If You Have To Force It, Something Is Probably Wrong

“When in doubt, get the hammer out” is great advice—except when it’s not.
(image: Library of Congress, license: Public domain)

I like to wander around the motorcycle club I belong to, observing and sometimes helping the other members with their projects. A second set of eyes or hands, along with a “dumb” question or two, often helps to get someone going again when they are stuck. During these fix-it sessions, the repair principles I’ve written about are brought to life and new ones are always bubbling up to the surface.

Take a recent session, where a fellow member had brought in his Yamaha. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him carefully remove a substantial portion of the front fairing. You can usually tell when someone has hit a roadblock, either by the swearing, or the confused look on their face as they stare blankly at the parts strewn about them. I could see this guy was struggling with whatever he was doing, and so I meandered over to see if I could help.

He explained that he was trying to get into the assembly that held the two headlights, so he could replace a burned-out bulb. The clips that held the plastic enclosure were difficult to pry open, so we tried successively larger screwdrivers and corresponding amounts of force. However, the clamshell assembly would not yield to our efforts.

Whenever I’m assisting on someone else’s bike, I’m a bit more careful than if it were my own. If there is a risk of breaking something, from a wrench turned too far or the misplaced strike of a hammer, I figure that’s their decision to make. They must deal with the consequences and I can just walk away, so they need to be in the driver’s seat at those critical moments. It seemed like we were getting to that point, so I paused and said “This is hard…Yamaha really made it difficult to change a stupid lightbulb. Are you sure this is how to get in there?” The owner voiced his agreement and took a step back to reconsider. If we stayed on our current course of action, the next logical step would be to apply forces that would break the plastic housing.

I stepped away to get a drink, and when I returned a few minutes later he had solved the problem. The owner of this Yamaha had mistakenly thought that the lightbulbs were to be replaced from the front. However, they were supposed to be accessed from the rear. The smart engineers at Yamaha had even provided an easy-to-remove cover for this purpose (as if they anticipated this very problem!). With this pivotal discovery, just a few minutes later the lightbulb had been replaced. Now, all that was left was to rebuild the front part of the bike. Frustrated at the time wasted, he lamented: “I knew it shouldn’t be that difficult!”

Forcing It

Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Tao Te Ching (Verse 64)

As I reflected on this particular fix-it drama, my mind flashed images of the many times that I had forced something, along with the mixed results. In life, many rewarding things we do are hard, taking copious amounts of effort. To say “don’t do anything that is difficult,” would be to cut out a path that has led humanity to many glorious triumphs. However, repair has a special relationship to the application of brute force. You can’t rule out its use, but it should be marshaled with caution. I also began to think about what should be hard about troubleshooting, and how that differs from neighboring fields like engineering and invention.

First, we need to think about the nature of repair and its position at the end of the chain of invention → engineering → manufacturing. As a general rule, the amount of wasted and forced effort decreases as you go down this chain; also, what is difficult about each stage is dramatically different. Think about Edison’s search for a suitable lightbulb filament: before trying Japanese bamboo, his team laboriously rejected over 1600 candidates! Edison was speaking from deep experience when he talked about the “99% perspiration” part of creation. As inventors desire to prove their ideas by building working prototypes (and fixing them when they break), they experience a microcosm of the hardships endured by engineers, manufacturers, and troubleshooters. Propelling yourself from a moment of inspiration to a working example requires resolution of all the problems along this entire chain.

Engineers have their problems too, but at least the burden of initially proving that a particular idea will be feasible is not among them. Instead, they can build upon the discoveries of scientists and inventors by making certain assumptions: that an airfoil will create lift, that copper wires will carry electric current, etc. You’d think that would make their jobs easy, but engineers are asked to deploy these existing ideas in new contexts. Will this airfoil provide enough lift to get this particular airplane off the ground? Will this copper wire be sufficient to carry a specific amount of current from the breaker panel to the outlet? This frustrating intersection between the known and unknown is what makes engineering hard.

Manufacturers and builders take the fruits of inventors (via engineers) and attempt to replicate their designs economically. They aim to take abstract designs and put them in the hands of your everyday consumer. Discovering and translating Machine Models into useful product concepts may be outside their purview, but of course manufacturing at any scale is rife with serious challenges. Just because some egghead can sketch a design on a napkin or click around fancy CAD software, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to efficiently replicate that model, over and over. Manufacturers must solve the problem of marshaling resources, both natural and human, in the right quantities, in the right way, and at the right time. A schematic says nothing about how to properly outfit a factory, train and retain workers, manage a supply chain; nor does it address legal matters, finances, and the myriad other details needed to consistently churn out widgets by the gazillions.

What’s So Hard About Troubleshooting?

After all this, you could say that troubleshooting is the easy part. Of course, it isn’t. Even so, it calms me to take a moment and understand all that came before the fateful moment I picked up a screwdriver and decided to give repair a shot. A flash of brilliance or a happy accident started it all, then the idea was vetted through the perspiration of scientists and inventors. Next, an engineer came along and translated the concept for a specific purpose. Finally, a manufacturer or builder made it real.

Now, it’s up to you to make it work again. Troubleshooters interact with the Machine Model in a restorative way and have one enduring advantage: fixing anything implies that the system functioned at one point in the past. Compared to bootstrapping a working something from just an idea, this is a huge head start. Repair, at its most efficient, aims to interact with only the broken parts of the machine.

All this means that effective troubleshooting is more often an internal struggle than a grand show of force. Once, I remember describing a car problem I was having to my Grandfather, an auto mechanic. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and began to think out loud: “ignition…accelerator…fuel pump…turns the…” Grandpa definitely was expending effort, but not the kind that involves rolling up your shirtsleeves and grunting: this intense investigation was all happening in his mind. The hard parts of repair are figuring out what’s wrong, understanding the machine’s design (at least the parts that are integral to the problem), and then choosing from among a wide spectrum of fixes. Here, brains triumph over brawn.

Horseshoeing Hammer - Alfred Harrell - October, 1980 - Library of Congress - Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1991:021)
Swing away, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…
(image: Library of Congress, license: Public domain)

Enough Talk, Pass Me That Hammer

Sometimes the path is meant to be difficult. While reading this, I’m sure the seasoned veterans among you thought of times when elbow grease was necessary. You can’t definitively say that the application of great effort or force is bad. The lesson here is that an aware Troubleshooter pauses and reconsiders when something gets hard. The nature of repair is treading well-worn conceptual and physical paths, so the application of brute force or sustained exertion should be surprising. While you can take back an errant thought, an angry swing of the hammer can leave lasting scars.


  • Lao Tzu and Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey(New York: HarperCollins, 1999).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: