Be Like Water

In encountering obstacles, my past experiences have been like an irresistable force meeting an immovable object. Now, I say: “be like water”.

In case you haven’t heard it, the full quote from Bruce Lee is this:

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

– Bruce Lee

The way I hear this, is to flow around an obstacle. Don’t try to shape it, mold it, or change it. Don’t butt your head against it. Rather: be like water. Move with the constraints, dance around them.

Water “goes to the low places”. Water takes the path of least resistance to get to where it needs to go, and it doesn’t even assert where it needs to go. It goes according to the way things go – water doesn’t usually go uphill, in other words.

What gets me thinking about this, so early in the morning?

I’ve been hitting a major roadblock in Graffitoes, my collaborative graffiti wall project. I wanted to create “themes”, such that a background image along with a set of fonts and colors for the text would make a cohesive whole.

Boy, is this a bigger challenge than I thought! I mean, when you get into the nitty gritty of it, putting text on an image background is not a good look, as web devs found out (or didn’t) in the 90s.

For example, give me an image of a brick wall. This brick needs to be a relatively consistent color, while still having texture, and the entire image should roughly be of the same “lightness”, otherwise the text will run into the mortar between the bricks and be unreadable.

This isn’t some intractable, impossible problem. Let’s be like water.

With this mantra in mind, I think I’m taking the wrong tack when it comes to themes. I’m trying to make my preconceived notion of a wall texture / theme fit, trying to make a square peg fit a round hole.

Rather than fight this, what are some different ways to approach this problem?

One answer would be to find consistently lit background images, such that text of an opposite shade will have enough contrast to be readable. Then again, I’ve tried to find these images, on Unsplash, and they’re not exactly easy to come by.

I’m being a brick again. I should be like water.

What if we could generate those images instead? That could turn into a rabbit hole if I don’t define it well, but on the other hand, I may be able to Photoshop a few images together in an hour or so (hey, I’m not very good with Photoshop).

I could also contract out the creation of these themes or images. Let a designer handle what they’re good at. At the same time, this robs me of valuable skill-building time. I’m not saying I should do everything in-house, but practice does make perfect.

I can just make the themes flat colors too. That’s a completely viable option for a first release, and I can let people add their own backgrounds and select their own fonts if they want to deal with that mess.

See, I thought around the problem, worked with the constraints of the actual problem rather than the imagined problem, and I came up with a good 3 or 4 approaches to dealing with it. I can have a solution by the end of the day, especially if I just choose flat color backgrounds as a v1…this came a lot easier than trying to dig deeper into the problem of a lack of contrast, problems inherent to the solution I was tying my rope to.

If you want to solve your problems: know the problem you’re actually trying to solve. Don’t butt up against it, trying to fight the nature of the problem at hand. Don’t be like a brick wall.

Be like water.