Srini Pillay's Tinker Dabble Try: The Power of an Unfocused Mind, A book review

Srini Pillay's Tinker Dabble Try: The Power of an Unfocused Mind, A book review
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Planned “unfocused” activities can enhance your cognitive toolkit. In “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: The Power of an Unfocused Mind,” Dr. Srini Pillay challenges the idea that laser-sharp focus is the key to success, particularly for engineers grappling with complex problems.


Great problem-solving and innovation are crucial for engineers to get an edge over competitors in the tech industry, and Dr. Srini Pillay’s “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: The Power of an Unfocused Mind” offers a surprising suggestion. Dr. Pillay, a neuropsychiatrist, challenges the long-held belief that laser-focused concentration is the key to success. Instead, he advocates for deliberately incorporating “unfocused” mental states, like tinkering, dabbling, and doodling, to unlock greater creativity, innovation, and problem-solving abilities.

Delivered as an audiobook (the version that I ‘read’), the book effectively translates scientific concepts into digestible insights, even if specific memorization points might be less readily accessible compared to printed format. While primarily targeting individuals experiencing “diffuse focus,” the book’s message resonates with engineers of all stripes, including those who excel with “narrow focus” and seek to expand their cognitive flexibility and breakthrough thinking. Dr. Pillay differentiates between two types of focus: the concentrated “beam” for execution and the expansive “diffuse” focus for generating outside-the-box ideas and tackling complex challenges.


Dr. Pillay’s core message is clear and immediately relevant to engineers: planned “unfocused” activities can enhance your cognitive toolkit. He backs his claims with a blend of scientific research, personal anecdotes, and practical exercises. While the science is interesting and relevant, its depth might vary depending on your prior knowledge of neuroscience. The practical techniques and examples are presented in a clear, relatable manner, making them easily applicable to your engineering career.

As a software engineer, I found the book’s core message resonated strongly. Stepping away from problems, exploring possibilities, and letting go of rigid thinking are valuable practices that can lead to new breakthroughs. The book effectively highlights this key takeaway: fixation isn’t always the solution. This will resonate with engineers who often face tricky challenges requiring new approaches.

However, some aspects of the book might not fully resonate with a purely technical audience. While the mix of scientific evidence and practical recommendations was appreciated, the inclusion of topics like tantric sex and brainwaves felt out of place and, at times, pseudoscientific. This hinders the book’s credibility for readers seeking a strictly evidence-based approach.

Additionally, some recommendations, especially in later chapters, felt overly optimistic and lacked concrete application in an engineering context. This highlights the importance of tailoring “unfocused” practices to the specific demands of engineering work and problem-solving.

Overall, “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try” offers valuable insights into the power of “unfocused” thinking for engineers. However, its effectiveness could be improved by focusing on practical techniques, omitting irrelevant and non-scientific topics, and providing clearer guidance on implementation within the structured environment of engineering teams and projects.

“Tinker Dabble Doodle Try” shines when it delves into practical techniques and case studies directly relevant to software engineers.

Key Strenghts

  1. Combating Fixation: The book provides valuable tools for recognizing and overcoming “fixation bias,” a common pitfall for engineers who get stuck in one approach. Techniques like “deliberate breaks,” “unplanned activities,” and “seeking diverse perspectives” can help engineers approach problems from new angles and generate fresh ideas.

  2. Enhancing Creativity: The book offers various exercises to stimulate creative thinking, particularly useful for tackling complex design challenges. Experimenting with new technologies, exploring different programming languages, or engaging in artistic pursuits can spark unexpected connections and lead to out-of-the-box solutions.

  3. Boosting Problem-Solving: The book delves into how “unfocused” activities can improve problem-solving skills. Techniques like “mind-mapping,” “brainstorming in unusual settings,” and “using metaphors” can help readers break down complex problems, identify hidden patterns, and arrive at more elegant solutions.

  4. Encouraging Collaboration: The book emphasizes the importance of fostering a culture of “unfocused exploration” within engineering teams. Collaborative brainstorming sessions, hackathons, and even encouraging team members to pursue personal hobbies unrelated to work can lead to cross-pollination of ideas and unexpected breakthroughs. I’ve written on the final point extensively

  5. Promoting Adaptability: In the fast-paced world of software engineering, adaptability is crucial. The book’s message of embracing “unfocused” activities encourages flexible thinking, openness to new ideas, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, all valuable skills for engineers navigating an ever-evolving technological landscape.


So, should you read “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try”? Ultimately, the decision depends on your individual experience level, goals, and openness to exploring new perspectives. Here’s a breakdown to help you decide:

For Experienced Engineers:

If you’re a seasoned engineer seeking fresh perspectives on problem-solving and innovation, the book’s core message about the value of “unfocused” activities can be valuable. However, be prepared to filter through less relevant content and actively seek out practical techniques applicable to your work. Consider supplementing the book with case studies or articles showcasing how experienced engineers have leveraged “unfocused” practices to achieve breakthroughs.

For Young Professionals:

The book can offer valuable insights into overcoming “fixation bias” and developing creative problem-solving skills, crucial for early career engineers. However, manage expectations regarding implementation – integrating “unfocused” activities requires careful planning and navigating team dynamics. Focus on techniques like “deliberate breaks” and “seeking diverse perspectives” that can be easily incorporated into your workflow.

For Engineering Leaders:

The book’s message on inculcating a culture of “unfocused exploration” within teams can be valuable for leaders seeking to boost innovation and collaboration. However, the book itself doesn’t delve deeply into leadership strategies. Combine the book’s insights with resources on team building and fostering creativity to create a comprehensive approach.


If you’re an open-minded engineer seeking to expand your problem-solving toolkit and embrace different perspectives, “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try” can offer valuable insights. However, approach it with a critical eye, focusing on practical techniques and filtering out content that resonates less with your specific needs and expertise.

Lead image from the book website.



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