As an inventor, robotics enthusiast, and content producer, Simone Giertz’s job is to identify a problem, and develop a solution.
Sounds quite normal, right? It’s the kind of thing engineers, psychologists, physicists and the like do every day. Here’s the twist though: the problems Giertz tackles are comparatively minor. She’s not developing an android accountant; instead, she created a machine that serves her soup (poorly). Rather than constructing a bridge, she’s come up with a drone designed to carry small children.
In short, her solutions often prove to become more of a problem than the problem they were designed to solve. They are, quite simply, useless.
But as you’ll discover, that’s actually the plan.
Throughout her schooling life, Giertz was a straight A student. She was the top of her class year after year, and was proud of it.
Then, one day, she got a B on a math test. She wrote an e-mail to her brother, saying she was crying because everyone would think she was stupid as a result.
Whether she realised it at the time or not, Giertz was suffering from extreme performance anxiety. She was so obsessed with perfection that anything less was deemed a failure, and something to feel defeated by.
That Giertz ended up working in robotics, therefore, is surprising. As she says in her TED Talk, “It has a high likelihood of failure and moreover, it has a high likelihood of making you feel stupid. And that was my biggest fear at the time.”
So what happened?
Giertz became interested in robotics shortly after leaving school. She decided she was going to teach herself about hardware and design, and was well aware of how difficult it would be. Therefore, she came up with a plan that would allow her to learn without her performance anxiety interfering with her experimentation.
She would make shitty robots.
“And as soon as I removed all pressure and expectations from myself, that pressure quickly got replaced by enthusiasm, and it allowed me to just play.”
There are two key takeaways from Giertz’s presentation:
The first is that we must discover ways to subvert our expectation that the work we do should show immediate signs of greatness.
Last week, we talked about why a bad first draft makes for a good start. The mindset is the same. Being great takes work, and those who achieve greatness do so by following the process. They experiment. They challenge themselves. They analyse their failures, and learn from them.
Giertz approaches the development of her useless machines with the same dedication any robotic engineer would. The difference is that she doesn’t expect them to be perfect. They’re not meant to be. Yet because she is following a process, she’s nevertheless learning and innovating.
The second point is that there’s no such thing as a worthless question.
The content on Giertz’s Youtube channel is silly and fun, but that’s not the only reason she’s become so successful. What sets her apart is her ability to ask a question like “how can I make it easier for people to brush their teeth?” and to come up with an answer that is innovative, clever, and entertaining.
Sure, toothbrushes already exist. So what? If we never question whether there’s a better solution, we’ll never find one.
Giertz puts it best: “To me that’s the true beauty of making useless things, because it’s this acknowledgment that you don’t always know what the best answer is. And it turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works. And maybe a toothbrush helmet isn’t the answer, but at least you’re asking the question”.