The following is excerpted from Free to Make: How the Maker Movement is Changing our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds by Dale Dougherty and Ariane Conrad, published by North Atlantic Books.
One of the most profound experiences that any of us can have is to act on an idea, turn it into something real, and share it. It can be called the act of creation or invention, inspired by our experiences and our imagination and informed by our knowledge and skills. The process of realizing an idea and making it tangible is what defines a maker.
Our own experience as a creator, a maker, a producer can change the world in small but significant ways, and we may not realize it at the time. It also can profoundly change how we think about ourselves, and that kind of change may be the most profound. We develop a sense that our ideas matter, that they can impact us and the world around us. The impact may simply be that what we get is a person to laugh with us, but that counts for a lot.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the creative state of mind in which we “want to pursue whatever (we) are doing for its own sake” as “flow.” Being in that state is an optimal experience; it makes u happy. That’s why the process of making is its own reward, and that’s why it is so personal.
As makers, we enjoy repeatedly experiencing this creative process. By taking our own ideas seriously, sharing them with others and developing them, we give our life meaning and purpose. We have a sense of being in control and having a freedom to choose what to do, and to do things without fear of failure or judgment. We gain confidence.
Engaging in this process develops the maker mindset. When I talk about the maker mindset, I mean all the intangibles that come as a result of the very tangible experiences of making. Makers acquire this mindset through the repeated practice of making: it’s not necessarily intentionally sought out on its own. It develops with the practice.
What are the qualities of the maker mindset? Makers are active, engaged, playful and resourceful. They have a well-developed sense of curiosity and wonder. Makers are self-directed learners, able to figure out one way or another how to learn what they need to know. They learn to use tools and technology to create new things. They are willing to take risks, trying to do something that others have not done or creating something that they have not seen before. They are persistent, overcoming frustration, and resilient, trying again when they experience failure. Makers are resourceful, developing the ability to make do with what is available or exploring alternatives that might be cheaper or better for the environment. Makers are good at improvising: they are able to do things that have no instructions. Makers are generally open and generous, willing to share their work and their expertise, often helping others in the recognition that they have benefited themselves from such help. Makers believe in their own individual agency to act and create change in their own lives and their community.
I meet makers who have widely different interests or live in very different places and work under different conditions, yet they share the same mindset. Having this mindset in common allows makers to connect easily with each other as though they had known each other for a long time. This mindset opens doors to new opportunities for personal and social development.
Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, wrote a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck’s twenty years of research shows “that the view that you adopt for yourself affects the way you lead your life.” It seems obvious, but how aware is each of us of the mindset that we have and whether in any meaningful sense we adopted it? Can you remember the moment when you adopted your mindset? I suspect many of us think that our mindset was something we had from birth, just like our appearance and personality. Dweck implies that a mindset is trained: While genes undoubtedly play a role, they are “only a starting point.” We can think of a mindset as something that “you can cultivate through your efforts.” We aren’t stamped at birth with a mindset; yet what we believe about ourselves changes how we live our life.
Dweck distinguishes between fixed and growth mindsets. A fixed mindset reflects the belief that one’s capabilities have already been determined, and developing new abilities is not possible. A growth mindset reflects the belief that one’s capabilities can be developed, improved, and expanded. When asked to try something new outside his or her comfort zone, a person with a fixed mindset is more likely to decline, thinking that there’s only downside and nothing to be gained. People with a growth mindset are more likely to embrace the opportunity readily, without thinking about whether or not they will be successful. People with these different mindsets exhibit different attitudes toward risk and potential failure.
Dweck points out that many people who excel academically in school have a fixed mindset, which limits them to exploring only the areas for which they believe they have an aptitude. Said another way, they stick to doing what they’ve been told they are good at. Particularly in the past, a fixed mindset, through its very limitations and predictability, was often a path to success. However, it’s a not a path that leads to creativity or innovation. A growth mindset supports the belief that we can develop and change, especially by learning new things.
In a world that grows more interconnected and interdisciplinary every day, a growth mindset is a fundamental advantage for us to adapt to change, if not become an agent of change. Moreover, a growth mindset predisposes us to believing that our own actions matter and that we can change the world instead of accepting the status quo.
The maker mindset is an expression of the growth mindset that is evident in a maker’s willingness to learn new tools and methods as well as experiment without certainty of success. Because of this mindset, makers are optimistic about what they can do. I see it and feel it present from makers at a Maker Faire—and it comes from people who are fully engaged, doing something they love to do, and believing that what they do is worth sharing.
The Effort-Driven rewards Circuit
Is there something special about making and using our hands that might support the development of this kind of mindset? Kelly Lambert, a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon University who runs a behavioral neuroscience lab, began exploring hands-on activities as way of relieving the symptoms of depression. Lambert wrote about her research in the book, Lifting Depression. She sent me a copy of her book after seeing me on CNN.
Her interest in depression began following her mother’s death with her own sadness and depression. After weeks of feeling that none of her “efforts made any difference in the world,” she found relief in vacuuming her house, something she normally did not like to do. The physical work made her feel better. “Each time I saw tangible evidence of the dirt and grime I’d physically removed from my house, I felt my efforts were valuable.” It gave her a sense of control over her environment. That experience led Lambert to explore the neuroscience behind depression in her lab, as well as the correlation between hands-on work and how we feel about ourselves.
“What I’ve discovered is that there’s a critical link between the symptoms of depression and key areas of the brain involved with motivation, pleasure, movement and thought. Because these brain areas communicate back and forth, they are considered a circuit, one of many in our brains. In fact, the rich interactions along this particular brain circuit, which I called the effort-driven rewards circuit, provide us with surprising insights into how depression is both activated and alleviated.”
I love that she calls it a circuit, something makers can understand. When all the parts are linked together properly, there’s a flow of energy through this circuit. We feel engaged by our actions, alive in our minds, and interacting easily with others. Our brain is giving us positive feedback that comes a result of our effort. When the circuit is disengaged, we feel blue, as though it wouldn’t matter what we do. “What revs up the crucial effort-driven rewards circuit, the fuel, is generated by doing certain types of physical activities, especially ones that involve your hands,” Lambert writes. “It’s important that these actions produce a result you can see, feel, and touch, such as knitting a sweater or tending a garden. Such actions and their associated thoughts, plans and ultimate results change the physiology and chemical makeup of the effort-driven rewards circuit in an energized way. I call the emotional sense of well-being that results effort-driven rewards.”
Lambert can’t emphasize enough how central the hands are to this circuit. “Our hands are so important that moving them activates larger areas of the brain’s central cortex than moving much larger parts of our bodies, such as our back or even our legs.” Our hands are uniquely connected to our brain and hand movements are “the most effective way to kickstart the circuit in to gear.” This runs counter to our usual separation of manual and mental labor, of physical and mental, of hand and mind. What if the phrase “hands-on” were to be associated in our minds with a heightened mental state? We know of people who talk with their hands, but makers are people who think (and communicate) with their hands.The harder the work, the more rewarding it is. It is a fine line: if it too easy, there is little reward. Yet if it is too difficult, we will just give up. Experiments that Lambert did in her lab with rats led her to the conclusion that persistence can be learned.
It may be that the sustained effort is what matters, not simply exertion. Prolonged efforts to make things are deep experiences that not only activate our brain, but change it, initiating growth, creating new connections. Actions that we see as meaningful “likely stimulates neurogenesis—the production of new brain cells,” writes Lambert. We are changing our minds as we change the physical world around us.
The symptoms that Lambert associates with depression—loss of meaning, loss of pleasure, sluggishness, poor concentration, slow motor responses—might be considered the opposite of the maker mindset: purpose, joy, engagement, focus and flow, and resilience. The maker mindset could be the product of repeatedly engaging the effort-driven rewards circuit with activities that use our hands as well as our brain. If you enjoy making, you’ll do more of it—your brain tells you it wants more. Our bodies and our minds work in an integrated fashion.
Lambert thinks that the rise of depression in our culture could be tied to “effortless-driven rewards,” a consumer culture that provides rewards with greater and greater convenience so that there’s little physical or mental work associated with getting them. It’s what fast food is: the “reward” is a bunch of calories that cost us little money and little time or effort. We take less pleasure in the food than we might have had we spent the time preparing it. Lambert cites additional research that shows that if effort-driven rewards circuit is disrupted, instead of giving full effort for maximum reward, we can learn to settle for a smaller reward that requires less effort. We become complacent.
In my view, the effort-driven rewards circuit gives us a model for understanding how making itself produces the kind of physical and mental well-being that we find in the maker mindset—why making makes us feel good.
If I had to give a prescription for the maker mindset, I might say: “Be more playful.” It really doesn’t matter what you choose to make or how good you are at doing it. What matters most is jumping in and enjoying the experience. This is the practice. The more it feels like play, the more you’ll enjoy it.
With Make: magazine, I had an insight that adults needed to play and re-discover hobbies and passion projects. I saw that makers liked to play, whether they used that word to describe it or not. Perhaps it was enough to realize that the problem at hand had their full attention and everything else fell away. Makers didn’t consider what they were doing to be work, and they didn’t necessarily know where it might lead them.
Perhaps the most important thing for adults is that play can be entirely under your own control. You do what you want to do. There are no committees that have to decide, no hierarchy to navigate for approval, no external conditions placed on your own interests. Control is in your own hands.
I like to call what makers do “experimental play,” as John Dewey, the educational philosopher, uses the term, meaning that we are testing what we understand and what we can do. Experimental play creates a context for us where it is safe to try things: the stakes are low, judgments are withheld, and there’s no prescribed goal or outcome.
Yet, my sense from seeing so many tech enthusiasts at play is that it has an additional benefit. Experimental play created the conditions for innovation to happen. That is, the immersion in a set of problems or a set of tools gives rises to new insights that can lead to unexpected solutions and unplanned products. Innovation can emerge from our own set of experiences. If makers did not play with drawbots and broken 3D printers, they would not have immersed themselves sufficiently to have new ideas about how they could be improved. Makers through play can see what’s missing, what doesn’t work as it should, what was poorly designed and needs to be completely re-thought. A maker might make the assertion: “I can do better.”
“Play lies at the core of creativity and innovation”39 declares psychiatrist Stuart Brown in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Brown tells the story of how CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) realized that, although they were hiring the best and brightest college graduates, it was hiring the wrong kind of people to create the solutions they needed. Something had changed in the people who came to work there:
The JPL managers went back to look at their own retiring engineers and … found that in their youth, their older, problem- solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or made soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances. The young engineering school graduates who had also done these things, who had played with their hands, were adept at the kinds of problem solving that management sought.
Those who hadn’t, generally were not. From that point on, JPL made questions about applicants “youthful projects and play” a standard part of job interviews.
We might say that JPL realized it was looking for a mindset, and this mindset seemed to develop not in school but through “youthful projects and play.” Just having a degree doesn’t guarantee that you have the right mindset.
Brown, like Lambert, makes the case that play re-shapes our brain. “Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties. The abilities to make new patterns, find the unusual among the common, and spark curiosity and alert observation are all fostered.” Both Lambert and Brown, as psychologists, might look at the therapeutic value of play for adults, Brown emphasizes that play is essential for our well-being.
Some people will argue that they don’t have the time to play or make. It’s an argument Brown has heard as well. We’re too busy working to play. Yet, creating time for play is also essential to balance our work lives with our own interests. Brown writes that “the opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.” We need both work and play. Brown notes that they are “mutually supportive” with play providing “a sense of discovery and liveliness” and work providing us with a sense of purpose and that we are needed by others. In fact, Brown also admits that play and work can merge for us. Often when we are doing our very best work when we feel like we are playing.
In dealing with adults who struggle to have a sense of play, Brown asks them to develop a play history. He asks them to think back to their childhood and recall periods of play, what they were doing, where it took place and how it made them feel. To adapt the idea from Brown, I think we might also consider composing our own “make history:” recalling experiences of building, creating, designing something from scratch, reflecting on what we were doing and how it made us feel. This can help us recall the very personal connection between making and play, and the satisfaction of creating something new. Rediscover something you enjoyed as a child, a hobby or passion that can be re-kindled.
From Free to Make by Dale Dougherty, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2016 by Dale Dougherty. Reprinted with permission of publisher.