The Other Side of Frustration

AndrewFrustrationBlog“Let me know if you need my help and I hope a few things go wrong.”  Those were my words to Adam, an eleven year old Gadget Lab student who is building his own PC.  He bought compatible parts through a website that matches PC components that assemble  together seamlessly but… I hope they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to drum up business. I’d like Adam to hit a few snags because when the process gets frustrating, that’s when the real learning begins.  I learned this in grad school when I took economics for the first time.

Macroeconomics turned out to be as hard as it sounds. I was in over my head and I was certain I would fail. So for the first time in my life, I read every assignment and completed each exercise in the workbook.  Halfway through the course, I encountered two workbook problems that were simply unsolvable. I worked them backwards, forwards, sideways and cried just a little.  Still, my solutions never matched the answers in the back of the book.

I gave in and asked the professor for help.  He took a quick look and said, “Oh yeah, those answers are wrong. A couple grad students made that workbook.”

I was furious. Furious about the hours I had wasted and even more furious at his lack of regret. I went home steaming and once again, cried just a little.  But when I calmed down, I realized that I had actually mastered the concepts in those two problems more completely than anything else in the course.

Thinking about it from all sides, rereading the material, and checking my calculations clarified my understanding of the material and even the material in other chapters. More importantly, I realized that I could manage this course and that I actually like Macroeconomics.  In fact, once I stopped crying I ended up loving all my econ classes.

And that’s why I hope those PC components give Adam a little trouble.  I hope he has to do some research on firmware, drivers and other aspects of home computers that are invisible to most users.  And I hope he finds his answers by using the wealth of information that other computer enthusiasts are happy to share online. If he does, this skill will serve him better than anything else he learns building this PC.  Because the euphoria of discovery doesn’t come when the pieces just snap into place. It comes on the other side of frustration. That’s where the miracles happen.

Career Day

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“This is great! We need more engineers! We need more computer programmers!” People often assume that I started Gadget Lab to encourage the study of computers and engineering and for good reason. The series of GadgetHead workshops offers the equivalent of a mini degree in electronics, software and mechanical engineering.

But my goal isn’t to steer anyone toward a career in anything. My goal is to create teachers, artists, writers, engineers, plumbers and coders who know how things work and who feel empowered to create and upload instead of just consuming and downloading.

Maybe that’s why I don’t regret my liberal arts background. It gave me the tools to write this post. And I don’t regret that I coached soccer instead of leaning in. That experience taught me crowd control and how to communicate.

Likewise, I hope Gadget Lab will be part of a student’s broader experience and will contribute to careers that I haven’t even imagined. But among the skills required for future success I think the most important will be the willingness to learn something that seems hard at first, to work with tools that don’t plug and play and to try to understand how things work from the bottom up. These are the skills and traits that will serve our future workforce.

I don’t know exactly what careers will available to today’s children. Already computers can write both software code and informative prose. They can check out our groceries and perform delicate surgery. Technology has automated and simplified tasks that once required great skill. But what I do know is that no one will pay our kids to do something easy. So acquiring the persistence to pursue something complex, to be the creator of that plug and play technology, that brilliant essay or that soaring aria, that’s where the future lies. I hope Gadget Lab will help develop both the personal traits and the skills that our kids will need to create that future.

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A year ago, when I created Gadget Lab, I thought I was creating a community where kids and adults could learn the skills to create their own gadgetry.  During that year, I came to realize that the creative process requires more than skills, it requires stamina and inspiration hopefully mixed with a large dose of joy. Finding the balance between developing persistence while keeping it fun is a journey that I expect will keep taking me to new places and to new discoveries.  I plan to document them here.  I hope you’ll join me.