Why Simone Giertz Thinks "Building Stupid Things is Actually Quite Smart"

Another A+ Student Teaching About Failure

If you’ve ever read our origin story, you’ll know that the Empathy Toy started out as a university thesis project. What you might not know is that before our founder, Ilana Ben-Ari, was designing toys, she was working hard to be a top student. Getting straight A’s was the way for her to get into her dream school, and like most of us, she had been taught that getting good grades and doing things “right” was a reflection of success.

A few years later and an ocean away in Sweden, Simone Giertz was also working hard to be a top student, get perfect grades, and stressing out a LOT about being seen as a failure. In her 2018 TED Talk, she gives us a little window into just how much this worried her.

"Here’s an email I sent to my brother around that time.

You won’t understand how difficult it is for me to tell you,to confess this. I’m so freaking embarrassed. I don’t want people to think that I’m stupid. Now I’m starting to cry too. Damn.

And no, I did not accidentally burn our parents’ house down. The thing I’m writing about in the email and the thing I’m so upset about is that I got a B on a math test.”

–Simone Giertz

Much of our team, and our wider community, can relate to that feeling. Many of us also relate to the scary realization that grades aren’t a good predictor of success in the workplaces of today. So we’ve been inspired to see Simone Giertz wind up on the TED stage and beyond for creating robots that don’t look like they would earn a passing grade.

Intentional Failure

Simone Giertz got into building robots in her teens, but she’s self-taught and never pursued a formal education in a field like science or engineering. As someone who had been really focused on perfection, learning about hardware and robotics on her own involved a lot of failure and feeling stupid, which were two of her biggest fears. So one day, she decided to try something different that would make it really hard to fail; she would try to build things that would fail on purpose. Simone was leaning into something that Google’s “moonshot factory”, X, uses all the time: stop stressing about making your first attempt at a solution work, and don’t worry if there is a project that never works at all. Taking that need for perfection off the table, Simone found that she actually learned more.

Getting Comfortable with Risk and Failure

Once Simone decided to build things that would fail she was able to focus on learning new things and trying things out.

“Building stupid things was actually quite smart, because [...] as soon as I removed all pressure and expectations from myself, that pressure quickly got replaced by enthusiasm, and it just allowed me to just play.”

–Simone Giertz

She started looking for problems that she could see in the real world, and looking for a way to “solve them” with robots. Her first robot, the toothbrush helmet, which she proudly says “is recommended by zero out of 10 dentists”, profoundly changed her life. She realized that failing on purpose, taking risks, and trying new things was not only fun, it was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. So she kept inventing robots and along the way, she, like others exploring how they fit into the future of work, invented a job for herself.

Simone Giertz's Sh*tty Robot for toothbrushing

The Queen of Sh*tty Robots

After the toothbrush helmet, Simone rose to Youtube fame, creating a whole host of robots that are really bad at doing what they are designed for. She made a robot to help you chop vegetables that is definitely not safe for everyday use, a robot that wakes you up by slapping you in the face over and over. She made a robot that pours you a pint of beer, resulting in a lot of broken glass.

Simone Giertz's Sh*tty Robot for pouring beer

And years later, she’s still having a lot of fun looking for useless solutions to everyday activities. In a world that is looking for ways to automate just about everything, Simone’s “sh*tty robots” are a hilarious way to remind us what science and technology are actually all about.

Brian the Brain Tumor

In the spring of 2018, Simone shared a different sort of video with her YouTube subscribers. She spoke candidly about discovering that she had a brain tumor; the upcoming brain surgery was scheduled for May, and there were possible complications of having and removing the tumor, which could mean taking time off from making robots and posting videos. But even in talking about all the things that could go wrong with her brain tumor, Simone demonstrated the resiliency she had been developing over the last 3 years while trying to build things that would fail. “All of those things are out of my control and I’m trying to see this as the perfect opportunity to practice not worrying about stuff.”

Through all this, Simone’s quirky sense of humor held strong. She named her tumor “Brian the Brain Tumor” because, as she shared in another video, “things just get less scary if you name them,” and launched a campaign to “Evict Brian 2018.” That summer, the surgery was a success in that they were able to remove big portions of the tumor and Simone’s cognitive abilities weren’t affected; after 6 weeks of recovery, she was able to get back to making videos.

“I would rate having a brain tumor 2 out of 10 stars. It wasn’t that great, but you know what they say about brain tumors – they really grow on you. I’m sorry! It’s such a bad joke. Blame Brian for that joke…”

–Simone Giertz

Humor & Resilience

While this sort of “gallows humor” – making fun of a life-threatening or disastrous situation – can feel cringeworthy from the outside, according to Drs. Steven J. Wolin and Sybil Wolin, this ability to joke about your own hardships can be key to resilience during tough times. In their book, The Resilient Self, the authors write,

“When we notice the humor in a situation, we are in an observant role. It takes a little bit of psychological distance in order to see the humor in ourselves and our circumstances."

“We are standing beside our painful situation when we can laugh at it. This can give us a chance to stick a pin in negative emotions and choose actions that are coping and positive. It is hard to wallow or ruminate in negative emotions when you’re seeing the absurdity in your situation.”

–Drs. Steven J. Wolin and Sybil Wolin, The Resilient Self

So when Simone posted another video to YouTube in January 2019 with the revealing title “My brain tumor is back,” it was encouraging to see her employ her same unique brand of eccentric humor in communicating the situation to her audience.

Brian was back, but in explaining the difference between a non-cancerous tumor like Brian and how bad it could have been, Simone again turned to humor, playfully painting an analogy of tumors as cult leaders. While a cancerous tumor would be an inspiring leader who was able to persuade other cells to “join the cult,” Simone casts Brian as an “unambitious, slow-growing, couch-potato of a cult leader” who didn’t have a “shiny-enough mullet” to convince other cells to mutate. Brian’s lackluster ability as a cult leader meant another surgery wouldn’t be necessary and “Burn Brian 2019” would be the new rallying cry for Simone’s upcoming radiation therapy.

“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”

–Charlie Chaplin

Experiment and Learn

If you visit Silicon Valley, you aren’t likely to find people trying to make sh*tty robots like Simone on the path to increase automation. The toothbrush helmet is not going to get major venture capital investment. And while she acknowledges that one purpose of her inventions is to make people (including herself) laugh, she points out that they’re also a reminder of something bigger.

“It’s this expression of joy and humility that often gets lost in engineering.”

–Simone Giertz

Simone is willing to take risks with her robots and try out solutions that might look silly, but she’s also playing around with solutions that we might not even consider otherwise, and this kind of experimentation can lead to some exciting innovations. In fact, some of our favourite playful things actually failed at their original jobs. Play-Doh was a really unfortunate wallpaper cleaner, the Slinky was supposed to be a spring to stabilize sensitive equipment on naval ships, and chocolate chip cookies were just failed chocolate cookies. If none of these people had taken a risk, or if they had just thrown out their failure, the world would be a lot less fun. Simone says she’s already had the unplanned successful invention of her current job, but she’s still going to be making sh*tty robots for a long time to come.

“To me that’s the true beauty of making useless things, because it’s this acknowledgement that you don’t always know what the best answer is. And it turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works. And maybe a toothbrush helmet isn’t the answer, but at least you’re asking the question.”

–Simone Giertz

You can watch Simone’s full TED Talk here, and you can find her robots and other adventures on her YouTube Channel.

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