Thursday, February 19, 2015

Joining the dots

What picture do your dots make up?
Back in 1987 there was a momentous moment in our family. 

Only a few years after we'd got our first video player (and I remember walking to the video store that day with my mum and choosing a Spiderman video to watch), we entered the space age with a giant beige Amstrad home computer. 

Running MS-DOS, armed with twin 5.25inch floppy disc drives, we were at the cutting edge of technology, with a speedy 8086 Intel processor. 

I remember my Uncle coming over with a computer expert friend of his to help us set it up, and I remember the drawing program that came preloaded with an image of a tiger (I could never draw anything remotely that good). We also splashed out on a dot matrix printer, which took an age to print and was really noisy - everything it printed was made up of dots (hence the name) and it gradually built up the picture or the text it was printing line by line, dot by dot.

"We need to live in the tension of focusing on the steps whilst being aware of the bigger picture."
The computer and printer lasted us a good few years until we upgraded to a Viglen at some point in the 90s (at which point I could play games with at least basic graphics!). To be honest I have pretty fond memories of the old Amstrad and the Citizen dot matrix printer we had, and as an inquisitive seven year old I remember finding my way round the DOS operating system by trial and error... although I have a vague recollection of accidentally deleting *.* and wiping my dad's entire work database. I may have slightly blanked that out and I think I was sent on a long walk after the unfortunate incident.

My kids don't get much opportunity to use MS DOS, but they are getting to the age where they can enjoy dot-to-dot puzzles. These require the ability to count and recognise numbers, a steady-ish hand, and recognition of simple pictures. Once you grasp the idea and know to start at the first dot all you have to do it look for the next dot and link up to it. Even if you don't know what the picture is to begin with, you can still start the puzzle just by following the numbers. The arrangement may be bewildering, but with a little determination the bigger picture becomes obvious.

It's possible to break tasks down into dots.
I think sometimes we face giants, mountains, obstacles that seem insurmountable. A bewildering, confusing mass and it's hard to even know where to start. I remember that after Kate said "yes" to my proposal, it seemed a really daunting thing to plan our wedding. Likewise moving house, or some other complex task. 

This past few weeks I've been setting up my podcast, something that felt completely bewildering to begin with, but that I've found has been more like a child's dot-to-dot puzzle than I realised - yes it's complicated, but it's also possible to break it down into a series of linked dots.. do this, do that, then do that, go here and you're done. Our wedding planning was like that too, a long list of small things to do, and much more achievable a dot at a time.

Working in an Engineering Consultancy it's fair to say that I'm surrounded by a lot of very clever and very technical people. People who are great at working on dots. In my experience there's a tension between being focused on the small dots, the immediate, technical tasks, and remembering the big picture. We're often guilty of diving straight into the detail - the how - because we're adept problem solvers who get energy from solving complex engineering or environmental problems, and sometimes we can lose sight of the big picture - the why. We need to live in the tension of focusing on the steps whilst being aware of the bigger picture.

Our old dot matrix printer was great at focusing on the dots. Line by line it noisily laid down dots on the paper in the order commanded by our Amstrad computer. It was rarely obvious to begin with (unless you knew what was coming) what was being printed out, and we usually needed to go downstairs and put the kettle on for some tea before it would be finished and it would become obvious what was being printed out. 

Sometimes I think life can feel a bit like that - we can struggle to see any pattern in the dots of our circumstances, relationships and experience. If we're stuck on the dots then maybe we need to stand back and let the image become clearer - like my kids figuring out half way round that they're drawing a frog or a cat. Funnily enough, what started out as straight lines and sharp angles becomes smoother and more lifelike as they finish - but they still need to join up all the dots to complete the picture. If you're finding it hard to see where the next dot is, take a step back and look for the bigger picture.
"If you're finding it hard to see where the next dot is, take a step back and look for the bigger picture."
Here in the West Midlands its been a dreary and rainy start to the month, but the other night the rain had finished falling and the wind had blown the clouds clear, allowing the stars in the February sky to gleam as though freshly polished. They were truly sparkling. Each pinprick of light we see is a distant star or one of our neighbouring planets, and I love looking for the patterns in the sky that we recognise as constellations.

At this time of year Orion is easy to spot, as well as Ursa Major - the plough or big dipper. Although we rely on our sat-navs more for wayfinding these days, you can use Ursa Major to find Polaris, the North Star by following the line of the two front stars of the plough. Early navigators were used to reading the dots in the night sky to find their way.

"When I look at the night sky.."
The other year my brother gave me a fantastic book on Star Maps. This presented many early star maps from various cultures, and not surprisingly different cultures saw very different things in the patterns of stars and planets in the night sky. 

We find our own patterns, our own images in the dots of our circumstances, relationships and experience, but it can also be helpful to find out what others see.

Systems theorists might see dot to dot puzzles very differently than my kids. Instead of dots they might see nodes, and instead of lines they might see links. Instead of a simple picture, they might see a visual representation of a complex system. 

I watched a fascinating TED talk by Tom Wujec recently which was all about systems thinking, it's well worth a watch, and one of his conclusions was that we can make better meaning out of the systems that surround us when we view them together. If you're facing a complicated problem, or you're struggling to find a pattern, then trying to visualise it somehow, breaking it down into nodes and then trying to link those up may help.

Looking back at the most meaningful nodes in our lives and seeking to find the pattern in those can help us make better choices for our future - if you find that there's a cluster of dots in a certain area then this might signify an area you're passionate about, or the type of event that brings you fulfilment. From a career perspective, the classic book What Colour is Your Parachute? has numerous exercises to help you do this. More recently, the new book by Jeff Goins, The Art of Work, is also about seeing all your dots in a different way. No dots are wasted in the making of your masterpiece, it's just that our lives are a gentle unfolding, a slow printing like our 80s dot matrix printer.

So how are you feeling about the dots in your life? How do you see them? Are you stuck on a detail and need to look for the bigger picture? Or maybe you're overwhelmed by something and instead you need to break it down into a series of dot to dots. There's always a tension between the nitty gritty, the dots, and the bigger picture of our lives, and that's ok.
"No dots are wasted in the making of your masterpiece, it's just that our lives are a gentle unfolding, a slow printing like our 80s dot matrix printer."
Wherever you're at, taking some regular time to re-orient yourself is a really positive habit to get in to. Why not seek out someone to help you see our own constellations from a different perspective, like a pastor, life coach or close friend?

One final thought, from King David in Psalm 8:

"When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers - 
the moon and the stars you set in place - 
what are mere mortals that you should think of them,
human beings that you should care for them?" (Ps 8:3-4, NLT)

I take great comfort that in the dot to dot of my life, I'm not figuring it out alone, and nor are you.


Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on joining the dots! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more.

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My Random Musings

1 comment:

Silly Mummy said...

I remember those dot printers and love the analogy with life. Very thought provoking and insightful, and I agree it can be hard to see what the dots are forming at first. #anythinggoes