What are the 21st-century skills every student needs?

World Economic Forum

A young girl looks at school stationery in a supermarket in Nice August 23, 2012. The new school year will start on September 4 in France.

Don’t get left on the shelf … brush up on your collaboration, communication and problem-solving skills
Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Written by
Jenny Soffel, Website Editor, World Economic Forum
Thursday 10 March 2016

The gap between the skills people learn and the skills people need is becoming more obvious, as traditional learning falls short of equipping students with the knowledge they need to thrive, according to the World Economic Forum reportNew Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology.


Today’s job candidates must be able to collaborate, communicate and solve problems – skills developed mainly through social and emotional learning (SEL). Combined with traditional skills, this social and emotional proficiency will equip students to succeed in the evolving digital economy.

What skills will be needed most?

An analysis of 213 studies showed that students who received SEL instruction had achievement scores that averaged 11 percentile points higher than those who did not. And SEL potentially leads to long-term benefits such as higher rates of employment and educational fulfillment.

Good leadership skills as well as curiosity are also important for students to learn for their future jobs.

Another Forum report, The Future of Jobs, launched during the Annual Meeting 2016 in Davos, looked at the employment, skills and workforce strategy for the future.

The report asked chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers what the current shifts mean, specifically for employment, skills and recruitment across industries and geographies.

Policy-makers, educators, parents, businesses, researchers, technology developers, investors and NGOs can together ensure that development of social and emotional skills becomes a shared goal and competency of education systems everywhere.

Wood Shop Enters the Age of High-Tech

The New York Times


The maker space at the Rutgers Livingston campus offers a clubhouse ambience and high-tech tools. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

You remember wood shop. You made that swan-shaped planter your parents pretended to like. And then you moved on.

These days, tinkering is a bit more high tech. The blending of technology and craft in tools like 3-D printers and laser cutters has made it possible for ordinary people to make extraordinary things. And many ordinary people, living as they do, more and more in their heads and online, are yearning to do something with their hands.

So the “maker space” movement — D.I.Y. communities to get people creating, be it for fun, for art or for entrepreneurship — is booming. Maker Faires are held around the world. Commercial operations like TechShop have popped up across the country. And tinkering is being promoted on college campuses from M.I.T. to Santa Clara University, as well as in high schools and elementary schools.

There’s even a massive open online course, offered by the MOOC provider Coursera and taught by three scientists from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, called “Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning.”


A computer-controlled drumstick was made with a 3-D plastic printer and laser cutter, right (that’s a student artwork on the cutter). Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
Yes, tinkering is now a pedagogy.

Taking things apart and putting them together — skills children used to absorb in Dad’s or Mom’s workshop — has an important role to play in learning, according to Karen Cator, the chief executive of Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization created by Congress that focuses on the use of technology to improve education. “You’re exploring creativity, you’re exploring design thinking, you’re developing a sense of persistence,” she said. Building something new requires planning, trying and, yes, failing, and then trying again.

“These are incredibly important mind-sets for today’s world,” she said.

Ms. Cator, who served in the Department of Education during the first Obama term, talked excitedly about students who have designed child prostheses. “That’s what they’re going to remember their entire life,” she said. “They aren’t going to remember sitting in an electronics lecture.”

At Rutgers, a bustling maker space can be found in a moldering wood-frame structure on the Livingston campus in Piscataway, N.J. The building once served as the command headquarters for Camp Kilmer, a transportation hub for soldiers mobilizing for World War II; today, the building, still called Headquarters, houses computer repair offices and the division of continuing studies. And upstairs, there are wonders.

On any given day, as many as 20 students could be working on the array of equipment that the center offers training on and time to use, said Stephen M. Carter, who directs the university’s Center for Innovation Education and co-founded the New Jersey Makerspace Association in 2012. Students might be working on a class project, doing “something entrepreneurial” or making Halloween costumes, he said. “We support all of it.”


A 3-D plastic printer, top left, used to make various objects, including a robot with a motion-sensor heart. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
There are 3-D printers, which can be programmed to create wildly inventive shapes out of plastic or resin (like a decent copy of the Iron Throne from “Game of Thrones” or a bust of Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy”). There is a laser cutter to etch materials like fabric, marble or wood and cut through plastic. Next door is an electronics shop, with racks upon racks of parts. Close by are drill presses, a router and a key cutter, which Mr. Carter refers to as “our gateway drug,” a piece of equipment neophytes can use to produce something they really need. A common space with couches and a television gives students a place to talk, show off their projects or just hang out.


Mr. Carter cobbled it all together “by hook and crook and grants and saving.”

Students love it. Alexandra Garey, who graduated from Rutgers in May, credits tinkering with changing the course of her studies, and life: “I went from somebody who was majoring in Italian and European studies to someone who was designing and prototyping products and realizing any product that came into my head.”

October of senior year, she wandered into the maker space because she’d heard “you can make cool products” and was interested in exploring entrepreneurship and learning some business skills. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she admitted. But the students who used the place, mostly in science and engineering disciplines, were accommodating and patient, and soon she was on her way.

A month in, she got a call from a friend who wanted help coming up with a tool for children on the autism spectrum — a grip for a pencil or crayon that could be fitted with an extension so the teacher could guide the hand of students who dislike being touched. By January, Ms. Garey had designed and fabricated a piece through 3-D printing and it was being tested in New Jersey classrooms; she later modified the design for stroke victims and people with brain injuries. Now she is working on making French presses and coffee mugs out of Illy cans.

Then there’s Jason Baerg, an M.F.A. student from Canada, who paints in acrylics on paper or wood, and uses the laser cutter to etch the paintings and cut out shapes that he arranges into assemblages. “It allows me to bounce between abstract and figurative spaces in production and presentation,” he said. “I’m liberated.”

He appreciates that this is not a sterile engineering environment. The setting’s funkiness makes it “probably the perfect place to do this work,” he said, “like an exploratory safe space for you to go and try out your ideas.”

That kind of enthusiasm tells Mr. Carter he is on the right track. “U.S. schools are very good at finding the brain-smart people,” he said. “They are also very good at finding the best athletes.” But they are not so good at finding and nurturing people who, he said, describing himself, think with their fingers. The next Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, he said, are more likely to emerge from a maker space than a garage. Besides, he said, “it keeps kids off the street.”

How One School Integrated Global Citizenship into Maker Education

How One School Integrated Global Citizenship into Maker Education

​My classroom was alive with activity and a palpable sense of purpose as I maneuvered around the scattered knots of students, 10 in all, to get a closer look at their design journal entries. Group discussions, the random clatter of keyboard taps and mouse clicks, and the mechanical beeping and whirring of the 3D printer created a surprising harmony as my seventh-graders put the finishing touches on their latest creation — a prototype of a portable electric lamp.

“Oh no, stop the print!” a student cried out suddenly. “We need to re-measure the handle to make sure Anielka can hold it comfortably. Her hands are kind of small.”
This was the third week of STEAM, a new semester-long elective course offered at St. Gabriel’s Catholic School, a PreK–8 school of 450 students, nestled in the hill country surrounding Austin, Texas. STEAM class — which integrates art with the traditional science, technology, engineering, and math emphasis — takes an inquiry-based learning approach with a focus on design thinking, engineering, and computer science.
In this case, we were in the middle of a collaborative project with eight elementary-age students from NicaPhoto, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering children who live in one of the poorest barrios in Nicaragua.
In this semester-long Global Inventors/3D printing course, students from St. Gabriel’s and NicaPhoto joined forces to co-create a workable solution to a real-world problem: how to safely provide electric light for the Nicaraguan students, including Anielka, who lived in an area without a reliable power grid.
When I heard my student call out to her classmates, I was reminded that this process of persisting, problem solving, and creating something meaningful is the very essence of constructionism, a decades-old philosophy visible in its latest incarnation — the maker movement.

Creating a Nation of Makers

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences released a report calling for sweeping improvements in K–12 STEM education. But even earlier, an eclectic assortment of tinkerers and hobbyists was already quietly changing the world. This motley group drew upon a variety of influences, including the DIY counterculture aesthetics of the Whole Earth Catalog and the whimsical mix of artistry and computing exhibited by MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. The group also capitalized on the open exchange of ideas during the meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club in the late 1970s. Club members included the eventual founders of Apple and Microsoft.
Then, 10 years ago, Maker Media, Inc., increased both the credibility and visibility of this growing subculture by hosting Maker Faires around the world. At this point, the movement captured the attention of mainstream educational institutions.

Developing Dispositions

The efficacy of the maker phenomenon rests in the fact that it is not really a new idea at all. Rather, it’s the expression of an educational philosophy that goes back many decades to Seymour Papert, the father of the maker movement. Not only did he predict the benefits of one-to-one student computing in the early 1970s, but he also developed the notion of constructionism. In his works, including the seminal Mindstorms, Papert suggests that deep learning occurs through the process of creating an artifact, be it a computer program, a sonnet, or a robot.
When offered the opportunity to create something personally relevant and meaningful, students willingly and enthusiastically embark on the iterative design process, overcome challenges, and collaborate with others as they seek to learn more skills to help with future endeavors. The proof for this is visible not only at Maker Faires but increasingly in school makerspaces around the world. However, implementing a program that harnesses the compelling nature of making in support of a formal curriculum can still be daunting.

Establishing a Global Partnership

In the summer of 2014, I was brought aboard at St. Gabriel’s to develop a program that would both integrate STEM learning across the curriculum and use the new makerspace, which was still under construction. While I was researching various approaches to this, I was about to have the STEAM elective class — Global Inventors/3D printing — field test concepts before the makerspace opened. A chief goal was to provide students with authentic learning experiences that would incorporate the tools, skills, and dispositions necessary to be successful in an increasingly complex and connected world.
Although the school had access to a 3D printer, at that time it was not widely used, and it caught the interest of my class. Through the local Austin Maker Ed community, I learned about the educational services company Level Up Village (LUV) that connects U.S. schools to a global network of partnering organizations to provide real-world, collaborative projects. After speaking with a LUV representative, I selected the Inventors Course because its curriculum provided students with skill-building opportunities in engineering, 3D design, and fabrication. It was also open-ended enough for me to tailor for the STEAM class.
My students were motivated by a desire that went beyond using a 3D printer. They wanted to help their eight Nicaraguan partners, who because they lacked reliable electricity were forced to study, read, and play by potentially dangerous oil-fueled lamps. During the course of a semester, St. Gabriel’s and NicaPhoto students were equal partners in the mission to design a working solution to this problem. Over time, the students from both schools also developed a deeper understanding of the lives and circumstances of their distant partners.
Assembling an iteration of a lantern.jpg
Students assemble the final iteration of a lantern. Credit: Patrick Benfield

A Final Lantern Model.png

The final lantern model. Credit: Patrick Benfield

Through regular video exchanges, Skype sessions, and cloud-based file sharing, they worked their way through the iterative design process together, overcame failures, refined ideas, and eventually engineered working solar-powered lamps in a 3D-printed enclosure. Although the basic components of each lamp were identical (a single rechargeable battery, a solar cell, and an LED), the designers’ creativity and the end users’ needs were apparent in each unit. During this semester-long course, my students were delighted to discover that what they were learning in their math, science, social studies, and Spanish classes had real-world, practical applications.
Skyping with NicaPhoto.jpg
My students Skyping with NicaPhoto students. Credit: Patrick Benfield

NicaPhoto Students During Skype.jpg
NicaPhoto students during a Skype session. Credit: Patrick Benfield

Moving from STEM to STEAM

Meanwhile, my experiences during this period at St. Gabriel’s, including during the STEAM course, were influencing the trajectory of the maker program I was developing. Seeing my seventh-graders initially struggle with “non-Googleable” questions and then over time grow into confident, purpose-driven thinkers confirmed, for me, the efficacy of making in school.
However, I did not want these gains to be confined solely to an elective class. Other local approaches for STEM education tended to limit student access to tools and concepts, including programming, fabrication, and robotics, by offering them only through electives or in after-school clubs. Similarly, younger students typically made infrequent visits to a computer lab with little practical application within their own classrooms, much less their personal lives.
With this in mind, my goal was to combine the analytical nature of STEM topics with the more personal, creative aesthetics inherent in making. By explicitly integrating the arts into learning and adopting a STEAM approach, the program could help our youngest students develop important cognitive competencies.
For instance, when creating a work in any artistic discipline, an innate part of the process involves considering how parts of a system work together to form a whole, working within time or material constraints, and determining the best path for a problem with multiple solutions. In addition, to honor the mission-driven nature of the school, our maker program would incorporate a design-thinking model, rooted in empathy, to support our burgeoning student inventors’ desire to serve those outside the community.

Implementing STEAM by Design

The creation and eventual full implementation of this STEAM by Design program is just one piece of a profound systemic transformation that St. Gabriel’s is undergoing. The school is doing great things this year: integrating social-emotional learning, redesigning the schedule to support teacher collaboration, and hiring additional personnel to assist with technology integration. As of this writing, we have also completed a major expansion of the campus, including the d.lab for Making. The lab is quickly becoming a favorite space for students.
A busy day in the new d.lab for Making. Credit: Patrick Benfield
I’m working closely with teachers from grades K–8 to introduce them to the key tenets and best practices of making, and designing curriculum opportunities that promote STEAM experiences, not just in this makerspace, but in every classroom as well.

Making a Difference

As educational paradigms keep shifting, the quest to find the precise combination of cognitive and soft skills leading to successful student outcomes will continue as well. While it does, makers around the world, in workshops and in schools, will keep innovating and honing skills to create something meaningful. I’m certain that for my seventh-grade students, this first experience with making was about more than just a grade; they were designing with their new NicaPhoto friends in mind. This wasn’t just project-based learning. It was people-based, and that made all the difference.

16-0215-PatrickBenfield-sm.pngPatrick Benfield is the STEAM director for St. Gabriel’s Catholic School (Texas) and the creator of its maker education program, STEAM by Design. When he’s not working with students, he spends his time as a professional musician, tinkering with a vintage Hammond B3 organ, and learning how to program interactive fiction computer games.

Innovation To Best Practice

February 7, 2016  Couros


This has been something dancing around my head on the notion and process of innovation in education, and how it connects to “best practice”.  This is a space to share that learning.

In “The Innovator’s Mindset“, I define the notion of innovation as the following:

…innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative.

As I was working with a group of administrators, something stuck out to me.  Sharing a Google Doc that we could easily collaborate on, they had never seen this before, and were somewhat in a state of awe, yet to me, this was normal, or my “best practice”.  In the terms of teaching and learning, “innovation” can be a very personal practice. One’s “best practice” could be another’s “innovation”.

Discussing “The Innovator’s Mindset” in a Voxer group with educators, in what is becoming global bookclubLeigh Cassell made the comparison of this concept in literacy, which is a constant state of flux.  If literacy is ever-changing, do educators change alongside of it?  Others in the group made a unique comparison to the “decline of newspapers” and that some students are still tested on their ability to write a “news report” using the same format.  Does this “testing” include the ability to link articles, embed media, and source from different mediums (amongst other things), or is still your typical “newspaper” report?  The continuum could be from “innovation” to “best practice” to “dead practice”, if we are not trying to understand our current realities, let alone anticipate the future.

My belief is that innovation in teaching and learning starts with empathy; truly trying to understand those that you serve. Yet this is not only a starting point, but a continuous part of the process.  Once the needs of the learner are defined, innovative practices may be developed, which if they truly are “better” as per the definition, will eventually become “best practice”. For them to stay as “best practice”, they will need to be constantly revisited and reflected upon, with reflection, tweaking, and recreating as part of the process, with the possibility of eventually discarding the process altogether.  Some things could always be considered “best practice” (applicable to individuals, not necessarily as standardized solutions), but could eventually become obsolete.  This is why reflection is crucial to the process of teaching and learning.

This is not about change for the sake of change; it is about constantly understanding and questioning why we do what we do1, not just taking it for granted.  Some practices in education from before I was born, could still be utilized in education if they work for learners, but we can’t simply rely on TTWWHADI (that’s the way we have always done it) as an effective answer when it comes to learners.  We must understand deeply why we do what we do to effectively serve the needs of learners.

(I am wanting to try different mediums so here is a short reflection I shared on Facebook.)

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.
Matthew Syed

Writer & Broadcaster

Linked in

Progress is often driven not by the accumulation of small steps, but by dramatic leaps. The television wasn’t an iteration of a previous device, it was a new technology altogether. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity didn’t tinker with Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, it replaced it in almost every detail. Likewise Dyson’s dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner was not a marginal improvement on the conventional Hoover that existed at the time, it represented a shift that altered the way insiders think about the very problem of removing dust and hair from household floors.

James Dyson is an evangelist for the creative process of change, not least because he believes it is fundamentally misconceived in the world today. As we talk in his office, he darts around picking up papers, patents, textbooks, and his own designs to illustrate his argument. He says:

Dyson’s journey into the nature of creativity started while vacuuming his own home, a small farmhouse in the west of England, on a Saturday morning in his mid-twenties. Like everyone else he was struck by just how quickly his cleaner lost suction.

Dyson strode into his garden and opened up the device. Inside he could see the basic engineering proposition of the conventional vacuum cleaner: a motor, a bag (which also doubled as a filter), and a tube. The logic was simple: dust and air is sucked into the bag, the air escapes through the small holes in the lining of the bag and into the motor, and the dust (thicker than the air) stays in the bag.

He says:

This realization triggered a new thought: what if there were no bag?

This idea percolated in Dyson’s mind for the next three years. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he was already a qualified engineer and was helping to run a local company in Bath. He enjoyed pulling things apart and seeing how they worked. He was curious, inquisitive, and willing to engage with a difficulty rather than just accepting it. But now he had a live problem, one that intrigued him.

It wasn’t until he went to a lumberyard that the solution powered into his mind like a thunderbolt.

 Dyson rushed home. This was his moment of insight. “I vaguely knew about cyclones, but not really the detail. But I was fascinated to see if it would work in miniature form. I got an old cardboard box and made a replica of what I had seen with gaffer tape and cardboard. I then connected it via a bit of hose to an upright vacuum cleaner. And I had my cardboard cyclone.”

His heart was beating fast as he pushed it around the house. Would it work? “It seemed absolutely fine,” he says. “It seemed to be picking up dust, but the dust didn’t seem to be coming out of the chimney. I went to my boss and said: ‘I think I have an interesting idea.’ ”

This simple idea, this moment of insight, would ultimately make Dyson a personal fortune in excess of £3 billion.

A number of things jump out about the Dyson story. The first is that the solution seems rather obvious in hindsight. This is often the case with innovation, and it’s something we will come back to.

But now consider a couple of other aspects of the story. The first is that the creative process started with a problem, what you might even call a failure, in the existing technology. The vacuum cleaner kept blocking. It let out a screaming noise. Dyson had to keep bending down to pick up bits of trash by hand.

Had everything been going smoothly Dyson would have had no motivation to change things. Moreover, he would have had no intellectual challenge to sink his teeth into. It was the very nature of the engineering problem that sparked a possible solution (a bag less vacuum cleaner).

And this turns out to be an almost perfect metaphor for the creative process, whether it involves vacuum cleaners, a quest for a new brand name, or a new scientific theory. Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

Relativity was a response to the failure of Newtonian mechanics to make accurate predictions when objects were moving at fast speeds.

Masking tape was a response to the failure of existing adhesive tape, which would rip the paint off when it was removed from cars and walls.

Dropbox, as we have seen, was a response to the problem of forgetting your flash drive and thus not having access to important files.

This aspect of the creative process, the fact that it emerges in response to a particular difficulty, has spawned its own terminology. It is called the “problem phase” of innovation. “The damn thing had been bugging me for years,” Dyson says of the conventional vacuum cleaner. “I couldn’t bear the inefficiency of the technology. It wasn’t so much a ‘problem phase’ as a ‘hatred phase.’ ”

Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

We often leave this aspect of the creative process out of the picture. We focus on the moment of epiphany, the detonation of insight that happened when Newton was hit by the apple or Archimedes was taking a bath. That is perhaps why creativity seems so ethereal. The idea is that such insights could happen anytime, anywhere. It is just a matter of sitting back and letting them flow.

But this leaves out an indispensable feature of creativity. Without a problem, without a failure, without a flaw, without a frustration, innovation has nothing to latch on to. It loses its pivot. As Dyson puts it: “Creativity should be thought of as a dialogue. You have to have a problem before you can have the game-changing riposte.”

Perhaps the most graphic way to glimpse the responsive nature of creativity is to consider an experiment by Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. She took 265 female undergraduates and randomly divided them into five-person teams. Each team was given the same task: to come up with ideas about how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. These five-person teams were then assigned to one of three ways of working.

The first group were given the instruction to brainstorm. This is one of the most influential creativity techniques in history, and it is based on the mystical conception of how creativity happens: through contemplation and the free flow of ideas. In brainstorming the entire approach is to remove obstacles. It is to minimize challenges. People are warned not to criticize each other, or point out the difficulties in each other’s suggestions. Blockages are bad. Negative feedback is a sin.

The second group were given no guidelines at all: they were allowed to come up with ideas in any way they thought best.

But the third group were actively encouraged to point out the flaws in each other’s ideas. Their instructions read: “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Free-wheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas [my italics].”

The results were remarkable. The groups with the dissent and criticize guidelines generated 25 percent more ideas than those who were brainstorming (or who had no instructions). Just as striking, when individuals were later asked to come up with more solutions for the traffic problem, those with the dissent guidelines generated twice as many new ideas as the brainstormers.

Further studies have shown that those who dissent rather than brainstorm produce not just more ideas, but more productive and imaginative ideas. As Nemeth put it: “The basic finding is that the encouragement of debate— and even criticism if warranted— appears to stimulate more creative ideas. And cultures that permit and even encourage such expression of differing viewpoints may stimulate the most innovation.”

The reason is not difficult to identify. The problem with brainstorming is not its insistence on free-wheeling or quick association. Rather, it is that when these ideas are not checked by the feedback of criticism, they have nothing to respond to. Criticism surfaces problems. It brings difficulties to light. This forces us to think afresh. When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality. Removing failure from innovation is like removing oxygen from a fire.

Think back to Dyson and his Hoover. It was the flaw in the existing technology that forced Dyson to think about cleaning in a new way. The blockage in the filter wasn’t something to hide away from or pretend wasn’t there. Rather, the blockage, the failure, was a gilt-edged invitation to reimagine vacuum-cleaning.

Imagination is not fragile. It feeds off flaws, difficulties, and problems. Insulating ourselves from failuresis to rob one of our most valuable mental faculties of fuel.

“It always starts with a problem,” Dyson says. “I hated vacuum cleaners for twenty years, but I hated hand dryers for even longer. If they had worked perfectly, I would have had no motivation to come up with a new solution. But more important, I would not have had the context to offer a creative solution. Failures feed the imagination. You cannot have the one without the other.”

This post has been adapted from BLACK BOX THINKING: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes—But Some Do by Matthew Syed (Portfolio/Penguin Random House), on-sale now. 

How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson?

Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things. Extreme success is different from what I suppose you could just consider ‘success’, so know that you don’t have to be Richard or Elon to be affluent and accomplished and maintain a great lifestyle. Your odds of happiness are better that way. But if you’re extreme, you must be what you are, which means that happiness is more or less beside the point. These people tend to be freaks and misfits who were forced to experience the world in an unusually challenging way. They developed strategies to survive, and as they grow older they find ways to apply these strategies to other things, and create for themselves a distinct and powerful advantage. They don’t think the way other people think. They see things from angles that unlock new ideas and insights. Other people consider them to be somewhat insane.

Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

Be obsessed.

If you’re not obsessed, then stop what you’re doing and find whatever does obsess you. It helps to have an ego, but you must be in service to something bigger if you are to inspire the people you need to help you  (and make no mistake, you will need them). That ‘something bigger’ prevents you from going off into the ether when people flock round you and tell you how fabulous you are when you aren’t and how great your stuff is when it isn’t. Don’t pursue something because you “want to be great”. Pursue something because it fascinates you, because the pursuit itself engages and compels you. Extreme people combine brilliance and talent with an *insane* work ethic, so if the work itself doesn’t drive you, you will burn out or fall by the wayside or your extreme competitors will crush you and make you cry.

Follow your obsessions until a problem starts to emerge, a big meaty challenging problem that impacts as many people as possible, that you feel hellbent to solve or die trying. It might take years to find that problem, because you have to explore different bodies of knowledge, collect the dots and then connect and complete them.

It helps to have superhuman energy and stamina. If you are not blessed with godlike genetics, then make it a point to get into the best shape possible. There will be jet lag, mental fatigue, bouts of hard partying, loneliness, pointless meetings, major setbacks, family drama, issues with the Significant Other you rarely see, dark nights of the soul, people who bore and annoy you, little sleep, less sleep than that. Keep your body sharp to keep your mind sharp. It pays off.

Learn to handle a level of stress that would break most people.

Don’t follow a pre-existing path, and don’t look to imitate your role models. There is no “next step”. Extreme success is not like other kinds of success; what has worked for someone else, probably won’t work for you. They are individuals with bold points of view who exploit their very particular set of unique and particular strengths. They are unconventional, and one reason they become the entrepreneurs they become is because they can’t or don’t or won’t fit into the structures and routines of corporate life. They are dyslexic, they are autistic, they have ADD, they are square pegs in round holes, they piss people off, get into arguments, rock the boat, laugh in the face of paperwork. But they transform weaknesses in ways that create added advantage — the strategies I mentioned earlier — and seek partnerships with people who excel in the areas where they have no talent whatsoever.

They do not fear failure — or they do, but they move ahead anyway. They will experience heroic, spectacular, humiliating, very public failure but find a way to reframe until it isn’t failure at all. When they fail in ways that other people won’t, they learn things that other people don’t and never will. They have incredible grit and resilience.

They are unlikely to be reading stuff like this. (This is *not* to slam or criticize people who do; I love to read this stuff myself.) They are more likely to go straight to a book: perhaps a biography of Alexander the Great or Catherine the Great* or someone else they consider Great. Surfing the ‘Net is a deadly timesuck, and given what they know their time is worth — even back in the day when technically it was not worth that — they can’t afford it.

I could go on, it’s a fascinating subject, but you get the idea. I wish you luck and strength and perhaps a stiff drink should you need it.

* One person in the comments section appears not to know who Catherine the Great is, suggesting that this is “an utter lie” of mine + “feminist stupidity”. But Catherine’s ability to rise, and strategize around discrimination, holds interesting lessons for anyone.

RISD’s Nature Lab plays host to a world of creative inspiration


by Anna Carnick and Josephine Sittenfeld

Published 8/27/13

In a creative mind, something as seemingly small as a speckled seashell or brightly colored butterfly can inspire a fashion season’s worth of fabric patterns. A sea sponge’s form can give rise to an über modern lampshade, while a skeleton’s bones can inform a modern jewelry piece. And the structure of a beetle’s wings can spark everything from the shape and motion of a daringly sleek car door to the way a pair of pantyhose is folded and packaged.

That sort of organically inspired thinking is at the heart of the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, a charming and quite quirky, hands-on natural history collection and studio space at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Part museum, part lending library, and all classroom, the lab features an estimated 100,000 specimens from each of the five scientific kingdoms (most of which visitors are encouraged to poke, prod, and even take home). It has served as a source of biomimetic stimuli for RISD students and faculty across disciplines for decades, as well as a forum for exploring the often subtle connections among man, nature, art, and design.

From the moment one enters the Nature Lab, which exists in two floors of RISD’s Waterman Building (notably, the first structure constructed by the school in 1893), it’s clear you’re in a very special place. From taxidermy creatures like puffer fish and birds floating overhead to a live turtle crawling on the creaky, dark wood floor at your feet—not to mention the thousands of specimens in the Victorian era cabinetry covering the walls—the lab is brimming with life. And those are just the permanent tenants. Over the course of one recent visit, the Nature Lab hosted students sketching samples, masters level microscopic research, a tutorial on scientific poster presentations, plus work scholars pinning recent findings for the bug collection and undertaking a spider sample repair; in short, the lab space is in high demand.

There’s a curious sense of being simultaneously frozen in time and at the forefront of highly innovative, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative work.

The Nature Lab is a rare and seamless combination of the historical and the modern. The lab boasts everything from hundred-year-old plants, minerals, and stuffed and stripped mammals to a gang of more modern human skeletons (led by two standouts called Kurt and Courtney—a clear indication of the era from which they come), as well as a suite of technologically advanced offerings, including photo and video microscopy workstations, digital cameras, computers, and more.  On my first visit, I found myself particularly taken with Tiny Town, an old-school library card catalogue whose drawers house thousands of tiny, natural specimens (Need to see what a bat’s hands look like up close? Tiny Town has you covered); on my second visit, the entire lab was abuzz with excitement over its newest acquisition, a decidedly cutting-edge scanning electron microscope. There’s a curious sense of being simultaneously frozen in time and at the forefront of highly innovative, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative work.

According to Lab Coordinator Betsy Ruppa, who oversees operations and approximately 25 work scholars in the student-run venue each semester (and whose hospitality and knowledge are exceeded only by her charm; she conducted my first tour with a live praying mantis in her hand the entire time), a big part of the lab’s magic comes from its hands-on culture, and the resulting sense of openness that permeates the space. “We know we can’t keep a pristine collection; we don’t even try. There are too many hands touching the samples, and they go in too many backpacks. That’s also what’s cool about it, though. It’s such an amazing resource, and there is so much freedom—more freedom than you’d have in a typical museum or library, for example.” In keeping with the spirit of that unusual freedom, if, as happens from time to time, students misplace something they’ve been lent, they’re asked to replace the item with either something in kind or a totally new specimen of their choosing.

Unmediated access has been integral to the collection’s identity from the start. When its namesake, RISD alumna (class of 1920) and teacher Edna Lawrence, launched the collection in 1937, her intention was to provide a uniquely interactive environment that would inspire her students. By multiple accounts, Lawrence was a much-loved character—strict but warm, (occasionally) funny, and very talented—who had the remarkable foresight to understand what the lab might become—a place to support and expand both the way that students learn and problem solve as well as the potential connections between art, design, and science over time.

Lawrence taught nature drawing between 1920 and 1974 in what was formerly her classroom, and is the Nature Lab’s current main room. During her 50-plus years as a teacher at RISD, she built up the collection through her own gathering expeditions. Every summer, according to the Nature Lab’s Director Neal Overstrom, “she’d travel around the world, sometimes to Europe aboard a steamship or a freighter, other times going to the Caribbean and South America. She even drove across country in the 1920s, camping along the way.” Slowly, thanks to Lawrence’s efforts, along with faculty and student donations, her teaching collection grew into what Overstrom aptly describes as an “intuitive and natural portal to science.”

Lawrence retired in the 1970s, and in 1981, the lab was renamed in her honor. Since that time, a series of curators has maintained her legacy and carried on her vision. On any given day, it might host undergraduate, graduate, and faculty guests from the Industrial Design, Architecture, and Apparel Design departments (among others), or even, of special note, RISD students and faculty involved in Rhode Island’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR)—an innovative, multi-school, state-wide effort funded by the National Science Foundation and aimed at making Rhode Island an “international leader in understanding and predicting the response of marine organisms and ecosystems to climate changes and variability.” This program—which over the past two summers has included fellowship opportunities for RISD and Brown students to undertake research in science communication around these topics—has led to the expansion of the Nature Lab’s aquatic resources, including two large saltwater tanks and special aquariums called kreisels built by RISD students to house ctenophores (tiny jellyfish-like creatures also known as comb jellies).

The breadth of the lab’s constantly growing collection falls neatly under the umbrella of a larger school initiative known as STEM to STEAM, which aims to add art and design to the national agenda of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and research. Championed by RISD President John Maeda, the initiative promotes the idea that scientific and artistic inquiry can be drawn together to foster new, innovative ways of approaching research and problem solving.

That creative, interdisciplinary thinking goes hand-in-hand with the Nature Lab’s position as an experimental and exploratory forum. As Overstrom notes, “Edna Lawrence’s vision really was remarkable. The way in which it’s informing many of these programs, like EPSCoR, which seem to find sort of a quasi-home here, speaks to the fact that this way of explaining a natural science collection has many applications in many emerging conversations about design, about nature inspired design, and even the field of biophilic design; this idea that you have an innate affinity for life and lifelike processes, of understanding the human-nature connection in built environments. The Nature Lab continues to be both a relevant and dynamic resource for all these emerging design disciplines.”

“We spend a lot of time thinking about Edna, actually,” adds Ruppa. “She was passionate about helping people to draw realistically and to explore and find inspiration in nature—to see connections and patterns throughout species and across kingdoms. She provided the foundation.”

In fact, according to Overstrom and Ruppa, some of Lawrence’s remaining documents even reveal her thoughts on the lab’s future and notions of advanced technologies and even micro-imaging. Says Overstrom, “Her mission was to provide immediate access to specimens, and microscopes allow you access where you might not otherwise. It’s just an extension of that. She was quite a forward thinker.”

The ever-evolving collection is a unique bridge between the past and the present, with a definitive eye toward the future. And considering the palpable energy and creativity that the students and staff derive from the space, it seems safe to say that Edna Lawrence would be proud. As Ruppa notes, “I could look at the same exact tiny skull as twenty other people, and we’d each be inspired differently. That’s what’s so great; you never know where someone’s going to get their idea.”

RISD’s Nature Lab seems like a logical place to start.