The Power of Tinkering

Tinkering is a minor risk taking activity without any great consequence; it is not goal directed nor are there defined outcomes. There are no key performance indicators for tinkering. Thus, tinkering is suspended from the pressures of defined goals and time limits. It’s about a question mark, not a product or a saleable process. Tinkering involves a flow state, an intense focus on a small closed world. Tinkering and play are closely interlinked; a certain sense of wonder propels the curiosity at the heart of every compulsive tinkerer. Tinkering allows failure, which is essential for any process of evolution. - Mark Thompson – Institute of Backyard Studies

little delicate workFast Company ran an interesting piece by Kevin Lee recently titled “How Creative Hobbies Make Us Better at Basically Everything.”  Most people will agree that it’s nice to have hobbies, but making us better “at basically everything”?

Lee cites Google’s “20% rule” that famously allows employees 20% of their work time to pursue their own interests (and may or may not have been redesigned a bit) in the interest of boosting overall corporate creativity and employee satisfaction. More compelling is the UK study Lee references, that examined the relationships between non-work creative activity and work performance.

Results showed “that those who had a creative hobby were more likely to feel a sense of relaxation outside work and to feel greater control and a sense of mastery. At work, meanwhile, those with a creative hobby were more likely to help others and to be more creative in the performance of their job.”

This isn’t rocket science of course, although it certainly could be.  Anything that exercises creativity and artistic expression limbers up the heart and soul, as well as the mind. Whether it’s tinkering for something like Red Bull Creation, or cobbling things together for Instructables projects, to solve real problems or create works of art or just fiddling for fun, that state of “flow” that brings life and being into clear, contented focus.

the joy of flow

In the TED Talk, Flow, the secret to happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of  psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, observes that “regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

Imagine a nation of people in “flow” supported in creative endeavors at all levels of life, at work and at home, a capable nation of tinkerers,  imbued with that “certain sense of wonder” that propels the curiosity driven, capable and meaningful life.

Not a bad world to imagine!


Help us Obi Wan: Why Science needs Science Fiction

There’s a very interesting dialectic between science and science fiction. If you take a look at, for example, Edwin Hubble, the greatest astronomer of the 20th century, he was destined to be a Missouri country lawyer. He remembered reading Jules Verne as a child. As a consequence, he dropped his law career, went to the University of Chicago, got a PhD and discovered the expanding universe. Take a look at Carl Sagan. When he was a kid, he read “John Carter of Mars”. He dreamed about chasing the beautiful Dejah Thoris across the sands of the red planet. There’s always been this tight relationship between science fiction and science.  Dr. Michio Kaku Theoretical Physicist and Author


trip_to_the_moon_1902In, Will Sci-Fi Save Us? Studio 360 this week examined the integral relationship between science fiction and technological reality, that vital intersection between imagination and innovation that has brought the inventions of the literary mind to life in some form or other, in our everyday world. If there is still any doubt of the value of creative thought exercises and imaginative exploration to inspire curiosity driven learning, discovery and social progress, put on your cardboard VR Headset and consider the history of science fiction’s influence on our daily lives.

“It’s so easy to make money with a tale that says: ‘Civilization is garbage. Our institutions never will be helpful. Your neighbors are all useless sheep,’” science fiction writer and astrophysicist David Brin, told Studio 360. “’Now enjoy a couple of characters running around shooting things and having adventures in the middle of a dystopia.’”    While dystopia may sell books and movies, Brin said, the real value of good science fiction is that it builds the future.

Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash (which itself helped inspire the creation of Second Life) came to agree with that sentiment after sitting on a panel discussion with Arizona State University President Michael Crow. Stephenson had complained about the lack of inspiration from science discovery and innovation in recent years, but Crow told him the science fiction writers were the slackers. He said, recalled Stephenson, that “the engineers were ready to go, they had the tools, they had the willingness but the science fiction writers were no longer pulling their weight by supplying compelling visions of things for the engineers to build.”

From this epiphany arose the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, which” brings writers, center-for-science-and-the-imagination-arizona-state-universityartists and other creative thinkers into collaboration with scientists, engineers and technologists to reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for innovation and discovery”.  Besides functioning as a network hub “for audacious moonshot ideas and a cultural engine for thoughtful optimism,” CSI  is also home to the Imaginary College, a group of “creative thinkers, researchers, practitioners, mad geniuses and global disruptors that represents one of the core missions of the Center for Science and Imagination: to seek out intelligent life wherever it resides in the universe, and to get it on our side. “

And from this came Project Hieroglyph,  a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.

google-glassThese aren’t just sci-fi-in-the sky ideas.  The influence of science fiction on science fact is well established. A 2010 History of Science Society Journal article titled Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench, takes a serious academic look at the measurable impact of science fiction on science invention, citing, among other things, the research of David R. Smith and his colleagues in the fields of transformation optics and electromagnetic cloaking of matter at microwave frequencies, aka “invisibility” shields or “cloaking devices.”  In his work, Smith referenced the imaginary technologies of the Fantastic Four, Star Trek and even the Harry Potter books.

“There is undeniably a link between science fact and the ideas that emerge in science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction authors are inspired by actual scientific and technological discoveries, but allow themselves the freedom to project the possible future course of these discoveries and their potential impact on society, perhaps remaining only weakly tethered to the facts. … Scientists, in turn, often derive inspiration from the imaginative possibilities that exist in fictional worlds, but are constrained to follow the laws of nature that apply in this world. The inventions in fictional worlds seldom transition to the real world—at least not in the way they are first imagined,” wrote Smith.

“Science fiction does not simply drive science, any more than science simply drives science fiction. Rather, they have a 375px-20090704-1971_StarTrekTOSCommunicatorReplicarelationship of ongoing and productive mutual modification,” noted the authors of Modifiable Futures.

Some common inventions fueled by science fiction include:

  • The cell phone, which inventor Martin Cooper stated outright as having been inspired by the old Star Trek “communicator.”
  • The helicopter and the submarine, both inspired by Jules Verne whose fantastic 19th century visions have lit imaginations since his works first hit shelves.
  • The liquid-fueled rocket was developed by Robert H. Goddard,who became fascinated with spaceflight after reading a serialization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
  • Taser is actually an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle” , made a reality by Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, inspired by the Tom Swift novels.

Even the internet comes down to us from the pages of science fiction.  Tim Berners-Lee,  widely credited for the creation of the worldwide web, was fascinated, as a child by Arthur C. Clarke’s  Dial F For Frankenstein, written in 1964, which drew on a scenario of networked computers that began to learn to think autonomously.

The power of curiosity driven exploration is in few places more evident than in our science fiction literature, which puts the A in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in clear, measurable and enduring ways.  We need science AND imagination, now more than ever.



Jim Carrey and the Life Authentic

AristotleMindHeartWhen you are authentic, transparent, you will stand out as you are truly seen. When you are transparent, others can “see through” you into you as your heart and true essence shines. You are clear, direct and kind. You are not an enigma; you don’t leave people scratching their heads wondering what you just said and did. You do not hide. You are honest to the bone. You are courage enfleshed… Authenticity happens in the guts and bowels of your life. Being authentic is the grunt-work of the soul, of any deeply human, spiritual path.

Being half here, half there, half-hearted, faking it to look good, strategizing to make things easier for your self — that’s the common way of the unconscious clotted middle, driven by our egoic, addicted culture. It’s a way that lacks wholeheartedness. Lacks real courage to let the heart break. Shatter. Broken whole and holy open to finally know compassion for self, others, earth. To live and love — on-fire, fully alive, juiced and ready to serve. © 2014 Melissa La Flamme,  Excerpted from the article: Authenticity: The Juicy Mess of Our Human-ness


Passion-based learning, and its hoped for result, passion-based living, are relatively new terms in the education passion based learning info graphiclexicon,  but a natural component of the sharing economy – things like peer-to-peer networking, Zipcar , and Airbnb - that are growing all around us.  It may seem easy to  dismiss it all as some Millennial feel-good fad, that fails to take into consideration the harsh realities of the lives most of us lead, lives that require 9-5 (or more) in jobs we may not like, doing work we’d prefer not to do, for the very basic purposes of buying food and paying for rent.

But let’s posit there’s something bigger going on here, a slow dawning of consciousness among small  but increasingly connected groups.  Paul Ray wrote “The Cultural Creatives: How 50 million People Are Changing the World,” in 2000, and in 2002 Richard Florida brought a socioeconomic look to bear on the idea with his landmark book, “Rise of the Creative Class.”  The inexorable march of the maker movement, culminating with the recent White House Maker Faire, would seem to bear out these now decade old contentions that there just might be something to the idea of a passion based life of creative engagement.

Actor and comedian Jim Carrey’s commencement address, this past May, to the 2014 graduating class of  Maharishi University of Management (MUM) adds yet another compelling layer, not the least of which is the facility at which he spoke – a business school in Iowa that specializes in “Consciousness-Based education,” combining traditional post-secondary school subjects with things like Transcendental Meditation and Vedic Science.

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.” Carrey told students.  “What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”

Carrey’s message to students is, essentially, a call to authenticity, to that wholehearted life of transparency Melissa LaFlame talks about, that way of being that is “on-fire, fully alive, juiced and ready to serve,” a way of being as true for a plumber or a taxi driver as it is for an artist or an engineer.  Can we always be or do what we want to be or do? Maybe not. But can we try? Can we live openly, honestly, with curiosity and interest in the world around us? Carrey suggests it’s the only way to peace of mind and light of soul.

“You can join the game, fight the wars, play with form all you want, but to find real peace, you have to let the armor fall. Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory.”

This call to the life authentic, to passion based living, is nothing less than a call for a civil society, to a world in which we are honest, compassionate, and creative, where we share our resources, our skills and our knowledge, where  there is less posturing and more productivity.

Ultimately,” Carrey says. “We’re not the avatars we create. We’re not the pictures on the film stock. We are the light that shines through it. All else is just smoke and mirrors.

Life doesn’t happen to you, Carrey contends, it happens for you. Make it Real.


The Patience to Succeed: Playing the Long Game

Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.”  Adam Westbrook, in the Long Game

andrea12For most of the centuries of human existence, we have known the truth of the sentiment, “good things come to those who wait,” or it’s 21st century manifestation, the 10,000 Hour Rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.  Or at least we’ve understood its implications: that success, expertise, skill, knowledge, mastery and understanding take time to fully develop, to be realized, to blossom, and come to fruition.

In an interesting look at the work of Leonardo DaVinci, in the second installment of Adam Westbrook’s video series, The Long Game, Westbrook focuses not on DaVinci’s successes, but on the time between those successes – at one point a 16 year long dry spell, which wasn’t really dry so much as it was a spell of patient, persistent exploration. And everyone’s familiar with Thomas Edison’s endless light bulb trials and his sentiment that he hadn’t failed a thousand times, but rather knew one thousand ways not to make a lightbulb.

In his book, Mastery, author Robert Greene calls these down times between personal successes  “a self-directed IMG_3595apprenticeship” that can often last ten years or more but receives no historical or social attention because it often seems to lack stories of any significant discovery or achievement. The fact is, great people and their great discoveries, inventions, ideas, art and innovation don’t happen overnight.

“All of us have the brain, ” Westbrook notes. “and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?”

frustrated-writerThat’s a good question, and an important one, because to do or create anything of enduring value requires time and patience.

In the aptly named blog post, Change takes Time,  Code for America Fellow  Molly McLeod talks about efforts to improve services and resources for the homeless in Long Beach, CA, where resources exist but it’s hard to connect people with them.

“…to be successful, ” she says, “interventions often have to be very hands-on, personal, and sustained over time,” often requiring dozens of conversations over months or even years to connect people with services.

In our high speed culture, it’s easy to forget that it actually takes time to do things, time to achieve things, time, ironically, to change things - especially in a world that seems to change so quickly.

But we’re only seeing the high tech legacy of efforts, not the history that led to their conclusions. Sure, Moore’s Law says technology advances exponentially, but it requires a lot of exponential developments to create truly valuable outcomes. Most of the stuff in between is bread and circuses, trinkets to amuse us. Most of the gadgets in cars are just gadgets. But there’s been a couple hundred years between the development of the car, and the development of the *driverless* car.

Similarly, cultural change takes time. There’s a great TEDx talk by Derek Sivers on “How to Start a Movement.” A dancingguymovement doesn’t happen when someone has an idea, he says, in this charming talk, but when the second person follows that first person with the idea, inspiring others to join in.

Real change requires community buy in, which usually starts with a small group of like-minded individuals and builds outward over time.  And even Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours rule has been tempered by the observation that it’s not necessarily the the amount of time invested in learning or creating something, but the quality of that time.

Efforts to fast track the success of products, opportunities, or ideas working from the top down are more often than not a flash in the pan, if  they spark at all, because they fail to take the quality time needed to nurture the relationships – personal, community, commercial and corporate –  that lead to real and enduring success.

It takes patience to really succeed, but the time spent playing the long game can be well rewarded.

In Celebration of Questions & Red Bull Creation

RBCIt’s that time of year again, when we get together with a motley collection of friends for the annual running of the Red Bull Creation challenge!  This is the third year we’ve participated in the competition, a quirky contest of ingenuity, endurance and good humor.

The first year we participated, we made it IMG_5570into the semi-finals with our Red Bull Alarm Clock entry.  We were cheered on as the Little Red Bull Team that Could, competing against a dozen bigger, better equipped and more experienced teams, largely housed in big makerspaces across the country.  Our goal, beyond having a really good time (which we did!), was to raise awareness of the maker IMG_1359-ccommunity and the value of spaces to build and create together.  (Now they’re blossoming all over the place!)  Last year, we were just happy we didn’t flood the Land O’Lakes Library with our Spectrapiano entry , a wonderfully elaborate and fate defying concoction of electronics and water.

This year,  the qualifying challenge is more cerebral in nature:  Identify a specific need in your community, or something you think could be improved, and propose a solution. It could be an idea that makes the world a better place, or if nothing else, a more fun and interesting place.

What? one of our team members asked.  Nothing to build?!   Just brain cells.

The fun – and power – of contests like Red Bull Creation is the game based knowledge-making the competition inspires, and opportunities to think not just creatively, but critically, especially with the qualifier this year.

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times (Young Minds in Critical Condition),  Michael Roth, President of Weslyan College, observed, “Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.”

A good education he says, should “foster openness, participation and opportunity. It should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.”

Not to over invest pure old Red Bull fun with the burden of existential purpose and meaning, but creative exercises like RBC require exactly that vital “messy participation” that finds inspiration in unexpected places.

In this particular qualifier, teams are being asked to basically do a thought experiment, starting with a really broad topic:

Identify a specific need in your community

and then asking for the team to propose a solution and describe or illustrate that solution in a three minute video.

To have any chance of being successful, teams are going to have to take that challenge from the vague to the specific, Susan-Engel-320x240and that in itself is a creative exercise.  In Tackle any Problems with these Three Questions, Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question,  says the best way to solve problems is to ask good questions, to exercise thoughtful inquiry.

He suggests asking Why, What if, and How, in that order.

““Why” questions are ideal for coming to grips with an existing challenge or problem–helping us understand why the problem exists, why it hasn’t been solved already, and why it might be worth tackling. “What if” questions can be used to explore fresh ideas for possible improvements or solutions to the problem, from a hypothetical standpoint. When it’s time to act on those ideas, the most effective types of questions are practical, action-oriented ones that focus on “how”: how to give form to ideas, how to test and refine them with the goal of transforming possibility into reality.

We accept a lot without challenge – the things we hear on television, read in popular media, see on the Internet – and when we just accept without questioning, we become complacent or, as Michael Roth said, simply cynical commentators with uninformed opinions.  Both outcomes can lead to a life on auto-pilot, says Berger, where we feel un-empowered, at the mercy of life instead of in control of our lives.

Getting in the habit of asking questions – and knowing what questions to ask when, says Berger, “is good for us. It can help to open up new possibilities in our lives. It’s a first step in solving problems. It makes us more successful as leaders. People who ask a lot of questions tend to be more engaged in their lives, more fulfilled, and happier.”

So now our Eureka! Factory Team has before us the wide open question of “What is a specific need in our community?” The possibilities are endless!


Empowered Learning: Co-Authoring our Future

10175081_704085139655151_8564558905749992192_n“You can make the whole room smarter than any of the individuals in the room alone, including the instructor. There’s a radical shift in this way of doing things — it’s built on trust, and I think our existing school structures are built more on dependency and control than trust.” Brad Ovenell-Carter

Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobsand a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Digital Journalism and VirtualCommunity/Social Media, where he teaches a course in Participatory Media/Collective Action, has interviewed dozens of teachers for his blog on DMLCentral.  The common theme, he found, is “student empowerment.”

In his most recent blog piece, Co-Inventing the Curriculum, Rheingold looks at the work of  Brad Ovenell-Carter , a CanadianKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA educator who teaches a course on Theory of Knowledge to an 11th high school class, Knowledge Ethnographers as he calls the students, whom he has tasked with observing ” how knowledge was stored, moved and processed during a (10th grade physics) lab.” 

Ovenell-Carter’s students are digitally literate, familiar with blogs, spreadsheets, and social media.  But he takes them a step further in ownership of their education.

“… instead of banking received knowledge in their brains, “notes Rheingold, “which assumes that the creation and testing of knowledge is for others, Ovenell-Carter’s students look for problems, ask questions, collect data, try to make sense of the data they have collected, test their hypotheses, apply and integrate what they’ve learned about co-discovering, co-inquiring, and co-learning to all their subject matter. “

This idea of moving from “the creation and testing of knowledge for others” to co-learning for the purposes of producing a personal “meaning-making toolset” is a powerful and empowering concept.   Educator Steven Anderson contends that,  “Alone we are smart. Together we are brilliant.”    Some rightly argue that we can be as deluded by a crowd as we can by ourselves (See Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds) , but what we’re looking at here is the time tested theory of small group-directed learning.  Sugata Mitra ‘s Hole in the Wall experiments have illustrated well how groups of children can co-learn in a collaborative setting  “where  children can share their knowledge and in the process, develop better group dynamics.” 

This journey from authoritarian rote content delivery to relevant and meaningful knowledge discovery is seen in everything from the growth of online learning to innovative charter schools to the developing maker movement.  It’s not well paved road, by any means.  There are pit holes, speed bumps,  steep drop offs and dead ends.   As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle,  a balanced diet of old school and new served with a healthy measure of open mindedness.

But Ovenell-Carter’s work, like Mitra’s and many others, continues to show us the many ways that we can make our way into an interesting, exciting and fast changing future, one that we need to be both thoughtful and nimble in negotiating, as well as efficiently collaborative if we are to succeed.



The Maker Effect

Alumni Awesome-c

FIRST Robotics Alumni – Engineers, filmmakers, roboticists, tinkerers all

The Maker Effect is the sum of the personal growth, professional success, community development, and continuous innovation that results when makers learn, educate, share, and create together. ”  The Maker Effect

The Maker Effect Foundation,a Florida nonprofit headed up by some veteran Florida makers and community leaders,  in collaboration with the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College, has undertaken a research study “to understand the personality characteristics, motivations, and behavioral skills used by makers when working alone and in teams. We hope to answer questions such as: “What are the common behavioral and personality characteristics of makers?”, “Why do maker communities work?”, “Why should I hire makers?”, etc..”

These are all good questions, because there’s a lot going on here, both within and without the maker community.

“Today’s makers,” say Maker Effect organizers, ” are providing the knowledge, skills, and tools to anyone willing to take ownership of their own future – democratizing innovation in the way that the invention of the printing press, the rise of personal computing, and the proliferation of the internet did in previous innovation cycles.”

The phrase “democratizing innovation” is an important one.  As with 21st century blended learning  that began democratizing education through online content and virtual classrooms a couple of decades ago, the Maker movement provides a wealth of opportunity in every sense of the word.   The “Maker-Entrepreneur” is the empowered  everyman and everywoman who can become an instant small business person on the strength of his or her own elbow grease and ingenuity. It’s the new Personal Industrial Age,  3D printed in the garage.

But there’s another “Maker Effect”, a sort of shadow presence that hangs around the periphery of the maker community.  As with the advent of MOOCs and virtual schools that  made every space potentially classroom space, and conceivably freed us of the “experts” who previously controlled knowledge,  come new “experts” trying to capitalize onthe glass blower our new found Maker freedom, as they did with open education.   Becoming your own expert can be threatening to some people, especially those whose livelihoods are dependent on some form of expertise that others can now access or develop for themselves.

These new “experts” trail in the wake of the grassroots maker movement, selling their wares and their services to people who originally distinguished themselves through their ability to fill their own needs.

  • Makerspaces literally started in people’s garages and empty building spaces. But now there’s TechShop franchises providing a makerspace in a box for the well heeled.
  • The Instructables were freely sharing how-tos for years.  But you can also pay for glossy how-tos with a Make Magazine subscription.
  • Early makers scrounged parts in junkyards and scavenged dumpsters.  Although many still do, today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of suppliers for every possible tool, part and electronic and mechanical need.
  • Makers have always been able to sell things through Ebay and Etsy and Kickstarter. But now there’s a fleet of experts promising to make every Maker a Maker Entrepeneur and a successful start-up.

KThese aren’t bad things, of course. TechShop does cool stuff with DARPA. MAKE Magazine has a great community and provides terrific and very instructive hangouts and contests.   It’s nice to be able to shop at Adafruit.  And it’s helpful to have entrepreneurial support if you want it.

But here’s the thing:  Not every maker wants or needs to be an entrepreneur.

Many, if not most, makers simply want to – make stuff.  They’re  hobbyists and tinkerers, artists and explorers. They want to  build a widget, fix a motor, sculpt or paint, make a video, create a game, craft a costume, command a robot uprising.  Many makers already have jobs.  They’re engineers and fry cooks and writers and taxi drivers and parents and store managers and cashiers and mechanics and programmers and designers and students and any number of other things.

The exercise of making something  provides  intellectual enrichment, personal fulfillment and creative entertainment and relaxation.  Making things in a safe, accessible and collaborative environment like a makerspace provides community development and capacity building,  empowering ordinary citizens to be self-reliant, capable individuals who can take control of their own lives.  Sometimes that means selling their own products.  Oftentimes that just means being able to fix their own car or paint their own walls or play with their drone.

The real Maker Effect should make experts of us all, in a million different fields, empowering us to collaboratively improve our communities and to care for each other through the exercise of our shared skills and knowledge, as entrepreneurs, and as capable individuals.

Sometimes, Making is just the end in itself, and that’s a perfectly fine Effect.

Make Glorious Mistakes!


by Daniel Dennett

Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.” Neil Gaiman

Brain Pickings, one of our favorite sites for inspiring thought and introspection,  shared a look at philosopher Daniel Dennett, on the recent anniversary of his 72 birthday.  Dennet is often considered one of our greatest living philosophers.   What? You didn’t know there were still philosophers?  Allow us to introduce you to Mr. Dennett.

Daniel Clement “Dan” Dennett III is an American philosopher, writer and scientist with a particular interest in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.  He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Among other things, he has been referred to as  one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism“, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens- a sort of evangelical atheist, a phrase he’d probably disdain.

More to our interests, though, he’s a huge proponent of failure.

“Mistakes are not just golden opportunities for learning, Dennett wrote in his essay, How to Make Mistakes, “They are, in an Oopsimportant sense, the only opportunity for learning something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. These learners must either have evolved themselves or have been designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error–and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything. “

Recently, on the journey to creating something we believe is amazing and good and important, we made some big, truly glorious mistakes.  They were errors of judgement, mostly, affecting process and to some degree, perhaps the outcome of initial effort.

Dennett says, “The fundamental reaction to any mistake ought to be this: “Well, I won’t do that again!” “

That was, in fact, our reaction.  And that reaction, says Dennett, is the start of the reflection that is at the heart of the value of making mistakes.

“…when we reflect, we confront directly the problem that must be solved by any mistake-maker: what, exactly, is that? What was it about what I just did that got me into all this trouble? The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it, and not be just another blind stab in the dark. “

There’s a movement afoot in schools to de-stigmatize the action of making mistakes.

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien

Mistakes, said authors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien in a recent Edutopia article (Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes), are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus …deliberate practice,” the exercise of “isolating what’s not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.”

That’s one of the reasons FIRST robotics is such an effective educational program; mistakes – big glorious messy mechanical mistakes, emotional teamwork mistakes, complicated programming mistakes – are common and, thanks to the culture of FIRST, expected, embraced, documented and built upon.

When we first realized our mistake(s), we were disappointed, sad, frustrated and mad at our ourselves.  Once we could put aside some of the emotion of the experience, we were able to take at serious look at what happened and earnestly evaluate how we wanted to move forward.   And we became excited anew about the fresh possibilities presented as a result of the new knowledge gained from our big mistake, and even somewhat grateful for the experience. (Maybe we’ll be more grateful when a little more time has gone by!)

The folks at GoogleX have a “fail fast, fail often” philosophy.

“If we can get to a no quickly on an idea, that’s almost as good as getting to a yes,” says Rich DeVaul, head of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team.  (How GoogleX Employees Deal with Failure)

If, as Dennett asserts, anyone who can say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” is standing on the threshold of brilliance, then we’re near geniuses!  But a critical part of making the best of mistakes, Dennett points out, is to not hide from our mistakes, nor to hide our mistakes.   Dennett says we should savor our mistakes, suck out ” all the goodness to be gained from having made them, (and then) cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity.”

It is that indomitable spirit that builds character and resilience, and makes good ideas become workable realities.

Back to the drawing board!