Seth Godin on The Art and Science of Making Things

Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to attend this year's World Maker Faire in New York City - the two-day event sponsored by MAKE magazine and O'Reilly Media on all things related to science, engineering, and the maker culture.  The faire took me deep into the heart of Queens to the New York Hall of Science. If you're unsure about what exactly goes on at the Maker Faire, here's the quick pitch: The World Maker Faire is a giant science fair for nerds of all ages. 

Apart from the myriad 3D printer start-up companies, the life-sized mouse trap (yes, I'm talking about a life-sized version of the classic board game), and the discussion panels, perhaps the most salient information I gathered came from marketing guru and entrepreneur Seth Godin. 

life-sized mousetrap/ode to Rube Goldberg

life-sized mousetrap/ode to Rube Goldberg

As a disclaimer, I'll note that I'm a big fan of Seth Godin's blog and a few of his books like the popular Purple Cow. But his 30 minute speech, titled "The Art and Science of Making Things" holds some meritable insights on what actually qualifies as "making", which you can probably guess is a pertinent theme throughout the Maker Faire. His thesis is as follows:

If you are doing something that might not work, you are in the business of making things.

I'm not going to say that Seth's speech isn't another platitude on the importance of failure and the learning opportunities associated with taking on chance. After quickly examining the quote above, it's easy to see that Seth clearly values the presence of failure as a growth opportunity. But there are two points of distinction that differentiate his point of view apart from all the other truisms of failure.

The first is the relationship Seth holds with risk. According to Seth, when examining the process of making, the probability of risk trumps the actual experience of the failure that emerges from that risk. Making involves the potential for failure, but making is actually rarely or never defined by the failure itself. Being a maker necessitates a certain level of calling the shots, ultimately bringing into play the potential for failure.

This leads me to the second distinct message in Seth's presentation - that risk aversion is a byproduct of the industrial processes popularized in the early 20th century. If being a maker necessitates a certain level of calling the shots, Seth argues that our current systems in education, as well as our businesses, fail to place individuals in such positions.

Example #1: If you go to a 5th grade science class, you won't see any science going on in the classroom. Instead, Seth points out, what you'll see are students conducting the steps of a scientific process that someone else stumbled through to procure and solidify. Science isn't following steps 1-9 and neither is making. 

Example #2: The industrial revolution functioned primarily on processes. According to Seth, the industrial process is about "making big things bigger, making fast things faster" and so on. But the result of creating a culture so dependent on processes, is the same kind of passive activity described in Seth's 5th grade science class example. How can you innovate, Seth asks, when everyone around you is so focused on making sure all the steps in a procedure are carried out correctly? 

I don't imagine that Seth actually demands the takedown of industrial processes. In fact, there are many cases where such processes can result in real innovative solutions for world problems. The relationship between industrial process and the ability to scale up is a valuable force. My friend Justin Berk, an MD/MBA candidate at Texas Tech University, has written about these advantages in an article called "Using the Ideas Behind McDonald's to Deliver Essential Medicines to the Poor" as he discusses how the McDonald's franchise model can be leveraged for better public health solutions in developing countries. Another example of such model is the Aravind Eye Hospital where the well known Dr. V has provided thousands of cataract surgeries across India based on procedures not too dissimilar from the Model-T assembly line. At the Maker Faire, Seth failed to include such examples of industry efficiency in his analysis. But my guess is that he would probably uphold Aravind and Justin's article as hallmarks of innovation because ultimately, they fall in line with his overall main point: to be a really good maker involves a conscious self-positioning void of the rote memory processes that we have grown alongside for years and years.

Seth closed his speech at this year's New York City World Maker Faire on an introspective note by providing the attendees with the following question: 

When was the last time you made something that didn't work out?

The answer to this question, it appears, serves as a benchmark between passive work and the art and science of making.