The Power of Tinkering

Have you ever taken something apart to see how it works or to fix it?

Before my daughter was born, my wife and I got ready for her arrival by decking out her room - crib, rocker, tons of toys, and an adorable mobile. That's the contraption that hangs over the crib and plays a cute little tune while hanging giraffes go around and around. The baby loves it. So one day I was turning the crank to entertain the baby and pop! - something inside clicked, and that was it. No music, no spinning giraffes. I could crank it all I wanted but I could tell something had gone wrong, because it wasn’t winding up or working anymore. That was NOT okay, since the baby loves watching it go around and around. I had to do something.

Normally, I’m not a tinkerer. I don’t even usually read the instructions for assembly, much to my wife’s chagrin. But as they say, everything changes when you have a baby, and something changed in me. I decided to take apart that mobile and fix it. First thing I did was to take out a screwdriver and open up the back. I started to lose a little bit of patience when I realized that there were two sizes of screws on the back, and one required a smaller screwdriver than I had picked out to use. I had to get back up off the couch, search around for another screwdriver, then take out the second set of screws. Now I had 3 small screws and 3 even smaller screws that I needed to keep track of. OK, back to taking things apart. I lifted off the back and saw a lot going on. One thing I recognized was a music box - you know those little cylinders with bumps on them that sound the right notes as it spins and hits the bars. There were three or four wheels with spokes that spun each other, and another little box inside that must have had even more mechanisms inside it. I was pretty nervous that I was just going to break the whole thing apart in my hands. So I took stock of everything in there and looked at each piece individually. I looked at the connections between the pieces and tried to figure out what the problem was. Honestly, it was basically by luck that I moved my finger across a little piece that I guess was stuck somehow and unstuck it, making the whole thing start working again. It was pretty darn cool - the wheels started to spin, the music started to play, and I could see a happy baby in my future. I was intrigued by my tinkering - I stopped the wheels and looked around a bit. I held down a piece, touched something else, wound the whole thing up, and tried to break it and fix it again. I admit, I didn’t really understand all the mechanics of this simple little device, but I got closer to understanding it, and when I screwed those different sized screws back in and hung it up again for my daughter to watch it twirl and listen to the music, I felt a swelling amount of pride that I’d even attempted to figure it out. I now have this secret hope that it will break again and I will be forced to take apart more pieces so I can really learn how the thing works.

One of the most important aspects of learning how to make Excel work for you is tinkering. Taking things apart, breaking them down into smaller pieces, understanding how each simpler piece works and is put together to make the whole.

Two good examples of how tinkering is the best way to make Excel work for you come from two different situations. The first, you are working with an Excel template or a spreadsheet that somebody else has made and has given to you to work with. The second is that you have an idea or vision about what you want to do in Excel.

In the first example, you are likely to run across some things you don’t understand. Let’s look at the example of a complicated formula. You might see something like this:


Now is the time to start freaking out, right?

There is a lot going on here, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t tinker around with it to try to understand what is going on. Take it apart, break it down into simpler, smaller pieces, and see what you can understand. In this example, you might have seen that there are a few different formulas happening all at once. You could take them apart and try to see what they all do. For example, take the MATCH formula - MATCH(C2,$A$1:$A$6,0) - throw an equals sign in front of it, put it into a new cell, and you can see what the result would be. Maybe you didn’t realize that there were a few formulas in here that you could break out. No problem! Take a look at the cells that are referenced - like B2, C2, A1 through A6 and K1 through K9 - at least you can see that these are cells that are important to the calculation. Don’t know what those dollar signs mean? Type into Google “what do dollar signs in Excel mean” and start to get an idea of what is going on with those cells. Tinker with it, and you’ll start figuring out how each of the pieces fit into the whole.

In the second example, you have an idea of what you want your spreadsheet to do, but you may not be sure how to get there. You have a vision of all the information that you will have in your spreadsheet and you know what you want the result to be. For example, you’ve got a spreadsheet of all your donors and volunteers and the hours they’ve put in, and you want Excel to get you the total of all volunteer hours for each person and also to show how many repeat opportunities a volunteer has done, and to mark if they have also donated money or not. As you might guess, there is not one formula or one special function that will do all of that in a single move. In fact, you might find yourself needing at some point to write a formula similar to the one in the first example. But before you can even try to learn how to write the technical piece, you have to write out your vision in plain English. Break it down into smaller pieces. Take just the first part of your needs (total volunteer hours) - there is no Excel function for giving you “Total Volunteer Hours” so you’ll need to take a look at your spreadsheet. See what you’ve got, and write out what you want to do. If you aren’t sure how to do it, break it down into smaller pieces and go looking for the answers. It can be as simple as Googling “how do I add up two different cells in Excel?” and you’ll find an answer out there. The more complex your vision, the more pieces you’ll need to break down and then add up together again to get to your goal. But each smaller piece is something that you probably already know in Excel, and all you need to do is put those pieces together.

Tinkering - the key to making Excel work for you. Once you understand the smallest actions in Excel, you can build on top of those to get to the more complex stuff. You don’t need any special background for this. In fact, some of the people who are extremely technically knowledgeable about Excel don’t come in with the tinkering mindset, and they will never get Excel to work for them the way that you would be able to. Take it apart, look all around, and try to put it back together. You can totally do it!

Like this post? You might also enjoy my FREE 7-day email course:

Mastering the Excel Mindset