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Alexander Graham Bell on Success, Innovation, and Creativity

“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”

Success is one of those grab-bag terms — like happiness — that defies universal definition. Thoreau saw it as a matter of greeting each day with gratitude and for designer Paula Scher, it’s about the capacity for growth; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after some necessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world. But the best kind of success is the kind you define yourself.

And yet, those who share a certain culturally agreed-upon degree of success might have some timeless and widely relevant tips. Take, for instance, Alexander Graham Bell — father of the telephone, romantic, proponent of remix culture. In the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public library; public domain) — which also gave us novelist Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success — writer Orion Swett Marden interviews Bell, at the time 54, about his life’s learnings regarding the secrets of what we call “success.”

Marden writes of Bell with deep admiration:

Extremely polite, always anxious to render courtesy, no one carries great success more gracefully than Alexander G. Bell the inventor of the telephone. His graciousness has won many a friend, the admiration of many more, and has smoothed many a rugged spot in life.

When asked about the key factors of success, Bell sides with Ray Bradbury and replies:

Perseverance is the chief; but perseverance must have some practical end, or it does not avail the man possessing it. A person without a practical end in view becomes a crank or an idiot. Such persons fill our insane asylums. The same perseverance that they show in some idiotic idea, if exercised in the accomplishment of something practicable, would no doubt bring success. Perseverance is first, but practicability is chief. The success of the Americans as a nation is due to their great practicability.

And yet he recognizes, to borrow Bertrand Russell’s words, that “every opinion now accepted was once eccentric” and leaves room for the usefulness of useless knowledge:

But often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical, does it not? You were called crazy, too, once, were you not?

Bell affirms the role of “unconscious processing” — what T. S. Eliot called the “long incubation” of ideas — in the creative process:

I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it. At night, it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; and I have often been surprised at the results. Have you not noticed that, often, what was dark and perplexing to you the night before, is found to be perfectly solved the next morning? We are thinking all the time; it is impossible not to think.

Paralleling Thomas Edison’s sleep habits, Bell offers a fine addition to other famous daily routines:

I begin my work at about nine or ten o’clock in the evening, and continue until four or five in the morning. Night is a more quiet time to work. It aids thought.

When Marden asks whether everyone can become an inventor, Bell is adamant:

Oh, no; not all minds are constituted alike. Some minds are only adapted to certain things. But as one’s mind grows, and one’s knowledge of the world’s industries widens, it adapts itself to such things as naturally fall to it.

Echoing Thoreau, Bell advocates for the creative stimulation of nature and makes a strong case for physical health:

I believe it to be a primary principle of success; ‘mens sana in corpora sano’ — a sound mind in a sound body. The mind in a weak body produces weak ideas; a strong body gives strength to the thought of the mind. Ill health is due to man’s artificiality of living. He lives indoors. He becomes, as it were, a hothouse plant. Such a plant is never as successful as a hardy garden plant is. An outdoor life is necessary to health and success, especially in a youth.

Bell, like John Dewey, believes that ideas can’t be willed and aren’t the product of the fabled Eureka! moment — rather, he advocates for slow creative gestation, echoing Thomas Edison’s insistence on singularly focused effort and Polaroid inventor Edwin Land’s conception of the 5,000 steps to success:

You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.

Next must come concentration of purpose and study. That is another thing I mean to emphasize. Concentrate all your thought upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn
until brought to a focus.

[…]

Man is the result of slow growth … The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider, and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation, persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.

Bell offers a poignant, if overly violent, metaphor for how the factory model of education stifles the creative spirit and the capacity for success:

In Paris, they fatten geese to create a diseased condition of the liver. A man stands with a box of very finely prepared and very rich food beside a revolving stand, and, as it revolves, one goose after another passes before him. Taking the first goose by the neck, he clamps down its throat a large lump of the food, whether the goose will or no, until its crop is well stuffed out, and then he proceeds with the rest in the same very mechanical manner. Now, I think, if those geese had to work hard for their own food, they would digest it better, and be far healthier geese. How many young American geese are stuffed in about the same manner at college and at home, by their rich and fond parents!

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent drawing and oath, March 7, 1876

In considering the different mindsets towards innovation in Europe vs. the United States, Bell applauds the American gift for embracing the unfamiliar and remaining open to the new, pointing to risk-aversion as a killer of the culture of innovation:

It is harder to attain success in Europe. There is hardly the same appreciation of progress there is here. Appreciation is an element of success. Encouragement is needed. My thoughts run mostly toward inventions. In England, people are conservative. They are well contented with the old, and do not readily adopt new ideas. Americans more quickly appreciate new inventions. Take an invention to an Englishman or a Scot, and he will ask you all about it, and then say your invention may be all right, but let somebody else try it first.

Take the same invention to an American, and if it is intelligently explained, he is generally quick to see the feasibility of it. America is an inspiration to inventors. It is quicker to adopt advanced ideas than England or Europe. The most valuable inventions of this century have been made in America.

When asked about the roles of heredity and environment in creativity — the good old nature-vs.-nurture debate — Bell offers a biological spin on John Locke’s “blank slate” theory and ultimately extols the American spirit of innovation as an enormously fertile environment for nurturing great minds:

Environment, certainly; heredity, not so distinctly. In heredity, a man may stamp out the faults he has inherited. There is no chance for the proper working of heredity. If selection could be carried out, a man might owe much to heredity. But as it is, only opposites marry. Blonde and light-complexioned people marry brunettes, and the tall marry the short. In our scientific societies, men only are admitted. If women who were interested especially in any science were allowed to affiliate with the men in these societies, we might hope to see some wonderful workings of the laws of heredity. A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.

Environment counts for a great deal. A man’s particular idea may have no chance for growth or encouragement in his community. Real success is denied that man, until he finds a proper environment.

America is a good environment for young men. It breathes the very spirit of success. I noticed at once, when I first came to this country, how the people were all striving for success, and helping others to attain success. It is an inspiration you cannot help feeling. America is the land of success.

BP

How to Save Science: Education, the Gender Gap, and the Next Generation of Creative Thinkers

“The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable.”

“What is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications,” the great E. O. Wilson offered in his timeless advice to young scientists — a conviction shared by some of history’s greatest scientific minds. And yet it is rote memorization and the unimaginative application of technical skill that our dominant education system prioritizes — so it’s no wonder it is failing to produce the Edisons and Curies of our day. In Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists, materials scientist, inventor, and longtime Yale professor Ainissa Ramirez takes on a challenge Isaac Asimov presaged a quarter century ago, advocating for the value of science education and critiquing its present failures, with a hopeful and pragmatic eye toward improving its future. She writes in the introduction:

The 21st century requires a new kind of learner — not someone who can simply churn out answers by rote, as has been done in the past, but a student who can think expansively and solve problems resourcefully.

To do that, she argues, we need to replace the traditional academic skills of “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic” with creativity, curiosity, critical-thinking, and problem-solving. (Though, as psychology has recently revealed, problem-finding might be the more valuable skill.)

Ainissa Ramirez at TED 2012 (Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED)

She begins with the basics:

While the acronym STEM sounds very important, STEM answers just three questions: Why does something happen? How can we apply this knowledge in a practical way? How can we describe what is happening succinctly? Through the questions, STEM becomes a pathway to be curious, to create, and to think and figure things out.

Even for those of us who deem STEAM (wherein the A stands for “arts”) superior to STEM, Ramirez’s insights are razor-sharp and consistent with the oft-affirmed idea that creativity relies heavily upon connecting the seemingly disconnected and aligning the seemingly misaligned:

There are two schools of thought on defining creativity: divergent thinking, which is the formation of a creative idea resulting from generating lots of ideas, and a Janusian approach, which is the act of making links between two remote ideas. The latter takes its name from the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, Janus, who was associated with doorways and the idea of looking forward and backward at the same time. Janusian creativity hinges on the belief that the best ideas come from linking things that previously did not seem linkable. Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician, put it this way: ‘To create consists of making new combinations. … The most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart.’

Another element inherent to the scientific process but hardly rewarded, if not punished, in education is the role of ignorance, or what the poet John Keats has eloquently and timelessly termed “negative capability” — the art of brushing up against the unknown and proceeding anyway. Ramirez writes:

My training as a scientist allows me to stare at an unknown and not run away, because I learned that this melding of uncertainty and curiosity is where innovation and creativity occur.

Yet these very qualities are missing from science education in the United States — and it shows. When the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) took their annual poll in 2006, the U.S. ranked 35th in math and 29th in science out of the 40 high-income, developed countries surveyed.

Average PISA scores versus expenditures for selected countries (Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)

Ramirez offers a historical context: When American universities first took root in the colonial days, their primary role was to educate men for the clergy, so science, technology, and math were not a priority. But then Justin Smith Morrill, a little-known congressman from Vermont who had barely completed his high school education, came along in 1861 and quietly but purposefully sponsored legislation that forever changed American education, resulting in more than 70 new colleges and universities that included STEM subjects in their curricula. This catapulted enrollment rates from the mere 2% of the population who attended higher education prior to the Civil War and greatly increased diversity in academia, with the act’s second revision in 1890 extending education opportunities to women and African-Americans.

The growth of U.S. college enrollment from 1869 to 1994. (Source: S. B. Carter et al., Historical Statistics of the United States)

But what really propelled science education, Ramirez notes, was the competitive spirit of the Space Race:

The mixture of being outdone and humiliated motivated the U.S. to create NASA and bolster the National Science Foundation’s budget to support science research and education. Sputnik forced the U.S. to think about its science position and to look hard into a mirror — and the U.S. did not like what it saw. In 1956, before Sputnik, the National Science Foundation’s budget was a modest $15.9 million. In 1958, it tripled to $49.5 million, and it doubled again in 1959 to $132.9 million. The space race was on. We poured resources, infrastructure, and human capital into putting an American on the moon, and with that goal, STEM education became a top priority.

President John F. Kennedy addresses a crowd of 35,000 at Rice University in 1962, proclaiming again his desire to reach the moon with the words, ‘We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained.’ Credit: NASA / Public domain

Ramirez argues for returning to that spirit of science education as an investment in national progress:

The U.S. has a history of changing education to meet the nation’s needs. We need similar innovative forward-thinking legislation now, to prepare our children and our country for the 21st century. Looking at our history allows us to see that we have been here before and prevailed. Let’s meet this challenge, for it will, as Kennedy claimed, draw out the very best in all of us.

In confronting the problems that plague science education and the public’s relationship with scientific culture, Ramirez points to the fact that women account for only 26% of STEM bachelor’s degrees and explores the heart of the glaring gender problem:

[There is a] false presumption that girls are not as good as boys in science and math. This message absolutely pervades our national mindset. Even though girls and boys sit next to each other in class, fewer women choose STEM careers than men. This is the equivalent to a farmer sowing seeds and then harvesting only half of the fields.

The precipitous drop in girls’ enrollment in STEM classes. (Source: J. F. Latimer, What’s Happened To Our High Schools)

And yet it wasn’t always this way — a century ago, the physical sciences were as appropriate a pursuit for girls as they were for boys, with roughly equal enrollment numbers for each gender at the beginning of the 20th century. So what happened? Ramirez explains:

Several factors caused this decline: First, secondary schools began to offer courses in classics to promote their status and to help prepare girls for college entrance (classics were still needed for college admissions). Unfortunately, the introduction of classics reduced the science offerings. Second, practical learning (or vocational training like home economics) was emphasized at the end of the 19th century, which put another nail in [the] coffin of girls’ STEM access. Third, the role of science changed, particularly physics around the time World War II, when science was deemed a conduit to making weapons. These cultural mindsets pushed girls away from science. In the 1890s, 23 percent of girls were taking physics. By 1955, that number had dropped to less than 2 percent.

Today, we are slowly recovering from this decimation of girls in the sciences. Still, it is important to examine the messaging that rides alongside our efforts to rebuild. While there is discussion of different learning styles between boys and girls, it is important to recognize that they may be linked to this old legacy of prejudice that has morphed in form. Girls can do science and math just as well as boys. Period. In fact, the gender performance gap is narrowing in the U.S.; and in Great Britain, girls have outperformed boys in ‘male’ topics like math and economics. The relationship between girls and science has never been a question about their skill but more a reflection of society’s thinking about them.

In turning toward possible solutions, Ramirez calls out the faulty models of standardized testing, which fail to account for more dimensional definitions of intelligence. She writes:

There is a concept in physics that the observer of an experiment can change the results just by the act of observing (this is called, not surprisingly, the observer effect). For example, knowing the required pressure of your tires and observing that they are overinflated dictates that you let some air out, which changes the pressure slightly.

Although this theory is really for electrons and atoms, we also see it at work in schools. Schools are evaluated, by the federal and state governments, by tests. The students are evaluated by tests administered by the teachers. It is the process of testing that has changed the mission of the school from instilling a wide knowledge of the subject matter to acquiring a good score on the tests.

The United States is one of the most test-taking countries in the world, and the standard weapon is the multiple-choice question. Although multiple-choice tests are efficient in schools, they don’t inspire learning. In fact, they do just the opposite. This is hugely problematic in encouraging the skills needed for success in the 21st century. Standardized testing teaches skills that are counter to skills needed for the future, such as curiosity, problem solving, and having a healthy relationship with failure. Standardized tests draw up a fear of failure, since you seek a specific answer and you will be either right or wrong; they kick problem solving in the teeth, since you never need to show your work and never develop a habit of figuring things out; and they slam the doors to curiosity, since only a small selection of the possible answers is laid out before you. These kinds of tests produce thinkers who are unwilling to stretch and take risks and who cannot handle failure. They crush a sense of wonder.

Like Noam Chomsky, who has questioned why schools train for passing tests rather than for creative inquiry, and Sir Ken Robinson, who has eloquently advocated for changing the factory model of education, Ramirez urges:

While scientists passionately explore, reason, discover, synthesize, compare, contrast, and connect the dots, students drudgingly memorize, watch, and passively consume. Students are exercising the wrong muscle. An infusion of STEM taught in compelling ways will give students an opportunity to acquire these active learning skills.

Reminding us, as a wise woman recently did, that it’s only failure if you stop trying and that “failure” itself is integral to science and discovery, with fear of failure an enormous hindrance to both, Ramirez writes:

In STEM, failure is a fact of life. The whole process of discovery is trial and error. When you innovate, you fail your way to your answer. You make a series of choices that don’t work until you find the one that does. Discoveries are made one failure at a time. One of the basic tenets of design and engineering is that one must fail to succeed. There are whole books written on this topic. In civil engineering, every bridge we’ve traveled across was built upon failed attempts that taught us something (and cost many lives). It was all trial and error. Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call it data.

She acknowledges our disheartening collective attitude towards math — which, as we’ve seen, is actually full of whimsy and playful fascination — and laments:

More broadly, as a society we tacitly acknowledge that its OK to be bad at math. … Our cultural attitude toward math creates an impossible job for math teachers, because their students arrive prepared to be bored and confused.

This isn’t just an anecdotal observation. Ramirez points out that math is one of the top three reasons why college students drop out of STEM majors — in fact, more than 60% of students who set out to major in STEM fail to graduate with a STEM degree, and the tendency is even more pronounced among women and minorities, who collectively constitute 70% of college enrollments but a mere 45% of STEM degrees. (And that’s today: When Ramirez herself graduated with a doctorate in engineering from Stanford, she was one of only ten African-American engineering doctorates that year in the entire country, and a handful of women.)

Ramirez goes on to propose a multitude of small changes and larger shifts that communities, educators, cities, institutions, and policy-makers could implement — from neighborhood maker-spaces to wifi hotspots on school buses to university science festivals to new curricula and testing methods — that would begin to bridge the gap between what science education currently is and what scientific culture could and should be. She concludes, echoing Alvin Toffler’s famous words that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”:

The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable. … Nurturing curious, creative problem solvers who can master the art of figuring things out will make them ready for this unknown brave new world. And that is the best legacy we can possibly leave.

Save Our Science — which comes from TED Books on the heels of neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s The Science of Optimism, wire-walker Philippe Petit’s Cheating the Impossible, and the lovely illustrated six-word memoir anthology Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated — is excellent in its entirety and, at a mere $3, a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the future of scientific culture. (Which, as Richard Feynman is always there to remind us, should be everyone, since science is culture.)

BP

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