I found this photo a few weeks ago. It’s me in 1992, shortly after moving to San Francisco. I’m 25 and that is my first car, a 1978 Volvo 245DL. Great vehicle. I could fit a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood in the back. I painted those clouds on it because I thought it would look awesome — and also because I had bought a crap-ton of lacquer spray paint before a California ban went into effect, and it was going bad.
I was living pretty hand to mouth in those days, and Volvos can be expensive to maintain. So in addition to being a canvas, this car taught me about auto repair. More important, it taught me how to parse complex systems, a skill that’s been essential in every professional environment I’ve found myself in since.
In theory, cars are fairly simple. If they don’t start, it’s either the fuel system or the electrical system. Teach yourself about the path of each in your engine and tracing it is fairly straightforward. But at the beginning, mastering each new system seems like an unreachable shore. The car is effectively a black box.
I bought not only the simplified consumer repair manual for my Volvo but also the shop repair manual. I’d compare the two until the system in question made sense. That’s the method I used to learn how to replace the wiper blades (don’t laugh — it’s everyone’s first repair), spark plugs, and oil, and eventually how to fix things like the window motors and driveshaft. I was terrified of the brakes. But when the shoes wore down, I replaced them. I swore I’d never attempt to bleed the hydraulic system. But when I found out that a new master cylinder for the brakes was going to cost hundreds of dollars, I learned how to do it.
Every repair followed the same progression: (1) I don’t know how, (2) I can’t afford to pay someone else to do it, (3) I have to do it, (4) hey, that wasn’t so hard!
Whether it’s the experiments on MythBusters or my earlier work in special effects for movies, I’ve regularly had to do things that were never done before, from designing complex motion-control rigs to figuring out how to animate chocolate. That car was a vital step in developing the courage to tackle these sorts of projects. Knowing that even dauntingly complex challenges can be broken down — that there’s a huge difference between not understanding something and not understanding it yet — is powerful mojo.
Photo credit: Daniel Salo, Wired.com
(This post originally ran on Wired.com in November 2012)