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Big Ideas

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

Babies don't get fazed by failure - so why should we? A look at how child's play super-charges our creativity and helps new ideas thrive.

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 Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (10)
  • Karl

    I love this take on creativity; especially in terms of problem-solving, and not just generation of new ideas. I often find myself waking up from a dream, having worked out a solution to an argument. I would love to see the 99% take on “Inception” and its treatment of infinite creativity, routine, and organization.

  • Colleen Litof

    I love this piece–it literally opens the mind. I heard on a radio show just yesterday that one of the Rolling Stones–I think it was Keith Richards–woke up from a dream, riffed at tune, and went back to bed. The next morning, the band went right into the studio and recorded “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in one take.
    The subconscious mind processes things when we are not necessarily concentrating on it. ie, witness the writer who comes up with a great lead while swimming laps or doing something totally unrelated.
    For entrepreneurs, it can be challenging to present a new design or idea to an audience that is steeped in old ideas or conventional tastes and buying habits. They need to become trendsetters, as consumers often are lemmings, following in the footsteps of what everyone else is doing.

  • Brenton Gieser

    Removing myself from constant thought has always been a past time of mine. With a faster paced world comes faster moving minds. I have the utmost respect for creatives as they can remove themselves from the world as they mold they’re understanding of the world around them….a daunting task and rewarding task.

    I always thought it was “stay hungry… stay foolish”….however I think I might like your version better.

  • Jocelyn

    @Brenton – You were totally right about the Jobs quote: It is “stay hungry, stay foolish” rather than “stay young, stay foolish.” I must have succumbed to the influence of all that child’s play, and let the quote drift in my mind! ; )
    Jobs pulled that from the back of the last edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, I believe. It was a truly amazing publication.

  • Etienne Rijkheer

    Ideomatically speaking, experience is the scar tissue of failure. And of course, the man who never made a mistake never made anything. So go ahead and fly that kite. Just try not to make the same mistake again; when there are so many new mistakes that you can make.

  • Anand Subramanian 0

    Very true. I think the key is not only to dream but to distract, especially for problem solving. Some mechanism in the inner workings of our brains continues to seek the solution much more effectively when we distract the conscious mind from the problem. This distraction can be sleeping or engaging in any other unrelated activity.

    I have experienced this many times over in my software world. Getting stuck in solving a defect, I have a rule of not brooding over a problem for more than 10 minutes, after which I believe I have put my brain on auto pilot to find the answer and I move, take a walk, talk to colleagues or browse on the internet. When I come back to the problem, the solution is right there.

  • Duncan

    Great article!
    Ooo, what’s that over there…
    Sorry, gotta go play.

  • Ryan

    Since being a kid I always would listen to music through headphones and fantasize about something I wanted to do as if it were a scene in a movie, with a particular song playing over it – montage style.  I would continuously repeat the song, replaying the scene in my head over and over, tweaking it so it worked out perfectly along with the music in my head.  Like a little music video.  That sort of exercise is always fun for me and how I solve lots of creative problems.  These days I find it’s easiest to do this when flying somewhere.  I wear my Ipod battery down though because I often have to skip around before finding the perfect song to sync up with what I’m trying to think about.

  • PickledBeatnik

    This makes me think of something Paul Rand wrote about the essence of play and design. He said something to the effect that the play instinct should not be ignored, and that it’s a crucial function for problem solving the brain learns from infancy. Very illuminating interview.

  • Matīss

    As a critical person I could summarize this concept into “don’t think, just do” and I think this is the main reason why so few critics makes something themselves, because their (or our) standards puts a lot barriers whose we have to go through in order to take initiative towards actually creating something.

    But I don’t think that doing stiff mindlessly is the only way to be creative, the other solution is to focus on reason – not what to make, but why and for what purposes to make. I’m not saying that this way you could access this theta state, but that way a person would shift his focus towards what’s essential and would have less focus left to worry about petty things.

    This is what I try to do, but still no results yet. Feel free to think about this if that makes sense to you.

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