Why Embracing a Tinkerer's Mindset Is the Key to Success and Longevity

Why Embracing a Tinkerer's Mindset Is the Key to Success and Longevity

Published in The Attention Architect, a newsletter on LinkedIn, June 7, 20 22

Whenever Lester called his girlfriend from the road, she could instantly tell if he was in an office, someone's house, a bar, or a phone booth. Even when he tried to disguise his whereabouts, she could somehow picture his environment. 

"But how did she figure it out so quickly?" he wondered. 

She picked up on the tiny fragments of audible clues coming through the phone's low-fidelity receiver. 

As humans, we have a remarkable ability to piece together the puzzle of where someone is calling from merely by listening to the contextual features of the background sound. Within seconds, most of us can tell if the person on the other end of the line is calling from their car, on a plane waiting to take off, walking down a crowded street, or trying to sneak in a bathroom break while on a painfully long call. We rarely get away with our attempts to camouflage our setting because the human brain is a sleuth-hound at sniffing out context and constructing a mental model of where a person is based solely on sound.

Lester was obsessed with the structure and quality of sound, and he couldn't leave it alone. While most people in the 1940s were pleased with the state of technology and advancements in sound, he dared to question the limits of music technology and kept trying to manipulate sound electronically. 

This preoccupation with sound technology might explain why Lester William Polsfuss—or Les Paul as he was publicly known—became a legendary musician, inventor, and arguably one of the most influential figures in the history of the modern music industry. While many people recognize the iconic guitar that bears his name, the famous Gibson Les Paul, that's just one of many inventions he developed that changed the course of 20th-century popular music.

Les' entire life was about the sound of music. By the age of eight, he mastered the harmonica and then moved on to perfecting the guitar, banjo, and other instruments. By thirteen, he was performing as a country music singer and jazz guitarist in clubs, and in his 30s, he racked up more than a dozen chart-topping hits, including "How High the Moon," "Bye Bye Blues," and "Vaya Con Dios," all of which were million-sellers. Les and his singing partner/wife, Mary Ford, became a dynamic duo, traveling the world, selling out music halls, and hosting popular radio and television shows. Over time, they amassed a total of 22 gold record songs.

One of Les's particular fascinations was how different music sounded depending on the venue. Sometimes the sound was perfect, which made the show great for everyone involved, and sometimes the sound was not so good, making for a frustrating night for both the audience and band members. Some spaces made a musical note fall short and dead on arrival, which wasn't appealing to the human ear, whereas others allowed a note to hang in the air and linger on for a bit. But instead of always letting the room's shape, dimensions, and material dictate his sound quality, Les envisioned how he could artificially adjust the sound quality and create special effects such as reverb, echo, and delay through electronics.    

Although he had no formal education or training in electronics, engineering, or science, Les broke through many sound barriers to invent much of the musical instrumentation and recording equipment we have at our disposal today. These advances didn't exist before Les Paul came along, but his inventions birthed a revolution in music and cultural expression that acted as catalysts for many generational movements.

For instance, until the 1940s and 50s, there was no such thing as an "electric" guitar. Guitars were wooden, hollow body instruments that were folksy and not loud enough to play over the din of crowds or the piercing instruments in a typical band lineup, such as drums, bass, and keyboards. However, Les kept experimenting with the notion of an "electric" guitar, which others thought would never catch on, but he couldn't let it go. He kept fiddling around with this contraption until he created one of the earlier electric guitar prototypes they called "The Log" because it comprised a heavy 4x4 piece of lumber with mad scientist-looking electronics and wires strapped to it. He offered Gibson guitars his invention, but they turned it down, referring to it as a "broomstick with pickups."

It wasn't until his friend and fierce competitor, Leo Fender, got his solid-body electric guitar into production that Gibson came calling. Together, they created the world-renowned Gibson Les Paul, which changed the face of modern music and became the heroic ax of rock star guitar gods like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Slash of Guns N' Roses, and Pete Townshend of The Who. Without Les Paul's electric guitar invention, there might not be a "pinball wizard" or "a stairway to heaven."

But as game-changing as this electric guitar was, there are many other notable musical innovations Les was responsible for, such as the simple but effective neck-worn harmonica holder he developed as a 10-year-old kid, which allowed him—and Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and others—to play the harmonica hands-free while strumming the guitar. However, his greatest inventions are the more complex recording techniques of overdubbing, reverb, and multi-tracking, which helped make rock and roll and modern recording possible. 

Although Les was an unassuming person, he possessed something that the other industry peers around him didn't: a tinkerer's mindset.

My definition of a tinkerer is someone who can't leave well enough alone but has to fiddle, adjust, and experiment with things to make them continually better. You can find this same restless tinkerer's mindset in other visionary pioneers like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk, who also couldn't seem to leave well enough alone. They just had to fiddle around with filaments in light bulbs, phones with music and cameras, and fuel sources for cars until they hit upon disruptive ideas that changed the world.

Many consider Les Paul the Thomas Edison of sound, but I find his attitude toward work even more inspiring.  


We live in an era where many people think of "work" as a necessary evil, something you have to do but don't want to do. But Les Paul considered "work" a privilege and an internal calling one must serve. Although he had already achieved impressive fame and success, Les maintained an intense work ethic well into his 90s because it gave him purpose. Besides experimenting with new product inventions, he continued playing weekly shows at clubs in NYC—despite having debilitating physical ailments—until just a few months before his death in 2009.

But Les will be the first to admit that his obsession with work, music, and sound came at a price. 

While fiddling around with complex electronic gadgetry in his basement apartment in 1941, he was electrocuted and needed two years of recovery, but that terrifying event didn't stop his pursuit of sound innovation.

In 1948, he and his wife, Mary Ford, were trying to keep up with a grueling tour schedule during a winter snowstorm and got into a near-fatal car crash on an icy Route 66 in Oklahoma. Sidelined again, Les spent two years in casts in the hospital and confronting several career-ending decisions. All the essential parts of his body he needed to play guitar were bent, broken, or inoperable. When the doctors told him he'd never play again and that they might have to amputate his right arm, Les instructed the doctors to fuse his elbow at a 90-degree angle with his thumb pointed, hoping that he might somehow play guitar again.

While most people would've called it quits, Les applied the same single-minded tinkering mindset he used to invent musical instruments and innovate recording techniques to redesign his body. Despite his stiff arm, arthritic hand, and limited use of only two fingers, Les recalled during a 1992 Fresh Air interview on NPR, "You learn to live with obstacles because you can overcome them." 

When describing why he kept working so hard to develop new inventions, Les said, "You see a guy doing something the hard way, and you say, 'How come you do it that way?'" And when outlining his life's philosophy, he said, "Curiosity is the key to the whole thing. You just ask the question, 'Why?' and you've got your whole life's work cut out for you."


We've all had people tell us our dreams are silly and not grounded in reality. But don't listen to them because there will always be authority figures in our lives that don't believe in us. Les Paul's childhood piano teacher wrote a letter to his mother, saying, "Your boy, Lester, will never learn music." Nobody remembers the music teacher's name, but Les Paul has a permanent exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because his peers believed he singlehandedly broke the sound barrier and created the sound of music we know today. 

Most of us have also had people that tell us we work too much. I've gotten that remark all my life as an architect. But despite what these dream snatchers assume, I don't work for fame or money, which is apparent by looking at my bank account.

I work hard because it's my passion.

I can't let go of my curiosity about how the built world affects people's behavior, perceptions, and willingness to interact with others. And like Les, I can't stop tinkering with the shape of places to make them more emotionally rewarding and socially facilitative.

Many well-meaning people around us have conventional designs and expectations for our lives, but I recommend you listen to your soul's calling. But don't presume your soul will tell you what to do with your life. Instead, listen closely to the questions your soul asks of you and wants you to answer and then pursue them with a passion. Don't let others try to silence that passion in you because to work on something you're curious about and endlessly fascinated with every day is one of the greatest privileges of life. 


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