Building from Understanding the Framework and Knowing What Works

Inside and outside the Cathedral

Bill Evans was a classically-trained American Jazz pianist. In a rare recorded interview from the '60's on the creative process#, he says:

“It’s better to do something simple which is real. It’s something you can build on because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it.”

To further explain the concept of starting from what we know when solving problems rather than trying to tackle them whole at a macro level, he says:

“They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance.”

“When things are simple, fewer mistakes are made. The most expensive part of a building is the mistakes,” says #1 New York Times bestselling author Ken Follett in The Pillars of the Earth, an epic tale about building the greatest Gothic Cathedral the world has ever known set in twelfth-century England. Finding our way through mistakes is a costly proposition. We should build from what we know.

Evans and Follett are artists, but they are essentially saying the same things physicist Richard Feynman maintained about knowledge ―to know something for ourselves, we need to do the work necessary to figure it out.

Building from understanding

The thing with building cathedrals is that the most important part is the foundation. It would take years just to get that one dug out and shored properly. Then the carving of the stones, marble, and everything else that would go on top.

When we look at these magnificent feats of engineering and art up close Duomo di Milano, Santa Maria del Fiore in Firenze, Basilica di San Pietro a Roma, Duomo di Siena, my hometown's Duomo di Modena, and many others, including Notre Dame de Paris and Stephanskirche in Vienna we see imposing structures.

All started from a base and built over the years.

Inside and outside

What many of these cathedrals have in common is that their outside beauty is stunning (the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna may be an exception) that draws the curious inside to its magnificence. Once inside, a whole new story is open to discovery.

This juxtaposition between exterior and interior is very much a reflection of how we see and think about things. The container and the contained. What it looks and feels like from the outside, and what it's about once we're inside. When we look at a problem from the outside, we miss much of its parts.

There is much more going on than meets the eye. Which is why when we stop to copying the outside, we don't get the results we expected.

A body of work includes many years of deliberate practice before it becomes the solid foundation upon which we learn to solve new problems, carving one module at a time, building our way into new combinations.

Knowing what works comes from having done the work ourselves. Knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing it.


[image from early illustrations of The Pillars of the Earth]


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