Yesterday's principle on being picky was part of a series I'm writing on some unrefined personal principles; some general rules that I follow day-to-day. As I mentioned yesterday, today's is my favorite of the bunch. I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown. It's kind of like the ski lodge remote campus that you see in the National Lampoon movies. Really, the dorms looked just like ski lodges. I mentioned before that I was a DJ in school, and one of the perks in my second year (since, the year we before basically turned the radio station from a bumbling classic rock joke into a burgeoning modern/alternative contender) was having the opportunity to live in "Radio House" - basically a fraternity house for people involved in radio. These houses (one for the guys, one for the girls) were arranged like smaller dorms. Two rooms on the first floor shared a bathroom, as did two rooms on the second. Two guys/girls to a room, with a shared kitchen and living space on the first floor. The guys across the hall from my roommate and I had this running abuse going with a girl who idolized my roommate. Suffice to say, these are the humble origins of the Tetris Principle. Rather than get into the horrible things we did to Kristy on a regular basis, and the bet I made with Tom across the hall on her behalf, let me talk about the circumstances upon which of one of these wagers took place.
Concerning Columns, a Game for the Sega Genesis
We played a lot of Sega Genesis in college. One of the games I liked to play most was a game called "Columns". In Columns, columns of three squares (styled like gems) would fall from the top of the game board. As they fell, you could move them from side to side with the controller, or press a button to rotate the colors of the gems -- not their vertical-horizontal orientation, but the order of the gem colors. By placing enough like-colored gems next to each other, they would be removed from the board, and the gems on top of them would fall. Sometimes the gems that fell would line up other sets of similarly-colored gems, resulting in a cascade of point accumulation. Depending on how well you arranged things, you could achieve many of these cascades, each one adding multiplicatively to your score. One thing that we did a lot with Columns, besides making bets on who would next deal with Kristy, was compete in inter-room time trials. This was a specific mode of the game that gave you only a certain amount of time to get the highest score possible. At the shortest time setting, using typical strategies to win the game just didn't work. The more you try to plan things to line up, the more time you take, and the less successful you are. That's when we discovered a particular strategy that not only worked well for the time trials, but became the basis for today's principle.
Build It Up, Wreck It Down
Columns is a tad esoteric. But I bet pretty much everyone has played Tetris. Some Tetris clones even have a time trial mode just like Columns. Tetris has a similar characteristics to Columns that people may find easier to understand, and "The Tetris Principle" just sounds better than "The Columns Principle". Maybe it's just me. Anyway, if you want to score big in Tetris, you can't simply continuously build endless series of single completed rows at the bottom of the board. What you need to do is build the board up so that there's a hole in it that is one block wide and four blocks tall. Eventually, with a little luck or a little planning, the 1×4 piece that fits in that slot will fall, and you'll score the highest bonus available in the game. As such, it's impossible to build a 4-row Tetris if you don't have any blocks on the board. That's the key to the principle: You need to have stuff to work with already if you want to be really successful.
Applying the Rule
The application of this rule can vary widely. Sometimes, it can be about starting with a blank slate. When writing, for example, sometimes just getting a bunch of random junk out onto the blank sheet results in something better than if you sit there and plan it out. It's not just that you have material to work with, but also that by accumulating what you have, you can subsequently produce a plan of attack that results in success. This principle is neat because it hits me almost every day when I code. I just start doing it. I often have a plan for what I'm going to do in advance, but sometimes it's just good to get anything down and refine it, then drop in that final column and watch the whole thing light up. Another neat thing about this principle is that it implies risk. It takes guts to stack up four rows of blocks and leave that narrow little hole. And sometimes that specific piece never comes. You need to either know how to handle it with a lesser piece (hey, that happens), or take a bigger risk and stack it another set of four higher. It's a matter of comfort and experience with what you're doing that tells you how far to take it. What I like best about this principle is that when you learn it, you see applications for it everywhere. It's hard to explain. Just keep it in mind the next time you're out to dinner or doing yard work, and perhaps you'll see what I mean. If you do, or if you just have a related thought you want to share, please do comment - I want to hear from you. Tomorrow's rule is something a lot of people have been telling me lately -- sort of. They're saying it differently, and I've put just a slight adjustment in to correct it. I hope to see you then for "Move Forward Every Day".