Segway Inventor: Fear of Failure Kills U.S. Innovation

Inventor says America teaches a fear of failure that is stifling young people’s innovation.

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Inventor and education innovator Dean Kamen is well known for two things: inventing the Segway and founding FIRST Robotics, one of the nation's largest STEM competitions. The program, which requires students to build, program, and complete tasks with a robot, has served more than a million students since he founded it in 1989.

A study by Brandeis University found that students who compete in the competition are much more likely to attend college, major in science or engineering, and have an internship during their freshman year in college than students who didn't compete. The competition has more momentum than ever before, with corporate sponsors ranging from General Motors and Johnson & Johnson to AT&T and Coca-Cola. I spoke with Kamen about FIRST and the challenges the United States must overcome to regain its spot as the world's top innovator.

You've said that the U.S. should be leading the world in innovation––do you think we still lead the world? What's keeping us from leading? 

I think it's such a big field and it crosses so many issues of culture and society. I can't say there's a definitive point across the board that our country does or doesn't lead in innovation.

The change over time is telling. This was the country that, when the world was agrarian, we mechanized and optimized it, when the world was speeding up, we built the telegraph, and then we went from the telegraph to the telephone and telephone to radio, television, Internet.

We've watched the world learn to make the stuff—we built cars and then it was done elsewhere and then we'd tackle the next issue. We went from knitting to cars to computers to electronics. In each case, we led the world and then, in a symbiotic relationship, the patents expire, and it becomes a commodity that can create jobs in the developing world, it lowers cost and it worked. That was the model we grew up with: We'll innovate, create, and it'll spread.

For loads and loads of reasons, that model is severely threatened right now, and I don't think the average American understands the consequences of losing that model.

Dean Kamen, inventor and founder of FIRST, autographs a custom-built robot designed by students participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge during FIRST Championship 2011. FIRST Tech Challenge is one of four programs offered by FIRST.

Dean Kamen, inventor and founder of FIRST, autographs a custom-built robot designed by students participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge.

So what can or what should we be doing?

There's no one point where we lost it or lost it across all industries. It's not as well defined as "Where's the Dow at today?" Our regulatory process at the federal, state, and local level, in a lot of ways have stifled change. All bureaucracy is about retaining the status quo, and innovation is about big change.

We've gotten old and set. You go to China now, Russia now, it's like the Wild West. They're excited and they're like we were 100 years ago.

But it's more than that. We got comfortable. We sort of were an island and didn't have to worry about competition from most of the rest of the world that was struggling to find water or didn't have electricity. Over the last generation, most of the rest of the world has fixated appropriately on education being key to our future and said, "Let's make our kids science and tech smart. At the very least they can work in factories."

But they didn't stop there; They thought, "Why don't we become really tech savvy and we can create better ways to make stuff. We can create better ways at making technology. Besides becoming better at manufacturing, let's become the innovators."

Once you do that, you make the high-end jobs, you create the wealth, you create the industries. I'm not sure America is ready to adjust to becoming the country that is getting outsourced to.

I listen to both sides of the political agenda these days and I find it depressing. They both are screaming about jobs, jobs, jobs. That's a low standard. It used to be about innovation. It used to be about creating whole new industries.

I don't think Sergei [Brin] and Larry [Page] set out to create a job for themselves. I don't think Alexander Bell or the Wright Brothers were looking to create a job. They were looking to change the world. When they succeed they'll create not jobs, they'll create industries, they'll create wealth and happiness among people who get to enjoy these new solutions to old problems. I think America is almost resigning itself to, "We need jobs." I think it's pathetic.

So you think we're setting the bar too low?

I'd say yes, I think we're setting the bar too low. ... We have the highest level of kids dropping out of high schools out of all of our competitors in the industrial world.

Kids are happy to spend hours and hours trying to get on the varsity basketball team. They don't spend nearly as many hours developing any skill sets that will build their career options. Our culture doesn't push them that way. We make heroes and role models out of people from Hollywood and the NBA and NFL, but there aren't that many jobs in the NBA and the NFL.

Sports and entertainment don't drive the economy, they don't create the wealth, they don't create a sense of security and standard of living that this country seems to be taking for granted.

You've said teachers should let students fail. Is that so they can learn from those failures?  

I think teachers should encourage them to work on really big, really hard, really tough problems—the consequence of which, compared to giving them the safe road, they probably will unfortunately fail, and fail again, and fail again. The teachers need to give kids enough self-confidence so that they realize it's the project that failed, and not the student.

Students need to learn enough from their failures so that they can be re-energized, refocused, and with their new knowledge and new experience and new scars on their back, they can go out and succeed.

I don't think there are any big wins that aren't the result of a lot of losses. I think teachers need to let students know that in order to make the really big wins, they're going to lose a lot of battles, but they'll win the war.

Instead, I think we've created a society that is so risk-averse that kids are taught—"Whatever you do, don't fail." A consequence of being unwilling to fail is that you'll never try really big, bold things. Once you define success as loss of failure, we've lost innovation, we've lost our edge.

So are project-based learning programs like FIRST the way forward? 

The reason so many kids and so many teachers like FIRST is because it gives them the opportunity to work on stuff where there isn't a specific known answer at the back of the book. You look at the FIRST kit, and there is no right answer. But there's also no wrong answer. So they can fail without personally failing.

We give them opportunities to deal with real-world problems and to have real-world experience, which includes frustration. It makes real-world-relevant subject matter part of school.

Kids today are immersed in so much high-tech stuff that lining them up in neat rows and having them open up 20-year-old textbooks that still have pictures of inventors like Eli Whitney is not exactly engaging to these kids.

Give them technology and a challenge and a fast-paced competition, and you change their attitude, their expectations. They're not really just building robots. What they learn about is themselves and their teachers and their mentors. What they're building is self-confidence and respect. What they're learning is that hard work at developing the muscle between their ears pays off way more than trying to develop the muscles on their arms.

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