I made myself chuckle this morning. I was cooking an omelette; this was not the funny part but I understand stories are more impactful if you give them context. Because cooking an omelette isn’t the most mentally taxing of activities my mind was partially occupied by cataloging all the things that annoy me (we all do this, right?), and an old favourite pinged into view; the phrase: “let’s not reinvent the wheel.”
Man, I hate this phrase.
I hate it for a bunch of reasons, not least because it’s so damn widely regarded as good, solid wisdom. The wheel is great! Why reinvent something so perfect? Of course the fact is we have reinvented the wheel many, many times! The wheel started out as a crude, circular piece of wood or stone. If every time people had considered adding things like spokes, tires, caterpillar tracks, or any of the other myriad enhancements that have revolutionised (yes, pun intended) the wheel someone had stood up smugly and said “let’s not reinvent the wheel.”we’d all still be driving around on horrible, uneven wooden slabs.
And this isn’t even the half of it. The wheel is a mechanism for enabling something to move from one place to another. But since the wheel we’ve come up with tons of new ways to do that which are valuable in a million different circumstances. Using a ball, for instance, instead of a wheel. Using air pressure to create a hovercraft. Using tiny legs or stretchy surfaces which mimic the caterpillar or some kind of worm, suction cups and grippy feet based on discoveries from biology. Reinventing the wheel has created more value than I can easily conceptualise.
But the main reason I hate this phrase is for what it actually means when people say it. Ostensibly this phrase means “this thing we have works well, let’s not change it for the sake of change.”which is reasonable, but what people actually mean when they use this phrase is “fixing this problem will be really hard, let’s just paper over the cracks for now.”
“Let’s not reinvent the wheel” isn’t a saying, it’s a weapon for killing discussions. It’s deployed to prevent people asking too many questions or diving too deeply into the issue at hand. It’s perfect for this job because it simultaneously sounds like solid, reasonable insight whilst not actually saying anything.
No, I haven’t forgotten about what made me chuckle. I’m getting to it. I’m using suspense to heighten the emotions of this blog. Do you feel all suspended and emotional? Maybe best to get better fitting pants, eh?
(This is completely off-topic but what I just did there was employ something called “bathos”- I changed the tone from high minded and fancy to lowbrow and crude for comic effect. If you learn nothing else from this blog maybe knowing what bathos is will come in handy at some point)
Reinvention isn’t a waste of effort. Even if the thing you’re reinventing seems, on the surface, to be really good. I’d hazard that most real breakthroughs come when people are willing to toss out good stuff to make way for great stuff. Those solutions which once changed the world, which were once revolutionary and revelatory are now the default options, the standard, arbitrary choices and, as we know, people are lazy and often follow the path of least resistance. Over time something which broke with convention becomes the new convention.
In order to innovate you must feel a constant antagonism towards these defaults and conventions. This is the only way that you will muster the energy to avoid the path of least resistance. When you hear people complaining about reinventing the wheel you should be grinding your teeth with annoyance because you know that innovation depends on a constant willingness to reinvent everything.
And now for the thing that made me chuckle. It’s a cartoon that I drew in my mind. I can’t actually draw well enough to do it justice so, for now, I’ll have to describe it.
Two men stand looking over a design on a large piece of paper mounted to a drawing board. The image depicts a Model T Ford. One man says to the other man “Now come on, Henry, let’s not reinvent the horse.”
Well, it made me laugh.