8th graders now completing Middle School: 

You’ve had many fine days this school year: days when you’ve written analytical papers about Shakespeare and presented your Scientific research on an element of the periodic table; days you’ve toured the Getty Villa and raced chariots on Rome Day.

Your Mission Days were outstanding days, when you delved deeply to not just learn about but also practice our school’s core educational elements: Character, Scholarship, Leadership, and Innovation.

This may come as no surprise, but I was especially excited about your Innovation Days: what amazing things you did. You designed and executed a video newscast, planned a new garden project, researched the history of our school, and learned about the OSIRIS REX rocket mission to an asteroid.

In two projects you designed solutions to limitations of our campus: in each, you discovered underused but high potential places on our campus, you questioned repeatedly why they were not functioning effectively until you arrived at a better understanding of the problem, and then you generated solutions for these problems.

Problem-finding is at the heart of innovation, though it is sometimes underappreciated. As the Scottish educator Ewan McIntosh recently said,

While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem-finders.

In a fascinating book entitled 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, science journalist Michael Brooks tells of the many deep problems scientists are still struggling to understand, from the missing Dark Matter in the universe to the Placebo effect in medicine.  As he says:

The future of science depends on identifying the things that don’t make sense; our attempts to find anomalies with our curiosity and inquiry are what drive science forward.   The things that don’t make sense, are, in some ways, the only things that matter.”

You discovered your problems by your curiosity and your close questioning, but how did you work to solve them?   As I watched you, I saw you use several of the main ideas in a terrific new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer.

One thing you did was work in teams—which Lehrer explains is essential for innovation:

Group creativity [he writes] is becoming more necessary because we live in a world of very hard problems: all the low hanging fruit is already gone. Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires peoples to connect their imaginations together.  More than 99% of scientific fields have experienced increased levels of teamwork in published research, with the size of the average team increasing by about 20% per decade. 

One of the most successful company in the world is PIXAR: it makes movies which use awesome technology, tell wonderful stories, and are huge financial successes.   When Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, whom you recall died last fall,  designed the new PIXAR headquarters, he made sure that everything about the building promoted collaboration—he wanted the storytellers and the artists and the computer technologists and the marketing people to be constantly bumping into each other—he even made sure that there was only one bathroom for each sex in the whole place, so employees from all over would find themselves washing hands next to each other.   At Pixar, they believe “Technology inspires art, and art challenges technology.”

The second thing you did was Work hard, very hard, trying and trying again and again.  Lehrer tells us about Milton Glaser, the most successful graphic artist of the 20th century, who says

Creativity is a verb, and it is a very time consuming verb.  It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real.  And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. 

It wasn’t uncommon for Beethoven to experiment with 70 versions of a phrase before settling on the final one.  ‘I make many changes, and try again, until I am satisfied.’

And third, you opened yourself up to new experiences, knowing that it is from the most unexpected sources that inspiration comes.    “The imagination is vaster than we can imagine.  We just need to learn how to listen. Sometimes the most important idea is the one we don’t even know we need.”

Research tells us that those who travel the most widely, or most often interact with people from other countries and other backgrounds, or seek out new experiences most frequently, are the most creative.  Lehrer says:

When  19th c. Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge was asked why he would take breaks from writing poetry and attend  chemistry demonstrations in London, He answered “I attend the lectures so that I can renew my stock of metaphors.”

I am sure you all have your favorite Pixar films: in my favorite Pixar film, Ratatouille, Anton Ego, the imperious and acerbic restaurant critic  says  about the culinary genius who happens to be a rat, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

9th graders, As you go forth to what I know will be successful high school careers, seek out the most interesting, challenging, and meaningful problems, and then imagine and innovate your way to the solutions, always remembering that it is by hard work, teamwork, and the mingling of ideas that you will be most successful.   Congratulations.