One of the best parts of being in the business of thinking for a living is also one of the most frustrating – thinking is hard. And not only is it hard, it takes time. And not only does it take time, the route is often circuitous. Just when you think you’ve got it, that the idea or project as you have currently articulated it is finally there, you sit back, think again, and realize that you’re not there after all. Many times when I was an undergraduate I had this experience of working on a paper (I was a literature and philosophy major back then, so I wrote a lot of papers!) for weeks; then, the night before it was due, scrapping all but one or two paragraphs usually near the end and writing a whole new paper. I had similar experiences writing by dissertation where I would work and work a piece of it, then read it through and just set it aside as not going into the final text. It’s not the ideas were bad or improperly formed, but that they just weren’t right for that text at that time. Probably a lot of people have had similar experiences.
The work of the lab has many opportunities for thinking and working on an idea, bringing it as far as you’d think it can go and then two days later completely reformulating it. Partially this is because sometimes we have a clear idea of where we want to end up, but not clear paths for getting there. Other times, like Dewey claimed about democracy, we have an idea of what the perfect project or idea is, then at the point that we reach it, we realize that from our new point of view, we actually have a much different sense of what the perfect project or idea would be. Working under these conditions requires both a certain comfort level with ambiguity and a recognition that often the only way to get to something that’s really good, we have to work our way to it, grope our way in some cases.
Beyond living with ambiguity, such thinking requires a certain level of courage and trust: unlike those times when you’re locked up finishing a paper all night, most of the thinking we do on cyberlab exhibits, research, and projects is done out loud – by a group of us. We are floating ideas, trying them out in the group, responding to them, feeling our way to something that makes sense in a place where none of us is THE expert and where all of us at times are simultaneously articulating where we are going while we are trying to go there. It’s that old problem of building the boat while you’re sailing it. And that requires courage to articulate something for the first time and not be afraid that you will get wrong and to not be afraid to keep working it till you really like it. It also requires trust – trust that everyone else is trying to help move the idea along and expand it rather than criticizing or devaluing. Embracing that process can be scary; after all, we like to have a clear path and sense of what the end result will be. But it can also be exhilarating as we push our thinking and our sense of where we are going together.