What I learned at TED2012 about Failure & Creativity

Recently, I spent an amazing week at the 2012 TEDActive conference watching a series of talks by inspirational people who are changing the world. While listening to all these world-changing ideas, a common theme began to stand out…FAILURE.  As Brené Brown suggested in her talk that closed the conference, TED is like the “failure conference”, because the people there have failed many times, but they are not afraid of it.  This is something I heard time and time again during the week. It made me think hard about my students.

We need to teach our kids not to be afraid of failure. In order to truly have innovation, we need to be open to the possibility of failure. Ainissa Ramirez spent some of her years as a professor of mechanical engineering at Yale. She gave a talk this year at TED where she not only stressed the importance of science education, especially for girls, she spoke about the power of failure. “We need kids to know it’s okay to fail. You fail your way to your answer. Scientists fail all the time, they just brand their failure as ‘data’.”

For most of the children I work with, this willingness to just ‘give it a try’ is innate. They see the world as filled with endless possibilities. Sadly, we commonly see this fearless spirit get drained away by the time we reach adulthood. So how do we keep this spirit alive, to carry us through our early adolescence and inspire us throughout our adult lives? Parents and teachers are paramount in this quest, finding ways to support and encourage the natural creativity we see flowing from our students & children.

David Kelley, founder of the legendary design firm IDEO, gave a talk about creativity and how he has dedicated his life in part to helping people regain their creative confidence. Where did they lose it? Kelley believes many of us lost it in childhood, potentially through the discouragement of a teacher or a peer.  Maybe we were shamed, purposefully or not, and were left feeling badly about our “artistic” abilities, which had such an impact that it stayed with us as we grew. “Well I’m just not a creative person,” many of us have been wrongly led to believe. But as Kelly points out, this simply isn’t true. There is creativity in all of us!  As our children’s support system, we need to choose our words wisely. While we do not want to blindly praise them for everything they do, we also need build confidence in their strengths and support them to try the tasks they find challenging.

Within the early childhood community we often talk about the “Zone of Proximal Development”, a term coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He defined it as, “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.[1] It is up to us as educators and parents to guide our children to the top of this zone. To do so, we need to be prepared for the child to fail at first. I would never ask a child in my class to do a task I knew they could not accomplish. I may ask them to do things that are challenging and that they may not solve on the first try, but I am always there to help them through. By demonstrating to children that the old saying of, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is true, they will internalize the idea that pushing themselves can result in a sense of pride and accomplishment.

If I learned anything during my week at TED, it’s that failure is part of creating amazing new things. One of the most powerful moments of the conference came when Regina Dugan, director of DARPA, asked the audience, “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I think we all realized in that moment that the possibilities would be endless. We need to discourage the fear of failure and learn to see it as merely a step on the path to success, for not only our children but ourselves.


[1] L.S. Vygotsky: Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 1978, p. 86

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One Reply to “What I learned at TED2012 about Failure & Creativity”

  1. Aw, this was a really great publish. In theory I’d like to write like this also taking time and actual work to create an excellent write-up… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never ever seem to get one thing completed.

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