Why “Bricolage” Is A Word You Need to Know as a Creative

Why “Bricolage” Is A Word You Need to Know as a Creative | Jennifer Spoelma

I learned a new word this week that has seriously changed my mental framework around creativity and work. And that special word is bricolage. The simplest definition of bricolage is  “making do with what is at hand” as good ‘ol Claude Levi Strauss explains it. But it was learning the background of the word that made something light up in my brain.

Bricolage has French roots, coming from the verb “Bricoler” which means “to tinker”. Tinkerers are always creating and solving problems. They find new solutions to problems they encounter and see connections most other people wouldn’t.

In my opinion, one of the best things about tinkerers (or bricoleurs) is that they tinker because it’s fun for them. They are playing, but innovation is the result.

Bricolage and bootstrapping might have similar meanings, but they have quite different connotations.

You might also think this sounds similar to the concept of bootstrapping. In many cases, the words can be used interchangeably. But, bootstrapping tends to carry with it a hint of negativity and shame.

Even the definition of bootstrapping highlights that you bootstrap to change an undesirable reality “get (oneself or something) into or out of a situation using existing resources.”

For example, I’ve read many blogs in which the writers have written something similar to “It may look like I have it all together, but I’m still just bootstrapping this thing trying to make it work.” The impression I’m left with is that they are not satisfied with where they are. Or, they don’t believe they are meeting the expectations of others.

As someone who is experimenting, building and trying to create something meaningful with the limited resources of a side hustle, I find freedom in bricolage. Changing my perspective from ‘I need to get out of this situation but I have such limited resources’ to ‘I’m going to tinker and explore to see what I can meaningful things I can create with what I have’ is powerful.

Bricoleurs create with freedom and flow.

If you’ve ever tried to create anything--write a paper, watercolor a painting, build a patio, organize a photo album, design a website or sew a quilt--you’ve probably experienced the eb and flow of creativity and judgement. When you create from a place of freedom and fun, ideas and movements come naturally. Many call this finding “flow”.

However, when you try to create from a place of judgment (i.e. perfectionism, “what others will think”, or comparison) the process is frustrating and slow.

That’s why I love the addition of bricolage to my mental framework around work. My lack of the perfect tools, resources or solutions actually gives me a different benefit. It forces me to rely on my breadth of knowledge and skills to create something new, and something unique to me.

There are no excuses with bricolage. Bricoleurs (those that practice bricolage) are going to create no matter what. They innovate and problem solve because that’s who they are. They are tinkerers, after all.

There are many areas of life you can pull from to create bricolage in your life and work.

Maybe you’re looking for a new hobby or are searching for a solution in your business. Either way, there are several facets of life you can pull from to draw inspiration and create something meaningful with your existing resources. Here are some ideas:

  • Skills: What are you good at? What do other people often ask for your help with? What kind of work do you enjoy most? Make a list of the things that come to mind.

  • Industry experience: What industries have you worked in? What were the most interesting parts of each industry for you? What problems were unique to each? Which problems overlapped multiple industries? What have you learned in one industry that could benefit another? Consider creating a chart to see where there are gaps and overlap, then start dreaming up solutions for the gaps!

  • History: Those of you who love history are in luck! The more we know about the past, the better equipped we are to spot themes and patterns in our current day. History repeats itself, which means familiarity with both historical successes and failures will help guide you in the right direction.

  • Network: What’s possible by tapping on the resources around you? Who do you know that can help fill in the gaps for you? Who can you partner with?

  • Time: Most of us are strapped for time. Now, how can you use this to your advantage? For example, in this week’s episode of Feminine Foresight, I used my lack of time to my advantage. I made the recording as short and to-the-point as possible. It helped me get the episode completed, but it will also help my listeners be more efficient in their day as well.

  • Finances: You might have a lot, or a little. But what is the most effective way you can spend the monetary capital you do have? Or, how can you use bricolage principles to create more money for yourself if you’re on the short end?

As you think through this list, do not let your mind slip into a negative place. Don’t use words like “only” (i.e. I “only” have…) or anything else that focuses on what you lack. Bricolage is about using what’s at hand to create something new. It’s a challenge and exploration of what’s possible. It’s fun!

Even though its rooted in creativity, some people are sceptical of bricolage.

I first heard the idea that constraint leads to creativity in my high school art class. I fought it at first, when my teacher would assign us a project that at first seemed nearly impossible. But I was proved wrong over the course of the semester when every project led to new depths of exploration and every classmate’s final project turned out so unique. It was my first experience with bricolage, and since then I’ve seen how it’s been applied to many other situations including business.

But not everyone sees bricolage with rose-colored glasses. Just like ‘bootstrapping’ carries negative connotations for me, ‘making do with what’s available’ can communicate a lack of quality to others. It’s healthy to be aware of this, and to balance how you embrace bricolage with how you promote its relationship to your work (Source).

This is especially true if you are trying to market yourself or business. While many might see the hard work and innovation that stems from bricolage, others might get hung up on the process. They could suspect your product or service is second-best, inefficient or incomplete.

The good news is, those are perceptions, and that’s all.

Bricolage is at the heart of innovation.

The reality is, bricolage is at the heart of innovation. This is just as true for the solopreneur as it is for a major corporation. Just take a look at how United Parcel Service (UPS) uses the principles of bricolage to keep their company running efficiently and delivering packages on time (Source).

At UPS, the entire company is structured in a way to encourage improvisation and creative problem solving. The UPS drivers are empowered to do whatever it takes to get their packages delivered on time. When circumstances change the planned course (e.g. weather, road closures, truck trouble, etc.) the drivers are authorized to make up a new plan. They don’t need to wait for direction from a boss or frustratingly be stuck following a plan that is no longer logical.

This creates personal ownership. When employees have ownership over their work, they are more dedicated, thorough and enjoy work more. I know this from personal experience too. I am much more satisfied at work if I’m working on a self-led project rather than simply completing tasks handed down to me from above.

If you’re a leader of any sort--a parent, volunteer, manager or coach, for example--consider how you might inspire those you lead to practice bricolage.

Of course, some ground rules will be essential to keep things grounded in order. But then ease up the control. Encourage creative thinking and empower your people to make decisions. The beauty of bricolage is that even in a team setting, everyone benefits from it. You have less stress as a leader, your team feels more valued, creative and trusted, and of course, the end results will be more innovative and efficient.

Do you resonate with the practice of bricolage? Please share your thoughts below!