Bernard Roth: Making People Creative
Creativity is concerned one of the key elements to surviving in the 21st century. However, there is a huge question. Is the current education system designed for students to be creative? This guy tries to extract human potential through education.
Bernard Roth: Professor/Educator
Bernie Roth is the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering at Stanford University. A longtime veteran of the Stanford design scene, he first came to the Stanford Design Division faculty in 1962. In 2003 he joined a small group of colleagues to bring more cross disciplinary collaboration into education. These discussions led to the formation of the Stanford institute nicknamed "the d.school." Bernie brought to the d.school a wealth of experience in teaching design, an intimate knowledge of the functioning of Stanford University, and a worldwide reputation as a researcher in kinematics and robotics. Since 2005, the d.school has been the primary focus of Bernie's professional activities.
-----Bernie, you have over 50 years of teaching experience, assisting in the shaping of habits and been a confidant to intimate experiences, fears and failures, especially at the creativity workshop you started at d.school, which you co-founded. What did motivate you to invest in the building of people´s potential and creativity through teaching, more specifically with the founding of d.school?
I felt it was part of my job as a professor to deal with the whole person and not just the transfer of specific in-depth knowledge of subject matter, but in dealing with the students as people in addition to cramming stuff into their heads. When dealing with them as people, you get to know the issues that people have, their problems, personal or work, their life issues, which led me to take a more holistic view of the job of being a professor. I myself was an engineering student and subjected to many engineering professors and, by and large, it was all business. There was no recognizing of me as a person. Also, I lived through the 1960s, when there was a big unit potential movement and I had come from New York to California. I’d gotten involved in that movement and it was another fabric I liked, so I though I would integrate the fabric of being an engineering professor with the fabric of being interested in human potential. So, if you take those factors brought in together, you got what I am.
-----Looking back, what would you say are most common problems people get stuck with? Is there any common factor?
I’d say it’s all over the place and depending on the age group; where they are in life there indicates there are clusters of problems they tend to all have that are pretty common, although people come at it in different ways, basically. For students, it’s usually what to do when they grow up; should they go to graduate school, should they take this job or that job, should they stay in the field they’ve chosen or should they go to something else, should they listen to the pressure of their parents… those kind of issues are very common with students, especially graduate and undergraduates. However, once people sort of get past that hurdle, there are always love issues and later on there are issues with children, then with money and jobs, issues with parents, siblings, friends, what to do when they grow up I’d say are the main problems that come forth.
-----One of the main takeaways from your book, The Achievement Habit, is doing versus trying. What are the critical virtues that define a “doer” and moreover and achiever? And also, what do you feel are the biggest detractors from feeling empowered to get things done? Moreover, what empowers a do-er?
Well, it’s what I call intention and attention. Some people are not clear in what their intention is in doing things, so they just really flounder around without a clear intention. That’s one issue: if you don’t have the intention to do something and you hit some obstacles, it’s not going to happen because you’re easily deterred. If you think “oh, it would be nice to do such and such”, and once you start attempting to do it, you get frustrated because there are blocks or it doesn’t go the way the had hoped. You get distracted, move to something else and forget about it. That’s the intention thing.
When you really want to do something but you don’t have enough discipline to give it the attention it requires, meaning you just have the intention to do something, it’s not enough. You have to give it attention because things do take time. Sometimes things do happen and you’re lucky, but more often than not, things that you really care about require you giving it some attention and priority in your life, so I’d say that the two biggest things are having a clear intention to do something and willingness to give it enough priority to give it the attention it requires. Some people are great at it; they’re really motivated and centered, and others are terrible at it, easily deterred and distracted. It’s a sort of a given DNA in people and some people have to work to get past that. So, if you really want to get things done and you notice a lot it doesn’t, you have to give it the attention it needs so it can be done. I find that through little successes, you gain the ability to do it. If you do something small and you succeed, you feel empowered. Then you do something bigger and succeed and you feel more empowered, and eventually you’ll feel like a powerful person and nothing is going to stop you. On the other hand, if you never succeed in anything you feel disempowered and everything sucks.
-----Could you share that moment/personal experience that sparked the achievement habit for you?
There are many of them and I do mention them in my book, which is actually written in terms of my experiences. In “The Achievement Habit”, I intend to show people what got me to that idea. For example, the one incident I talk about is my whole relationship to time, to being on time and being late. I used to always be late, I never had any regard for time and I was on the board of directors of a company in Berkeley, California, which is normally about an hour by car from where I am in Stanford. We would have board meetings periodically, and I would be late on a regular basis, always with the excuse that there was heavy traffic - and it was not a lie, there was heavy traffic. However, that that was not why I was late, that I was late because I didn’t leave early enough and I let other things get in the way, leaving at the last moment and “surprised” that there was traffic, and so I was late. Once I got that realization, that if I really wanted to be on time on the board I should show enough respect to get there on time, it came to me that all these ideas, these reasons we use, are a lack of success and just bullshit. They’re not real reasons, they’re just excuses. And that one realization about the board meeting and being there on time was a pivotal event in my life that led me to realize the reasons, and ultimately all reasons of human behavior, are basically excuses. It got me to realize that if I wanted to be on time, I can and I have to take that responsibility, and that was an achievement habit realization in my life.
-----Have you been good at keeping that habit from there onwards?
Oh, yeah, I’m the pain in the ass that’s always on time and gets to everything on time. People in my world are fearful, especially now that my book is out. In fact, I went to a 4th of July party this year, which we go to it every year, and we were just on time, my wife and I. My wife’s used to always be late, but now with my pressure she’s more or less on time. We walked in and my friend said “God damn you Bernie, since you wrote that book everyone is on time!”, so it’s kind of caused a little bit of pollution in my life, in good humor. However, it has made a difference at work; people show up on time for meetings and things do work much better that way.
----When we fail ourselves, it can be a defining moment in either learning from it or giving it the power to tear you apart. What are your biggest take-backs from experiences you’ve had in which you feel you failed yourself? How would you describe the failure “recovery” process?
Failure, in general, hurts. In the d.school, we have this thing we call “no fear of failure”. Still, no matter how enlightened you are, no one wants to fail, especially people who are used to being high achievers and things like that. So, if it’s something you care about and you do fail, it’s usually hurtful. The difference though, is knowing it’s not catastrophic and to realize you can recover from it. Also, it might be the best thing you ever had happen and that it happens.
I actually had a conversation recently with someone I’ve known for many many years. He has an Olympic gold metal, which he got after he had a surgery that he thought would never allow him compete again. It’s a very heroic story of when he was a young college student. He’s an older guy now and he’s had a long life of entrepreneurship and starting lots of companies and doing a lot of wonderful things. He’d usually tell me “every time I get blocked with something, if something doesn’t work, eventually it leads to a breakthrough I would have never gotten to if it had worked.” So, in a sense, that’s the idea of failure: to learn and to have to work to get around it. Just because something seems bad at the moment, it might be an ultimate gift, you never know. The main idea is to take the experience and use it as a learning experience, and be thankful for that because it’s an opportunity you wouldn’t have had otherwise, if things had actually gone smoothly. Now, if things go smoothly and they turn out great, that’s fine, but often if they went smoothly the way you wanted, you wouldn’t get very much out of it. It would be sort of a prosaic kind of success and somehow the failure and the frustration needed to think more deeply to work your way around an obstacle will often lead to something marvelous that you wouldn’t have gotten to.
So that’s the idea, but we could say don’t overthink things, just go ahead and it’s ok if it doesn’t work and you’ll learn from what’s not working and that’s fine. Last night in the middle of the night I was not sleeping too well and I googled a conference for where I’m gonna give a talk and I hadn’t looked at it and I saw they had my abstract and there was a really bad typo in the abstract so at 3 in the morning I sent an email to London to tell them please fix it. So the message has been going back and forth and now I think it’s fixed. It’s not a tragedy, I would have lived with the typo, but it’s just that idea. I dashed it off once in a hurry and I hadn’t noticed this typo and now I fixed it and the world will go on. So it’s just that sort of thing, you go around in your life fixing typos and don’t lose sleep because you have a typo.
-----In your book you state “People are always changing and evolving, for good and bad, and we are all capable of reinvention.” How have you managed reinvention in your personal life?
The d.school is a reinvention for me. I was heavily involved in robotics research and machine design teaching, and then the opportunity to help found the d.school arose and I sort of went with it. I did it to be with some people I liked and not say no to the opportunity.
Shortly after, my friend David Kelly got cancer and he had to step out of the leadership role. The dean called me up on a Friday evening, late and night and he told me “I’m leaving town, I’m really uneasy about not having a faculty member in charge. Would you mind stepping while David’s recovering?” So I said fine and I was there Monday morning… and I never left. Its only changed my life; I don’t do my robotics research anymore, I do a little teaching and I still have my friends in the field, and that last is the part I miss the most.
The whole scent of my Stanford existence has moved from mechanical engineering, design and robotics to the d.school, and its given me an entirely different aspect of life. I now have regular meetings I never had, I used to just deal with one or two graduate students and now I deal with many people. It just changed my relationship to my work and life, and that was an example of total reinvention and it just came by happenstance and you just have to say yes to the opportunity. I’ve had that experience many times.
-----If you could make a call to 20-year-old Bernie Roth, what advice you would give him?
I’ve been getting a lot of calls and emails since my book came out. I got a call from a student I had a long time ago at Stanford. He was what we call a first-generation student; he came from a family that had never sent anyone to college and he was ethnically different from the mainstream at Stanford at the time, and he had a lot of concerns. He wanted to thank me because he felt I really helped him get through the pain of adjusting. He said to me, “I’ll never forget what you told me,” and I was like wow, I must have told him something pretty profound. And then he told me what my profound words had been: “take it easy, it´ll be ok.” He was really thankful for that advice and that’s what I would tell the young Bernie Roth. I think that this is the most profound thing you can tell anyone, even if it sounds dry.