I damaged my top hat just before going into the conference, so I didn’t wear it. If you were looking for it, I’m sorry. You missed your opportunity.
I brought a couple of props to talk Makers with folks, but I wound up only showing one, the distaff spindle I made. I wanted to get across that it doesn’t have to be all robotics all the time; I got a couple of disdainful looks, as if I’d completely missed the point of the Maker Movement, but the Maker Movement is really a part and parcel of the Butlerian Carnival. Looking at all these photographs of highly elaborate and fancy high-tech gadgets associated with the Design Thinking movement, like laser cutters and CNC milling machines and 3D Printers (which I’ve had my own encounters with, thanks very much really), I can’t help but wonder if kids really understand what’s happening between their TinkerCAD model or their SketchUp model, and the 3D printer itself).
No matter. Based on a conversation with a colleague of mine, I think we’re likely to invest in two 3D printers, commercial-grade, to replace our not-very-effective kit design (Cupcake) that we have now. It’s not that we want to get rid of Moira… we just want her to work, and she hasn’t worked in two years now.
Back to the conference. I attended three workshop sessions, and two general sessions. The two general sessions were on the future of education with four college presidents talking about how education is changing at the collegiate+ level; and Sarah Lewis talking about her new book, The Rise about creativity and failure. Lewis was much better than the college presidents, I have to admit. I liked what she had to say:
- She gave a number of examples of people who failed or at least had near-failures before they succeeded. Albert Einstein’s poor grades in mathematics. Martin Luther King Jr.’s C and C+ and C+ in his three required public speaking classes in seminary in 1948-1951 (I may have the years wrong — my scribbled notes are difficult to interpret). J.K. Rowling’s desperation as a single mother, working like mad before the success of Harry Potter. The utter frustration on the faces of Olympic Silver Medalists vs. the joy of the Bronze Medalists.
- The surprising success of almost failures. She explained the Black List, Hollywood’s relatively new system for producing unlikely films of great merit: a producer called a bunch of his buddies and asked them, “what film script do you secretly love but do you think will never be made?” He, a guy working for Leonardo DiCaprio named Franklin Leonard, tabulated the results. The scripts included Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, The Imitation Game, Slumdog Millionaire, Charlie Wilson’s War, and numerous others. The near-failures of the script writers on the list equally assisted them in getting jobs on other productions, and of course the movies themselves stand a much better chance of being made.
- She told the story of the first two-dimensional object’s discovery: graphene, a type of carbon molecule only one atomic layer thick, was discovered by putting sticky tape from a failed graphite experiment under the atomic microscope. This was from the same laboratory that produced the floating frog effect:
This lab wound up proving that all living things are diamagnetic, just by shoving things alive and dead into a tube attached to a very powerful electromagnet. We’re dimagnetic, too, apparently. This is a lab that makes discoveries by treating playfulness as an important part of science — that it’s not all seriousness, all the time. That’s an important message to send out to kids. And it’s what spaces like my school’s Design Lab are supposed to be for.
- For Sarah Lewis, failure is a part and parcel for the search for mastery. In the magical world to which I’m tangentially attached, we care about results a good deal. We want to know that this magical spell or that magical ritual succeeded; that it worked! But Lewis pointed out that Mastery Is About Endurance. Success is hitting the target once, and mastery is about hitting the target a dozen times where you intended to hit it. Those are very different goals. Jason Miller has written about this recently, along with Deb and Gordon, where some of his readers and commentators have asked if he’s really just life-coaching them right now. And Jason’s answer (and Deb’s, and Gordon’s too) were deeply instructive: in essence, they were saying the same thing that Lewis is saying: that the beginner and the advanced practitioner are using the same techniques over and over and over again… but that the advanced practitioner is looking for mastery of those techniques, and looking for multiple ways to use the same techniques effectively on different types of problems. They’re looking for mastery. We are looking for mastery. We don’t want to be casually successful, we want continuing success… and that comes, not with a once-off success, but continuing success by our own efforts. And that’s about endurance, she said, rather than practice.
- How do we get to mastery? Well, she had four core principles. I’m not sure I agree with them, but you can consider them for yourself: 1) Focus on mastery, not on success. Success will come when mastery is achieved; but you can get success without mastery… it will just be accidental rather than persistent. 2) Sustain your Expertise. Continue to work on keeping your skills sharp, and hone your ability. But also give yourself a chance to reflect on your practice, whether it be painting or teaching (or magic), and study both your successes and failures for signs of improvement or lack of skill. 3) Find Privacy for Innovation. You need a private domain, and private time, to achieve your goals. You can’t be subject to outside critique in your private domain and time; you have to be both the creator and the critic in that environment, yourself. But don’t admit others to that space and time unless you really trust them; and even then, it’s better to wait a long time before admitting them. 4) Be Nimble. Your skills in one area, say, teaching or painting or magic, may suddenly make your skills valuable in another area. DOn’t get stuck, and don’t insist on being in one realm exclusively. Your skills and capacities may belong in many arenas — be willing to try them out.
- Make an effort to improve constantly. It’s about your curiosity, your sense of adventure, and your ability to play. Have the personal agency to sustain ambiguity. Solutions can look like failures at first. Show some grit —stick with it, and smooth away the rough edges with deliberate practice. Keep at it.
All in all, good stuff.
I was intending to address the takeaways from the whole conference in a single post, but I think that’s probably unlikely at this point. Look for Report #2 either tomorrow or Monday, and Report #3 on Wednesday, and possibly Report #4 on Friday.