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What Tinker Toys and Legos Taught Me About People

We are all either "blank canvas" or "paint-by-numbers"


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As a young kid, I had a blast dumping Tinker Toys on the floor, grabbing some pieces and starting to put them together. Most the time I had no real plan for what I wanted to build. I would just study the way they were made, the different ways they were designed to go together and see where things went from there.  

Looking back, what I enjoyed most was the process of exploring the possibilities. Was I building a Ferris wheel, a space ship, a garage for my Hot Wheels or some new object that was sure to change the world? I didn’t know, and I didn’t much care. It was the process of exploring the possibilities, and “tinkering” that I loved.

Eventually I moved on to Legos and did the exact same thing. Grab some pieces, snap them together, and once again, “what I was building” would slowly emerge after digging around in the pile of colored plastic.

Finally, at least as toys go, I graduated to an Erector Set. 

Not only could I build anything I wanted, but the things I built were no longer just static.  I now had motors, belts, pulleys, chains, and gears, so they could come to life!  And if I didn’t have a part I needed, I took a pair of pliers and got to bending!

Fast forward to a family get together a few years back.  By then I was a husband, father, uncle and even a new grandfather.

In comes my 10-year-old nephew.  Earlier in the day he beat my time in a test of how quickly we each assembled a geography puzzle of the 50 states. He was one of those kids who makes you wonder where you’d be today, if you’d simply “applied yourself.”

Anyway, turns out he loves Legos, and asks if I want to build the new Legos Star-wars Millennium Falcon, with him, at which point he pulled out instructions.

Hold up, stop the presses ... INSTRUCTIONS?! Who needs instructions?  What’s the point? That’s merely painting by numbers.

The whole point of Tinker Toys, Legos or an Erector Set is to draw on a clean canvas. Make mistakes, get frustrated, explore your options, paint over paint and keep going until you are “master of the canvas.’ 

It was right then I realized I always hated directions and still do to this day!  It is why I never much liked puzzles, building model cars or model airplanes. 

My nephew, on the other hand, got so upset when he could not find the final few pieces needed to finish his Millennium Falcon, he lost interest in the whole thing, and left the room.     

I have come to realize we are all either “blank-canvas” or “paint-by-numbers” people.

“Paint-by-numbers” people are happiest in 8 to 5 desk jobs, with health-care, 401ks, merit increases and paid vacations. They like to know the rules, stay in the lines, go home at the end of the day, repeat.

“Blank-canvas” people hate everything about real jobs, even though they may never figure that out. This is why they may never feel satisfied in their career, like the “paint-by-numbers” people do, right up to retirement.

“Blank-canvas” people are the ones who usually start companies – not because they want to, but because they have to. And it’s not that they just love taking risk or hate authority. They take the path less traveled because it is less traveled. Fact is, they prefer no path at all. 

“Paint-by-numbers” people usually start companies out of frustration, but they hate all the uncertainty of the startup, and if they make it, work to bring structure and order to the business as soon as possible.    

The fact is, virtually every business starts out as a “blank canvas,” but eventually becomes a “paint-by-numbers” operation. They have to develop structure, financial controls, process and focus to succeed over time. 

And there is the paradox.

It takes a “blank-canvas” thinker to cut his or her own path, play with the pieces and get the business off the ground.  But it’s the “paint-by-numbers” thinkers who keep it going.

This is why a lot of owners tell me, “I’m just not having as much fun as I used to.”  Everything was great, until somebody switched their canvas.

Most of them sell so they can take the money and buy some new paint and an even bigger blank canvas!


Brian Conaway is founder and principal at Fresh-Start Business Brokers. He is a recovering engineer with an MBA (2010) from The Leads School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder. He is also a licensed Colorado real-estate Broker Associate. Fresh-Start Business Brokers is an independent business-brokerage firm that represents owners of private businesses with revenue between $2 million to $15 million. 

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