HARVARD HERO MOMENT #34: The building blocks of life

Conrad Arnavutian

11 Jun 2020

The Great Depression – just to start this off nice and lightly – wasn’t a great time. In the late 20s and early 30s the economy tanked, millions became unemployed globally and business owners were left reeling. The parallels to 2020 won’t have escaped anyone. Yet economies have bounced back and always will bounce back. In economic hardships, people have had to think differently, innovate and “pivot”. This was certainly the case nearly a hundred years ago. Ole Kirk Christiansen was a Danish master carpenter. Reasoning that the more desolate the times, the more parents needed to cheer up their children, he used his skills to create high-quality, brightly coloured wooden toys. His company, which he founded in 1932, brought together the words leg godt (or “play well” in English) as an overriding philosophy that helps enrich the creative life of a child and also well into their adult life. You’ll have guessed by now that this company is LEGO.

The brilliance of building

And what a brilliant invention that was. Unless you grew up in the Matrix, you’ll have played with LEGO at least once in your life. It’s a true business success story, managing to captivate children and adults alike for 90-odd years. It has continued to invest in partnerships and expansions (think LEGO Batman, The LEGO Movie and LEGOLAND), while spawning a host of worthy wannabes, including K’Nex (who remembers the Big Ball Factory?) and revitalising Meccano. There is just something quite magical about opening one of these boxes of bricks: a gallimaufry of bright colours that you then have to assemble yourself. Creating these structures and following set models/paths may supposedly enhance children’s STEM skills and boosts their creative thinking, just at the time their brains are developing. Yet I wonder, are the “digitally native” children missing out these days on these creative blocks and bricks in favour of their trusted iPad or phone? Possibly.

Stepping away from the screen

You can’t discount computer games like Minecraft – essentially a digital LEGO – with its 200 million sales worldwide. But in an age where screen times are dominating, the need for some “technology downtime” has never been greater, not least with many of us spending more time at home during the pandemic. And there are now digital health apps such as Screen Time to help people monitor their phone usage. Besides, actually creating something physically from nothing is hugely rewarding. Think about the time you pulled together an IKEA bookcase… put together the finishing touches on a painting… or even curated the perfect garden. What joy. Building my first computer from scratch during lockdown brought back all those years of connecting colour-coded shapes and the thrill I got from the finished article. This time there were a few more wires and electric shocks, but thrilling just the same.

The technology balancing act

While this may sound like James I’s Counterblaste to Tobacco, I’m not suggesting kids/adults completely step away from technology at all. I realise the irony; it was those countless hours of LEGO building which spurred me on to build my own PC. But they should complement each other. A balance of physical and digital will keep your mind engaged, fresh and focussed. So if you’re ever bored during lockdown, why not shop around for a project to get started on? Or come join me on my next quest.