The Search for “Aha!” Moments: Matt Goldman (Transcript)

Matt Goldman

Here is the full transcript of Matt Goldman’s Talk: The Search for “Aha!” Moments at TED conference.


So it’s 1969, New York City, third grade music class, and our teacher brings us into a room with nothing but a piano and chairs. And one by one, he calls us up, and he plays middle C, and he asks us to sing it. And you’re either instructed to go to the right of the room or the left side of the room.

And when all 35 kids are done, the left side of the room, which I was a part of, was told to stand up and go back to home room. And none of us ever received another music class again in elementary school. An in club and an out club was established, and I didn’t even know what the gating test was in the moment.

A few years later, English class first paper of a new semester, and I get the paper back, and it’s C+, with the comment, “Good as can be expected”. Now, honestly, I didn’t mind a C+ I was just happy it wasn’t a C- or a D. But the “good as can be expected” comment even at that young age, it didn’t seem right. It seemed somehow limiting.

Now, how many people here have had an experience similar to that, either at school or the workplace? We’re not alone. So I guess it might be ironic that my life path would lead me to a career of making music and writing for Blue Man Group and starting a school. But school was torture for me.

As someone who didn’t have a natural proclivity for academics, and my teachers never seemed to understand me, I didn’t know how to navigate schools and schools didn’t know what to do with me. So I started to ask the question, even back then, if these environments didn’t know what to do with people who didn’t fit a standard mold, why weren’t we reshaping the environments to take advantage of people’s strengths? What I’ve come to believe is that we need to cultivate safe and conducive conditions for new and innovative ideas to evolve and thrive.

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We know that humans are innately innovative, because if we weren’t, we’d all be using the same arrowheads that we were using 10,000 years ago. So one of the things that I started to question is, are there ways to make innovation easier and happen more frequently? Is there a way to take those aha moments, those breakthroughs that seem to happen randomly and occasionally, and have them happen intentionally and frequently?

When we started Blue Man Group in 1988, we had never done an off-Broadway show before. We’d actually done almost no theater. But we knew what we were passionate about, and it was a whole series of things that we had never seen onstage before, things like art and pop culture and technology and sociology and anthropology and percussion and comedy and following your bliss. We established a rule that nothing made it onstage if we had seen it before, and we wanted to inspire creativity and connectedness in ourselves and our audiences; we wanted to do a little bit of social good, and we wanted to have fun doing it.

And in the office, we wanted to create an environment where people treated each other just a little bit better, just a little bit more respect and consideration than in the outside world. And we continued to iterate and collaborate and find solutions to create things that hadn’t been seen. Over time, I’ve come to identify the optimal conditions for these types of creative and innovative environments are clear intent, purpose and passion: this is working on something bigger than ourselves. Personal integrity: it’s doing what we say we’re going to do. It’s being our authentic self in all interactions.

Direct communication and clear expectations, even when the subject matter is difficult. Grit and perseverance: iteration, iteration, iteration. Establish collaborative teams. Instill deep trust and mutual respect. Everyone on your team is in.

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