It was October 2012 and I found myself in China, a country that has attracted me since I was a young boy in Iran. I lived in a small apartment in Wudaokou, Beijing, with four other roommates. Each one of us came from different parts of the world with our own unique stories. One of our roommates stood out to me for his uncanny creativity and imagination. He was a 20-something Indonesian-Chinese student at Peking University, aspiring to become a famous pianist and composer.
Roosevelt’s normative stance on making the best with what you have captured his attitude.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” ~Theodore Roosevelt
Our apartment was in a new building still under construction. Our place was special in that it brought us together as close friends. I’ll omit our challenges with a non-functioning water heater and unstable electricity. It’s interesting to reflect back and realize we were practicing the Wim Hof method without knowing about it.
I always kept my room simple and minimal. I only had the bare essentials. I quickly came to realize that the term “essential” is relative with a wide spectrum—and mine was too bare for most. At the time, I used to sit on the floor, regardless of whether I was working, studying, or relaxin’ with friends. One day, my roommate decided to improve my appreciation for this way of working.
“Improve it? It’s the floor, and I’m sitting on it. What do you have in mind?” I ask.
He asks whether I’d like my bed extended. He explained that the ledges from an extended bed frame could serve as a working bench. It was attractive as it would also help my posture. I followed with questions about materials and how I could help. He responded that we could save our money and use what we have.
“Use what we have?” I pondered to myself. How could we make the bed larger given the bed’s limited materials? It didn’t make a ton of sense but I was open. With a frantic mindset and a fast-paced Indonesian accent, he asked, “Ready? Just help me!”
And with that, we began tearing my bed apart…
My bed stood on a typical wooden-block foundation that supported the mattress. He then started to disassemble that foundation. He repurposed some of the unnecessary parts to build an entirely new section. It was amazing to see the entire process unfolding in front of me. There were no formal measurements and we didn’t buy any materials. He simply repurposed some of the original materials towards a new component.
Here are two pictures of my bed with a retractable bench. When I pulled out the bench, I used it to work on my laptop, eat, or store my water jugs.
Amazing, right? You had to see it to truly appreciate its brilliance.
This exercise inspired me to approach the world with this new-found mental tool. I thought to myself: “Identify my goal, take into account what I have, and creatively repurpose towards my goal.” I thought that I was ready. I had unlocked his way of thinking. I looked around my room and tried to find other things I could repurpose in creative ways.
But I was new to this way of thinking and I really didn’t have any particular goals or pain points. More importantly, our place was bare without any superfluous items. Most of the rooms comprised a simple computer desk, wardrobe, and bed. Nothing more; nothing less. After looking around for several minutes, I didn’t come up with anything else. Everything was being used for its intended purpose.
It’s interesting to see how limited we are by our experiences, expectations, and mindsets.
“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” ~Albert Einstein
A few weeks later and I found myself in awe, once again, of my roommate’s ingenious creativity.
One day as I come home from work, I find most of our apartment in shambles. I was both curious and infuriated by our shared living space demolished by our roommate. I knocked on his door to ask what he was doing. Before I could ask, I saw that he was ripping apart his wardrobe. He explained that he wanted a sliding table over his bed. He wanted to be able to eat, listen to music, work on papers, all the while projecting his computer onto the wall.
I didn’t know what he was imagining, but that didn’t stop me from believing every bit of what he was intending to build.
He explained that one of the wardrobe’s doors appeared to be the length needed to cover the width of his bed. That, he thought, would make for a perfect tabletop. With that in mind, he was off to build the ultimate table.
He took some of the “unnecessary” materials from our furnitures to build the table’s structure. He explained that since the table will be long, it will need to slide back and forth to be ergonomic. So, he added wheels and put the entire table on tracks mounted to the side of the bed. The entire tabletop slid with ease.
He used some of our washing machine’s leftover tubes to build a lamp and to manage the wires underneath the tabletop. In the pictures below, you can see how he used these flexible tubes to house an LED and tuck away the wires. He also built a docking station under the table to put away the lamp when not in use.
Now that the table was stable, he started to run wires underneath the table to power under-glow lights, speakers, and outlets for easy charging. This could’ve aired as an episode on “Pimp My Ride” where Xzibit would show the creation of an outlandish table.
It was time to finish up the top with organizers to help hold plates, books, and other random stuff. He used some thick rubber mat to hold the tableware in place. After about an hour of precision cutting, the tabletop was complete.
At that point, we were joking that this table was on its way to becoming self aware and having a mind of its own.
After a couple of days, the table was able to:
- Cover the entire width of the bed
- Slide back and forth with ease
- Provide under-glow lighting
- Light up the room with lights & lamps
- Power his electrical devices
- Entertain with built-in speakers
- Organize tableware
- Serve as a working bench
- … and who knows what else
If I were to pay someone a respectable amount of money to build me a custom table, it wouldn’t be as functional or unique. Besides, the most impressive aspect was that he built it all himself. He leveraged our limited tools, space, and materials to achieve his goal.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was from him that I learned bricolage, the French term for tinkering and repurposing. The art of creating something from a diverse range of available things. This practice extends into many disciplines. I’m sharing this story to inspire and encourage you to also consider using it to be more creative. Please do let me know what you come up with.
What’s fascinating is when you ask yourself:
- Who looks at a bed and sees a working bench?
- Who looks at washing machine hoses and sees lamps?
- And who looks at a wardrobe and sees a multi-functional sliding table?
My roommate, Zhang, does.
Big thanks to the Hacker News (Y Combinator) community for the promotion and stimulating conversations.
While the term “genius” was polarizing for some folks, I found
geocrasher’s insight that “ingenious” as more fitting to be compelling and insightful:
- “ingenious: having or showing an unusual aptitude for discovering, inventing, or contriving an ingenious detective. 2 : marked by originality, resourcefulness, and cleverness in conception or execution an ingenious contraption.”