(Photo by Andrew Balet. Used with permission.)

I remember walking through this laboratory of Thomas Edison as a child. (It’s been painstakingly preserved outside Detroit Michigan.)  It’s the room where the lightbulb, phonograph and thousands of other things were invented.

I remember imagining what it might have been like to invent something that had never been created.  Something inside me that day understood that invention is incredibly difficult work.   Edison had been working on the lightbulb for years.  The issue was finding a substance for the filament that would get hot enough to burn brightly without burning out.  He conducted thousands of attempts to create a long burning lightbulb, and finally in 1879, he discovered that carbonized bamboo would burn for 1200 hours.  Allegedly, he first thought of it on a fishing trip while using a bamboo pole, and he began to wonder…”What if?”

It was in that room as an eight year old boy that I first heard some of Edison’s famous quotes about the invention process.  When asked whether he thought the thousands of unsuccessful attempts at creating the lightbulb constituted failure, Edison famously replied: “I never failed once.  It just happened to be a 2,000 step process.”

I remember wondering whether I would have the tenacity to stick it out that long.  Could I handle not succeeding at that level before I stumbled into success?  I love Sir Ken Robinson’s thoughts as quoted in Reggie’s post on Wednesday:

If you are not preprared to be wrong, you will not come up with anything original…By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.  They have become frightened of being wrong. We run our companies like this by the way.  We stigmatize mistakes.   And the result is we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

What if we began to cultivate an environment where we reward initiative that fails?  I’m not saying we should reward laziness…but what would it take for us to create a culture that rewards initiative that looks like it’s going nowhere?

I think that’s a healthy challenge to my style as a father and leader. If I had been Edison’s father, would I have told him to get a real job or stop fishing and get back to the lab?

What could we do to create the kind of culture where you can be wrong…where experimentation is rewarded?  What if

  • on a school project, you allowed your son to pursue an idea he was intrigued by rather than one he was sure he’d get an A with?
  • you let your preschool daughter paint far outside the lines rather than continually reward her for painting inside them because that’s the “right way”?
  • you told your son he might make it in a band and he should just keep playing?
  • you stopped worrying about whether your kids fit in and instead started asking where you as a parent can trace out the image of God inside them?

What do you think it would take for us as parents to create an environment where our kids are free to be wrong?