What We Can Learn from Babies: Experimentation, Failure & Creative Genius

The creative process of inventor James Dyson is a startling example. Although Dyson is now one of the wealthiest men in Britain, it took him 15 long years and thousands upon thousands of failed experiments to arrive at his first success. In a Fast Company interview, Dyson explains, “I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.”

As Dyson observes, from an early age, most of our school training encourages us to be risk-averse by rewarding those who deliver exactly what’s expected – rather than those who try something new and dare to look foolish. We are taught to honor rigor and focus over play and experimentation.

Yet, it is these same qualities – playfulness, wonder, and a lack of inhibition – that have fostered the greatest creative breakthroughs. They are also a key ingredient in highly functioning creative teams. Pyschology Today reports that “when teams of people are working together on a problem, those groups that laugh most readily and most often are more creative and productive than their more dour and decorous counterparts.”

Of course, rediscovering the wonder and relentless experimentation of a child is only part of the equation – or, one of the selves we must tap into as creatives. It must be balanced by judicious “adult” decisions about everything from how we focus our energy to what we decide to share with the world.

Essayist and thinker Susan Sontag may have put it best when she described the four selves the artist must inhabit. The first two are clearly connected to an experimental, childlike mindset, while the latter two relate to more adult, executive functions:

“The writer must be four people:

1) the nut, the obsédé: supplies the material

2) the moron: lets it come out

3) the stylist: is taste

4) the critic: is intelligence

by Jocelyn K. Glei

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about babies – and how the child’s ability to explore, experiment, and make mistakes is an essential part of the creative process. When we are at the height of our creative productivity or “flow” state, our brainwaves reflect a deeply meditative, or “theta,” pattern. As babies and pre-adolescent children, this theta state – characterized by the ability to shut out the world and deeply concentrate and connect with a task at hand – is the norm, enabling children to lose hours playing in completely imaginary worlds. Yet, for adults theta brainwaves are more difficult to access, usually coming only in half-waking states as we slip into dreams.

Rumor has it that Thomas Edison (progenitor of the 99% namesake) would sleep just 4-5 hours a night and then power-nap in order to intentionally access the super-creative powers of the theta state. Edison would grasp a ball bearing in his hand, which he draped over the arm of his chair just above a tin pie plate. As he nodded off in his chair, he’d drop the bearing, and the clanging would wake him up just as he drifted off. Then, he would immediately write down whatever was in his mind.
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