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.

There is no out club. We rise as a team, we fall as a team, and decisions are decisions until they’re not. Embrace multiple perspectives. This means all voices matter, all emotions matter. Address disagreements head-on.

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People should feel seen and heard. Take risks and celebrate mistakes. A commitment to being a learning organization, always trying to spiral upwards the innovation and learning curves. And speak in one voice. This is perhaps the glue that holds all these conditions together.

The concept is that we speak in the exact same manner about someone who’s not in the room as if they are in the room. Now this seems basic, but it’s an aspirational practice that helps deal with difficult situations in a more respectful way. Sewing this practice in can have a profound effect on raising the bar, on mutual respect, trust, reducing gossip and politics in the office and the classroom, and thus reducing the noise that gets in the way of the innovative process.

At Blue Man Group, iteration was essential for our creative process. We were writing a piece where we were trying to illustrate the consumption/waste loop in a funny and creative and surprising way for our audiences.

Now, if you have yourselves thought about trying to do the same endeavor, I can save you a lot of time right here and now I can definitively tell you that oatmeal, Jell-O, Cream of Wheat, Gak, pudding, clay, tapioca, Silly Putty and tomato paste do not slide through a tube that’s coiled up under your costumes that’s meant to come out an orifice in your chest and spray towards the audience. It won’t happen.

After months of iteration, we finally happened upon bananas. Who knew that bananas would have the exact right properties to stay solid even when pushed through a tube with forced air, yet slippery enough to have the dramatic oozing effect that we were looking for. This piece became a signature of the Blue Man show. But we didn’t throw out all the rules of theater altogether. We had set designs. We had lighting designs. We had a stage manager calling the shows.

But I’m fairly sure we were one of the very first shows that was connecting with our audience in a respectful way, by hanging them upside down, dipping them in paint, slamming them against a canvas, putting their heads in 70 pounds of Jell-O, and then making them one of the heroes of the show.

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Besides that, we didn’t reinvent what didn’t need to be reinvented. Years later, we took all this learning and we created a school — a school for our children that we wish we had gone to, a school where it was just as important what happened in the hallways between classes as what happened in the classes; a place where you got music class even when you couldn’t sing middle C.

At Blue School, teachers and parents and students are equal collaborators at the table, intentionally creating a safe space where they can develop a lifelong, joyful passion for learning. Again, we didn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it didn’t need to be reinvented.

We don’t shy away from the more traditional methods like direct instruction, when it’s the best way into a lesson. But we balance it with an integrated learning across all subjects approach, and balance is the key. In fact, Blue School was founded on a balance between academic mastery, creative thinking, and self and social intelligence. I realize that this might sound like common sense, but in some circles, this is radical. And these qualities have brought a lot of attention to Blue School as a truly innovative school.

Nearly 10 years in, we announced the expansion of the middle school. Our faculty asked our sixth graders to participate in the development of middle school values. Their process began with a question: What do you need from our community to be happy and productive at school? Students moved through a six-week process of individual work, collaborative work, refinement, and consensus, and the list they came up with is really extraordinary. Be engaged and present with each other. Respect and support what others need in order to learn.

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