Tolstoy’s screw

No matter what he thought about, he always returned to these same questions which he could not solve and yet could not cease to ask himself. It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place

I read War and Peace in my early twenties. There is probably something to be said for rereading it now that I’m older and wiser. It taught me to appreciate descriptive prose, which previously I skimmed to get to the action. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the battles during the Napoleonic Wars were vivid, details and strangely beautiful.

But more than anything, what has stayed with me is this passage in which Pierre is stuck in a loop from which he doesn’t seem to be able to escape. It’s a situation I’ve often found myself in, and I’ve always referred to it as “Tolstoy’s screw.”

Much of what I try to do both professionally and personally is finding ways of escaping the creative impasse of Tolstoy’s screw.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons I’m trying to write something in the blog on a daily basis. Rather than simply noting ideas that interest me, where they get stuck as Kindle highlights, Pocket favorites or quickly forgotten marginalia. This blog is an attempt to understand the appeal of certain ideas and the connections between them. Inspired by the idea of the commonplace book, it’s has become an attempt to make connections between these fragments and make something new and interesting out of them.


Creativity has been the long-standing missing ingredient in education. Companies have been desperately seeking it since the last depression. Creative thinking leads to innovation, and innovation leads to success. Sure, science, technology, engineering and maths are necessary, but without the initial creative stimulus for solving a problem or imagining the possible, nothing would ever be accomplished.

Jon Kamen of the Rhode Island School of Design explains STEM is missing a crucial ingredient. Kamen and many others are suggesting that STEM be changed to STEAM, for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

I like the idea of adding the arts to STEM to get at the idea that creative problem solving should be encouraged. But as Vince Betram points out adding an A to the acronym might be missing the point.

I’m often asked why science, technology, engineering and math are the only words used to create the acronym, and when Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the STEM organization I am proud to lead, will change STEM to STEAM, STREAM or STEMM — incorporating art, reading or music into the acronym. If that is the debate, we are clearly missing the point. It’s not about adding to the acronym, but instead adding to the relevancy of learning. It’s about showing students how technical concepts relate to real-world situations and providing them with hands-on projects and problems that help them apply concepts in a new context. It’s about nurturing students’ curiosity and helping them develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. STEM isn’t simply the subjects in the acronym. It’s an engaging and exciting way of teaching and learning.

One crucial point that adding the arts to the STEM might gloss over is encouraging students to learn from one another. In the arts in particular the belief in the myth of the lone genius is very strong. Getting students working together rather than sitting alone at their desks is crucial for preparing them for the challenges they’ll face in the real world.

An earnest and pure world

It made me realise what a fool I was. Despite the words of distrust I spoke, I yearned for an earnest and pure world…. I could no longer deny the fact that I wanted to make something life affirming.

Hayao Miyazaki, in a rare interview, describes reaction to seeing The Tale of the White Serpent for the first time.

I liked the tension between the words of distrust and the desire to create something better. There is a tension between idealism and the real world. Disgust at way the world is leads to easy cynicism. Deciding to do something, though, means moving the world closer to your ideal.

Let’s try

A few weeks ago my wife and son recently came back from a week’s holiday. I missed them, as I always do. When they returned, my son taught me a valuable lesson. Twice.

Before they left, my son told me that he wanted me to make two paper airplanes and two lighty-up flowers like I made for Mother’s Day. When they got back, I had a new paper airplane book ready for him. I suggested that we make the airplanes and flowers together.

We folded way more than two paper airplanes. The book was a good one. It had seven designs, but over 200 pieces of pre-printed paper with planes that looked like rockets, robots, circuits, bugs etc. As usually happens, after we folded and tested a dozen or so planes, my son decided he liked a particular folding pattern he liked (the ‘Bug’). He then chose a piece of paper that liked. It was a ‘Dart’ not a ‘Bug.’

The kid: Dad, can we fold this plane like a ‘Bug.’
Me: Well, it’s a ‘Dart,’ so we should probably fold it like a Dart.
The kid: I like the dart more.
Me: If we fold it like that, these lines won’t line up, and it might look a bit funny.
The kid: Let’s try.

So, we tried, and it looked pretty good. He loved it. We folded another non-Bug design into a Bug. He was satisfied with the three planes (one for him, one for me, and one for his Mum). He could also stack them to give his plane three different functions (one was a ‘searcher,’ one was a ‘walker’ and one was a ‘zapper’).

After that, we proceeded to make the lighty-up flowers. The deal was that I’d make one for him, and he’d make one for his Mum. I made his. When making it, I cut the petals a bit “too big.” As I was making his little flower. He was also getting me to cut out bigger and bigger “ice cream hearts” (the petals are folded and cut so that they fold out from an ice cream cone shape to a heart to a cloud to the open petals). As I was doing this, he was piling them on top of one another.

Once I finished his flower, he said he had an idea. We could tape to pieces of paper together to make a big ice cream-heart-cloud-flower. We did, he opened it up, said, “It’s huuuuge” and giggled gleefully.

The kid: Now let’s make Mummy’s flower.
Me: OK. What color do you want it to be?
The kid: Yellow. A sunflower. Let’s make it like this one!
Me: I don’t know. If we make it that big, it might not say on the straw. (We were using straws for stems.
The kid: Let’s try.

One again, we tried. The flower was huge! And it worked. It hasn’t fallen off the stem.

The huge flower worked very well!

In both cases, he proposed something I thought we couldn’t do, but he thought differently. I tried to discourage him, but not that hard. He asked me to try and I did. In both cases, it worked out well. It’s interesting that this happened shortly after I watched Beau Lotto’s TED talk in which he discusses how play celebrates uncertainty.

It’s also a reminder that I need to be careful. Although we eventually tried what he suggested, I initially discouraged him. When we’re tinkering and playing, I need to adopt a yes and attitude.

Autonomy is different from independence

Autonomy… is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a western one. Researchers have found a link between autonomy and overall well-being not only in North America and Wester Europe, but also in Russia, Turkey and South Korea. Even in high-poverty non-Wester locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives.

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, p. 90

I’ve written about the Dan Pink’s research into motivation twice before: once to highlight the idea of intrinsic motivation and once to discuss the importance of having a purpose.

A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Drive. The idea that stuck with this time was the importance of autonomy in ensuring people are motivated. Not surprisingly, people are not very motivated when they feel that they’re working on something they have no control over.

What really struck me, though, is the distinction between autonomy and independence: that having autonomy is not the same as working entirely on your own. I’ve certainly found that I work better with other people than on my own. It’s not just me, at Pixar managed collaboration is prized over genius design and Steven Johnson has written about how breakthroughs often come about through the collision of different ideas.

What has also occurred to me is that the distinction between interdependent autonomy and independence is very much at the heart of the distinction that Lewis Hyde makes between civic republicanism and commercial republicanism. The more I think about it, the more I’m firmly convinced that I am a civic republican. It’s a model that provides better exposure to other ideas and helps people learn the habit of compromise.

There’s no such thing as mistakes when you’re practicing

I think it’s extremely important to build with your hands and really embrace craft. And feel like you can build things and construct what’s in your mind, rather than trying to search for it on the computer.

Eric Bogner, father of a 6-year-old who is attending Construction Kids in Brooklyn. The program sounds pretty amazing to me. It’s very much the type of thing I’d love to see happen near where we live.

And if I didn’t already love the idea enough, I found this quote on the site from Riley (5 years old):

There’s no such thing as mistakes when you’re practicing.

Finally, this video of three-year-old Ryan building a chair is absolutely awe-inspiring.

A long hike with no trail

Of course, the most rewarding part is the “Aha” moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new – the feeling of being on top of a hill and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight.

I find discussing mathematics with colleagues of different backgrounds one of the most productive ways of making progress.

Maryam Mirzakhani, who recently won the Fields Medal prize, talking about what she finds the most rewarding or productive. I was struck between the similarity of this and Steven Johnson’s idea of the slow hunch.

There is also this:

The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.

Schools are dream factories

There are some aspects of school that are boring and authoritarian, but try and run one that isn’t and still teaches them anything. But that doesn’t mean schools are prisons or the easy, obvious slur of the Pink Floyd mincing machines. Schools, despite their mild-mannered and often anodyne appearances, are dream factories, where children of all backgrounds are given the opportunity to become the architects of their own destinies. Some of it’s a bit dull. Some of it will fascinate and inspire. Some of it is ‘you need to know this’ and some of it is ‘what do you think?’ There is often a good deal of dance. And if there isn’t there are other ways for caterpillars to become butterflies. To say that schools don’t offer these things is probably a bit of an insult to schools and the hard work that teachers do.

Tom Bennett provides a rousing defense against Ken Robinson’s claims that the educational system is broken.

It’s a fair point. Schools are more than just a national curriculum and standardized testing.

I’m inclined to think, though, that it’s teachers that make the difference.
I’m also inclined to think that the increasing focus on a national curriculum, standardised testing and government oversight makes it difficult for great teachers to make space for creativity.

But maybe I just think that because I—like so many people—have been so impressed by Ken Robinson’s various TED talks. Maybe schools are less bureaucratic and the government less invasive than I’ve been lead to believe.

Tom Bennett’s essay is a good reminder that I need to keep an open mind as my son starts school. I need to make judgements about the effectiveness of his education based on what I see, rather than what I’ve been lead to believe.

What we know gets in the way

Sometimes what we know gets in the way of what could be. Especially when it comes to the human-built world. We think we already know how something works, so we can’t imagine how it could work. We know how it’s supposed to work, but we can’t suppose all the things that could be possible. Kids don’t have as hard as a time with this.

Jay Silver, discussing what he noticed when watching people creating things from raw materials in a forest, which lead to the question:

What kind of tools can we give people so that they can see the world as malleable, so that they can see themselves as agents of change?

This in turn lead to the creation of MaKey MaKey. The TED talk is well worth a watch.

Discontinuous improvement

Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it. It’s not continuous. One cannot become a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader. You never overcome a leader by imitating them and improving slightly. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you. And that comes about through creativity.

If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk…