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Less Death Stars, More Wobbly Towers: How Legos Create Innovators and Dreamers

“When does a kid ever get to play with a stick anymore?” the late comedian/philosopher/all around cool dude George Carlin once opined in his diatribe on what he cleverly labeled “child worship.” To Carlin, today’s professional helicopter parents had become obsessively devoted to their children’s success, taking away the natural, unprompted act of play and replacing it with “play dates,” “recitals,” “practices,” and “lessons.” Thus, even the simplest, most spontaneous, freest expression of childhood innocence, wonder, and creativity had been rigidly planned, overscheduled, and over managed.

I decry the sorry state of American creativity and ingenuity often. This isn’t to say that we aren’t in a golden age of innovation, because technological disruption is proceeding at a lightning pace never before seen in human history. But we aren’t maximizing our potential, given the opportunities available to us. I feel that Carlin’s idea sits at the core of the problem: we have tried too hard to create great thinkers, and have thus deprived them of the tools to think. We diagnose a problem, like our crumbling infrastructure, and prescribe the solution that we need more STEM majors. That’s fine. Technical skills are a must when we strive to battle these dilemmas. But we miss the point when we belittle the arts. We take it a step too far by constantly insinuating that a STEM degree is the skeleton key to success, and Liberal Arts students are all doomed to work at Wal-Mart. We take it a step too far when we ask kids to join clubs and profession organizations, instead of just playing with their sticks. We take it a step too far when we demand high-standardized test scores and GPAs, and never ask these kids to solve problems independently.

doodle

We don’t lack smart people. In fact, millennials are the most educated generation ever. We have an overabundance of insanely educated, incredibly intelligent people. What we lack are visionaries. Creators. Rebels who drew invention blueprints or comedic doodles on your fancy standardized tests. We aren’t fostering that. We are demanding a way to quantify progress in the form of charts, tables, figures, and statistics instead of new creations.

Summed up succinctly, Legos explain the problem. Playing with Legos is all about designing, building,experimenting, thinking outside the box, destroying and starting over. It is about imagining, dreaming, thinking outside the box. It is about free styling and dolegoing what you want. It teaches kids to think in three dimensions, to employ problem-solving skills, boosts motor development, and enhances communication as kids work in teams to build great monuments to their own originality.

 

And yet, the Legos of my childhood—the wide-open, free-build, box of assorted parts variety of Legos—have largely been replaced by the same troubling trend towards structure. There are too many well-defined Lego “kits” with careful instructions, and pre-defined shapes. Kids death stardon’t need to build another Death Star, or another Hogarts Castle. What kids need is to struggle to build their wobbly tower, knock it over, and try again.

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An End to the “Age of Innovation?” Hardly.

 

Refrigeration, human flight, anti-biotics – the list of beneficial innovations in the last century is a long one. But has it come to an end? Peter Thiel famously said that “he wanted flying cars,” and “got 140 characters instead.” Others, like the economist Tyler Cowen, who, incidentally, spoke at the IdeaFestival last year, point to growing economic inequality and are, with important caveats, relatively pessimistic. The columnist Paul Krugman wondered just last week if an era of “rapid economic progress” had ended.

Philip Auerswald isn’t among that group and argues:

No. An end to technological evolution is no more likely than an end to biological evolution. The underlying reason is the same in both cases: the nearly unbounded power of combinatorial possibilities.

If the current generations of techno-pessimists fail to see the creation of new combinations at work today, it’s simply because they either can’t glimpse them from where they sit, or they’re just not looking hard enough. Granted, the technologies that drove past prosperity in the United States—electric lights, the telephone, automobiles and airplanes, flush toilets—are today improving only incrementally in comparison with the past. But those very same technologies are only now reaching the majority of the world’s population. The resultant productivity gains are massive and reverberating in an epic fashion on a global scale. That process is just beginning.

Give the piece a read. It’s an important rejoinder to those who would bet against entrepreneurs.