The hidden value of reinventing the wheel

How many times have you heard sentences like “if it is not broken, don’t fix it” or “do not reinvent the wheel”? many times for sure. The underlying message is that, if there is something out there that already works, do not waste your time making it your self. This article advocates exactly for the opposite.

We live in a time where we delegate most of our activities on proven technology that we do not question or understand. For instance. the average person does not know how a car works in detail, or how it was made. Only when a person needs to build a car, will encounter all sorts of barriers, that is why almost no one starts a car company. We assume that building a car ourselves is going to be more expensive than buying one, so we accept it and move on.

But what if we decided to build the car anyway?

Shu-Ha-Ri is a concept from the Japanese martial arts that describes the stages of achieving the mastery of a subject;

  • Shu: Copy and learn the traditional knowledge, techniques, heuristics and proverbs.
  • Ha: Break with the tradition, start to innovate discarding or modifying the forms.
  • Ri: Completely depart from the forms and open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.

When we accept and not question the world around us with sentences like do not reinvent the wheel. We are in a perpetual state of ignorance (not even in the Shu stage), where we deny ourselves the possibility of becoming masters in something.

By using a technology, we accept all the conditions and design decisions that were involved in the development of that technology. That means that we cannot modify that technology to serve us, but rather we need to adapt ourselves to the conditions imposed by it. If we refuse to accept those conditions we would have to go through the shu-ha-ri process in order to first reproduce the technology, and then redesign it for our own benefit. The key is to be able to asses if the long and hard process of becoming a master is worth the cost of breaking apart with the convenience of available technology.

Some times it is.

I am electrical engineer in power systems and it is safe to say that the field is one of the most conservative ones among the engineering disciplines. Yet, the field is facing tremendous challenges that demand innovation. During the first years of practice, I observed that everyone dealt with the calculations in a very dogmatic manner, relying on the available calculation software as if it was something coming from the gods, as something that you should embrace and not change. But I saw myself caged by those very old fashioned programs, so I decided to change.

I started developing my own software to serve my needs. Can you imagine yourself programming a new word processor just because you don’t like Microsoft Word? That is exactly what I did. It took me a huge amount of time to learn and often re-invent how certain parts of the program should work, because those steps are not documented anywhere, not in books, not in papers and not even in other software. I developed my own power systems solver, which I utilise to work with. I am the blacksmith who built his own forge. That is like that because I refused to adapt to the ill conditions imposed by the available technology and I decided to try to impose my own design decisions.

Because those design decisions adapt better to the needs of the power systems of the future, I can work in the needs of the power systems of the future with far less effort than using the traditional software that was designed for a world with almost no renewable power and where the time-varying planing did not exist. This situation has saved me hundreds of hours of having to adapt my work to the software, because I had my own software that I was able to easily adapt for my work.

The benefit of reinventing the wheel is not only the capricious advantage of having my own technology, the real benefit is to get to master the basic principles and to be able to incorporate ground breaking innovation into the software I make. I am in the stage of Ri. That is the true value of reinventing the wheel; the innovation, the long term cost saving, and the journey itself.


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