Creating Excellence Versus Fostering it

In his State of the Union speech President Obama mentioned the word "innovation" nine times. He talked about "encouraging," "investing in, "driving" and "getting behind" innovation, meaning spotting it when it happens, then "fostering" it. Last year his administration put out a major study on education titled, "Fostering Innovation and Excellence." All of which sounds admirable. But whatever happened to the idea of breeding innovation from birth, rather than waiting for it to pop up on it's own?

The answer is we left it behind when Ronald Reagan was elected. If you want to see our old fashioned, pre-Reagan society in today's world you have to go to a place like Norway and have your socks knocked off by their science students, as happened to me last week. They are so bright. I've never seen anything like it. And at the core of their ability to excel, and yes, innovate, is a single word that their society breeds from day one, which is trust. Let me explain.


I'm a filmmaker (writer-director of "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus," Tribeca '06, Showtime 07-09) who was formerly a tenured professor of biology. I teach intensive 3-day videomaking workshops to science graduate students -- taking groups of 25 students in three days from zero experience with filming and editing to the production of 5 finished one minute videos. After running it 8 times in 6 years I had a very clear set of expectations for the students. But the Norwegians heard about my workshop, invited me to run one in Tromso, Norway with 25 of their graduate students in mid-January, and those expectations will never be the same again.

The Norwegian students were so smart, so sweet, so open to direction, so good at listening, so eager to collaborate and so willing to absorb my comments on their work. In the end, given the same time allotment, same equipment (actually their equipment was a little better than what I normally see here in the U.S.), and same overall structure, their finished products stand an entire level above any American group of graduate students. And most importantly, they reflect the almighty INNOVATION that Obama and crew lust for. Their films are incredibly creative. You can view the videos and learn more about them in the post I did for Andy Revkin's NY Times blog, Dot Earth on Monday.

So from where does this innovation arise? For starters, let me tell you where I first spotted it: in their eyes. With American students, I give them advice, look into their eyes, and can see a little squint of, "Yeah, right, I'm not so sure about what you're saying." It's the jaded, cynical look of young adults who pride themselves on being smart enough to not "get taken" by anyone in the cold, cruel world. It's also the look of distrust that wears out instructors.

In contrast -- and it stunned me -- to look into the eyes of these twenty-five year old Norwegian graduate students was to almost look into the eyes of newborn babies. When I viewed the first cuts of their films (for which the innovative ideas were already present) and gave them suggestions, all I heard back was, "Okay." Then they incorporated my suggestions. And because I've been making films for 20 frickin' years and have done so many workshops, my suggestions all made their films better (big surprise). And so they came back, showed me the improved cus of their films, then we had wonderful discussions as they absorbed what they had learned.

So where does the word "trust" come into play? Well, let's talk about this grossly over-used word "innovation."


As Charles Darwin knew, the most powerful creative force in all of biology is "evolution by means of natural selection." I learned this at the feet of the greatest popular communicator of evolutionary biology, ever -- the late Stephen Jay Gould. He implanted in us a simple definition, which he reiterated over and over again, even including it in his final book, referring to it as, "the Darwinian two-step process of variation and selection." Evolutionary biology is THE science of change, and this is THE mechanism of change. The term "innovation" (or "Xtreme change" if you want it in more popular phrasing) is included within this process.

"It's a simple racheting," I heard him saying so many times (the trademark of a brilliant educator -- inculcation). The two steps are vastly different, and are BOTH essential. The first step, variation, is "random and in all directions" as organisms produce offspring of a wide range. The second step, selection, is not at all random. It is created by the environment and generally tends to be directional.

"The creative process," whether for groups or individuals, is identical -- the same sort of two step process. It begins with the same first stage -- variation, in the form of the creation of a range of ideas. It's then followed by the same second stage -- selection -- as the human brain looks at all the possible ideas and says, "this one." If something new, not previously established is included in that variation, happens to be selected and succeeds -- THAT is when we say innovation has occurred.


So now let's talk about these two steps for the creative process. And let's think of them as being two rooms, one white, the other black. The first is the white room. This is where variation occurs. This room needs to be immaculately clean -- devoid of obstructions, germs, shadows -- anything whatsoever that can impede the unconstrained, omnidirectional production of ideas.

The black room is where the second step, selection, occurs. It is a dark, brutally uncaring, rigorous, room of discipline which is at it's best when the variation of ideas is locked the moment it comes over from the white room -- no further expansion allowed. The only thing happening in this room is the ruthless selection of the one idea that will survive as the rest of the ideas fall to the wayside.


So it turns out the two room are not equal. It's much easier to make the black room work well -- much easier to be critical. The hard part is managing to NOT impede the creation of ideas. They so fragile, flickering and fleeting -- almost anything negative or critical will chew them up. This means for the process to work well, you have to achieve a high level of cleanliness in the white room. Any level of doubt or skepticism or DISTRUST that is brought into the white room immediately begins to turn it into a gray room, meaning the breadth of ideas -- the breadth of the variation that is so crucial -- is being constrained, thus constraining the entire process and greatly reducing the possibility of the almighty INNOVATION taking place. This is how mediocrity arises.

Which then leads us back to those Norwegian eyes. They were not clouded with doubt, skepticism, cynicism. They had been raised since birth in a certain way. They were an educators dream. They told me, "We have been raised to trust our government, our schools, our medical system, our parents." I spoke, they listened, they acted, they innovated. And more importantly, I listened to them as groups, solving the problems that confront filmmakers. They tossed out ideas, they listened to each other, they worked like a smoothly oiled machine, and they made the best films. And now it's time to relate these observations to America today and the political climate.


In Ronald Reagan's 1981 Inaugural Address he told the American public, "government is the problem" which was the beginning of today's, "don't trust government" rhetoric. Today it is everywhere. So there you have the divide for these Norwegian students. They were never told that.

The net result, 25 years later, are those eyes I was given the chance to look into. Inside those eyes was a white room as spotlessly clean as the best people at Google and Apple dream of -- people who know what I'm talking about. Those companies dream of having their employees capable of such trust that they can generate ideas in every which way possible. Those firms create play rooms for their employees and bring in improv comedy instructors (a technique that helps make the white room whiter) in an endless effort to fight the inevitable gradient and contamination from the black room.

But it all starts with what comes into the white room. Trust -- ALL forms of trust -- make it whiter. Distrust -- ALL forms of distrust -- make it more gray and ineffective.

And this is where Rand Paul comes into the story. Last October on CNN he said, "Both parties are untrustworthy." That's just a tiny sample of his standard refrain, urging the public to not trust the government, as if this advice comes with no downside.

And this is where Michael Moore (for whom I have plenty of specific criticisms) showed himself to be a truly great American with his Fahrenheit 911, a movie in which he basically said, "Yes, the 9/11 events were horrific, but the solution is not to run screaming to the American public to not trust ANYONE." He was absolutely right. All you're doing with that approach is terrifying a generation of children, causing them twenty years later to not be able to trust anyone or anything enough to create a clean white room.

As for Rand Paul, we know he and the Tea Party members are angry. This Friday they will be venting their rage with their C-PAC meeting in Washington D.C. At the core of their message (if they actually have a message) is one key principle -- don't trust your government.

This may or may not be justified. But regardless, they claim to be pro-business. We know that the business world worships innovation (Reagan told them to, long ago). Yet what I'm telling you here is that the ability to innovate rests upon the ability to generate new ideas in a white room so clean that creation of ideas is completely unimpeded. ANYTHING that inhibits the explosion of those ideas, inhibits innovation.

Breeding distrust, at ANY level, changes the minds of those who enter the white room. And in so doing, inhibits innovation. And given that "Yankee Ingenuity" is one of the cornerstones of America, and the very thing that the Tea Party yearns for, the time has come for someone to point out this contradiction that Mr. Paul is propagating.

You CANNOT foment an atmosphere of distrust yet hope to encourage innovation. The two are contradictory. It's time for Mr. Paul to quit the rhetoric of distrust. It is anti-innovation, which means it's anti-American.