The best part of the kit that FIRST teams receive to define their next project is what it doesn’t include—namely, instructions. That’s by design, explains Kamen. Instead, students are given a problem statement with a solution that’s open to wide interpretation. In the end, “There is no best solution. There are different solutions. This [robot] is better at this, this one is better at that.” Failure isn’t really possible, because no traditional grade is assigned. Instead, what excites Kamen about FIRST competitions is the fact that, “You create something, you put it out there, you compare it to others. You learn, ‘Wow, I should have thought of that.’ [And other teams] are going to look at yours and say, ‘Well, that aspect of what you did is pretty neat.’ But collectively we raise the bar for everybody.”
That approach to learning can feel at odds with where the U.S. education system typically places its focus. Traditionally, “School is about telling you the right way to get to the answers in the back of the book,” says Kamen. “In fact, if you get a different answer—not even a wrong answer, but a different answer—you get a red mark or you don’t get an A.” The goal becomes more about avoiding that D or F, and less about thinking deeply about a problem.
Kamen, who’s dyslexic, compares his early classroom experiences to a “firehose of information.” He struggled to align his interpretation of what it means to really understand a new concept with that of his teachers, who he realized were just looking for what he defined as “familiarity,” or the ability to memorize facts for a test. (Case in point: He’d learn a simple rule of fractions in math class, but still be trying to wrap his brain around “What does it mean to divide zero by zero?” while the rest of the class had moved on to phonics, spelling, or reading.)
That’s not to say Kamen discounts traditional education. Quite the opposite—his mom is a retired teacher. But he concluded that its purpose was to help him amass a baseline set of facts, rules, and general knowledge that, independently, he could then apply to bigger thinking. School is the place where you assemble your toolkit, he reasons. “You have to then go out and say, ‘Now that I’ve got all these tools and I know how to use them, I want to use my imagination and come up with something that’s never been made before.’” But if earning that A is your most important metric, “don’t become an inventor,” Kamen counters. “An inventor rarely gets it right. But if it’s a really good invention, rare is okay.”
So what’s Kamen’s end game in helping develop a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who are undaunted by failure? Here’s where the seasoned inventor starts waxing poetic. “In order to create a world where every generation will be better than the one before them,” he explains, it’s critical to foster “smart, educated people that not only have access to these technologies, but they also have to have the courage to try, even if they fail, and pick themselves up again.”
And once that new breed of inventors gets comfortable with failure’s fundamental role in the process of invention, Kamen finds hope in an emerging world of ideas, not things. “In the old world of stuff, if I took the land, you don’t have it. If I took the oil, you don’t have it,” he explains. “But in a world of ideas, if you know the formula to cure cancer with that pill and I have a way to make the internet 10 times faster, and you share your idea with me, now we both know how to cure cancer. If I share my idea with you, we both can have better internet. The world of ideas isn’t a zero-sum game like the world of stuff.” And that kind of world, Kamen concludes, is something worth striving for.