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

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 99U 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.

Author Jim Robbins writes of a similar technique used by chemist Friedrich Kekule, in A Symphony of the Brain, describing a reverie in which he “envisioned atoms forming a chain and snakes biting their tails, which led him to discover the shape of the benzene ring.”

The theta state is characterized by the ability to shut out the world and deeply concentrate and connect with a task at hand.

These a-ha moments spring not from concerted effort, but rather from deep relaxation and fully open outlook that is unconscious of “adult” workaday concerns such as: timelines, cost constraints, client expectations, or any other kind of conventional or orthodox thinking. When insight does strike, it’s usually because we’ve been able to somehow shut out all of these petty concerns – by running, meditating, napping, etc. Once we are able to forget the anticipated outcome, we are freed up to explore the full range of creative solutions.

This is where babies have a tiny leg up on us, so to speak. So-called “executive functions” like strategic planning have yet to come on the scene. When your niece is learning to walk, she’s not thinking about a series of nagging dependencies. (What if I don’t make it over to the table with the shiny object on it before it’s removed? If I fall down, will people laugh?) The result is that – unlike responsibility-addled, time-pressed adults – babies are less concerned with getting things right on the first try.

Psychology professor and writer Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, writes about the possibilities of the mind of a child, untainted by anticipation and planning:

Our mature brain seems to be programmed by our childhood experiences — we plan based on what we’ve learned as children. Very young children imagine and explore a vast array of possibilities. As they grow older and absorb more evidence, certain possibilities become much more likely and more useful. They then make decisions based on this selective information and become increasingly reluctant to give those ideas up and try something new. Computer scientists talk about the difference between exploring and exploiting — a system will learn more if it explores many possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most likely one. Babies explore; adults exploit.

As we get older, our ways of thinking harden, and we start making decisions based on what we know works. Creatives are the great exception.  As RISD president John Maeda said at this year’s 99U Conference, creatives have the unique ability to live with ambiguity – and to live with mistakes. In fact, one begets the other. Without a certain comfort level with ambiguity – an uncertain outcome – we would never experiment. If we never experimented, we would never make mistakes. And if we never made mistakes, we would never learn anything.

As we get older, our ways of thinking harden, and we start making decisions based on what we know works.

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. Psychology 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

A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re the most important.

What About You?

Do you have any specific techniques for tapping into your theta waves, or entering the “flow” state?

Has a playful attitude helped you arrive at creative insight? Was Steve Jobs right when he said “Stay hungry, stay foolish”?

More insights on: Energy / Fatigue, Focus, Iteration

Jocelyn K. Glei

more posts →
As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
load comments (10)

Comments