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Experimentation and Thomas Edison

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Thomas Edison in the BulbEvery time, and I mean every time, you innovate anything, you have done so by trial and error. Genius short circuits the process. Talent gets it quicker, but the process of innovation is the same. Trial. And. Error.

The latest findings from the neurosciences show that the brain aggregates memory and builds trial and error into the way to do something. Seems like the trial and error cells are used and then held back while the successful trial and no error cells are moved to the front of the line. Then the old trial and error cells get recycled. No point remembering what did not work.

There is a number of things that either enable or disable this process.

Anxiety can help if it’s aimed at the thing you are trying to do instead of at you — focused on yourself failing. “I just can’t do this!” is anxiety talking, and disabling the trial and error process (hereinafter known as T&E). Someone outside yourself can override your negative emotion with an enabling, “Yes, you can do it!” — if they are an authority figure.

Which brings me to elbows in the mud at Boot Camp. Sargent Major SCREAMING, “Whatisyourproblemgetyourassupthatwallandoverthetoporiwillpersonallykickyourbutttheremyself!!!” That is not a positive override, yet it sure as hell enables your body to get up and over the wall. How does that work?

Seems like the brain has a stronger need to win approval from authority figures than fail. So we do it for the Sarge. Or the Teacher. The Boy or Girl Friend. Or our Moms. Or Dads. Or our kids.

Regardless, it’s T&E, the only way to effectively innovate and the one way that is most overlooked by the people who purport to need to innovate the most. The problem seems to be the “E” part of the equation. We tend to not like error. It’s costly and time-consuming. We test for correct answers, not wrong ones. The implicit — and often explicit — message is you need to not fail. So when the authority figures tell you not to fail, you often don’t even try anything that might not work. So — no T&E — only T. Do it right the first time. Failure is not an option. Nothing succeeds like success. Get that gold star!

It makes me crazy, not only because it disables the T&E process when we try to be innovative. If we teach it from the first grade on up through the educational system, it disables the process for all time. So we have a nation of people who no longer TRY because they are afraid to make an ERROR and FAIL. We have a culture, a whole country of people who, for the most part, do not innovate, create, disrupt, do anything new. We’ve gone from “Trial and Error” to “Tried and True.”

You want to learn to innovate or do something new and different and maybe better, faster, and cheaper? Fail you ass off and count your errors as a plus rather than a minus.

Quick story to make a point. Thomas Edison was interviewed after he got the first light bulb to work (i.e., stay lit for more than a minute) and was asked, “How did you manage to keep trying since you tried and failed over 10,000 times to get it right?” He told the reporter, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Now, that’s T&E times 10,000. When it comes to innovation, perseverance and persistence add up to success.

Source: “Infrastructure for Development,” The World Bank report, 1994