there is a second angle: whether you trust the so-called ‘expert’ or not. My wife’s laptop broke down a couple of years ago and the “official” by the book process was to take it back to Best Buy where we bought it. After some clueless probing, they sent it to some central repair place in Minneapolis from where it returned with the recommendation to replace the mother board for $900. That seemed suspicious to me, since the main symptom was an unreliable “start” button and I suspected a simple power supply connection problem.

      So I had a h/w hacker friend look at it, and I was right. A connection was loose and with a penny’s worth of solder, he was able to fix the issue.

      This is of course a moral hazard for the by-the-book repair people: the ones who diagnose are the ones who fix, and it is in their interest to sell you more than you need, and they often sell you the maximum they can (a return to ‘pristine’ which is what a motherboard replacement is).

      But the reason repair people in general are able to operate in such ways possibly has to do with our general reluctance to improvise…

  4. When, after my late-in-life driving lessons, I acquired my first car (an oh-so-cute Daewoo Matiz, a model now improvised into an ugly Chevrolet Spark) and managed to dent it, most of my Indian friends promptly responded with an optimistic, “It’s a good thing! Don’t get this dent fixed. It wards off evil eyes!”

    About 4 years later, when I was ready to sell my car (with its more-than-a-few wrinkles-as-personality), some well-meaning acquaintances actually advised me, “Don’t spend too much and try to spruce up your car’s appearance, it makes buyers suspicious. Leave a few credible signs of age!”

    Point to ponder: celebrating aging too hard may not be due to lack of fear of death, but actually a way to cope with that same fear.

    Today I find many who, having graduated beyond an unthinking adherence to play-by-the-book, always trying to improvise–equally unthinkingly–often reinventing the (or, a lesser) wheel. In effect, this is replacing *the* book with a new book rather than a true spirit of improvisation. I am trying to observe and catch myself from doing this. But this is a mandatory, messy, intermediate stage in the innovation process. While in it, we do not know if it will lead to a better eventual result. Except our own experience, all discussion regarding this suffers from survivorship bias.

    You say, “This kind of improvisation is great fun.” Is fun possible without it? Can by-the-book ever be fun? Sure, it may be prudent, necessary, or even “good”, but fun?

    Humor (the funniest kind of fun) depends and thrives on improvisation and going against the norm.

  5. To improvise you need a certain confidence and experience, a familiarity with the issue. The art of the hack, perhaps, in contrast to a botched job. We applaud the spirit of the guy who improvises, but not if he’s clueless idiot and makes the situation far worse!

    The visible effect of time on objects reminded me of wabi-sabi a little, where the impermanent and time-worn is celebrated. Which fits in with the whole fear of death thing , not trying to maintain the illusion of an everlasting unchanging state (which is a fair description of death ironically!).

    Anyway, a few thoughts from a new subscriber, love it here!

  6. Recent generations of Americans were raised with over-protective parents, and cannot improvise as well. They simply don’t have the practice or confidence.