Episode 13 – Ed Boyden On Constructive Failure

I often ask people to think about aiming for a constructive failure.” says Ed Boyden, Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT Media Lab and McGovern Institute & Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology, “It is probably going to fail, but you will know what you need to do next. I think from that comes wisdom.” 


Guest Starring Ed Boyden, Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT Media Lab and McGovern Institute & Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology

TED Talks by Ed Boyden:

Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield

Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE

Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE

Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:

Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation

Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League

Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory

Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC

The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.


“All The Best Fakers” by Nick Jaina is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Open Flames” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License.

“Stingray – Dangerous Thought” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Deliberate Thought” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/



Welcome to The Great Communicators Podcast presented by The MIT Office of Graduate Education, a professional development podcast expressly designed to bring lessons from the field to our graduate student researchers.

My name is Adam Greenfield and one of my favorite quotes is by the ancient poet Ovid, and it goes “Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim.” That translates to “Be patient and strong; one day this pain will be useful to you.”

I bring this up because in this episode, we’re going to be hearing terms like “constructive failure” and “principle of applied laziness,” things that require patience and perseverance while going through inevitable failures in both communication and elsewhere in life.

But as you’ll also hear, it’s more than that. It’s how those failures benefit you and make you a stronger, better communicator in the end.

Now, I don’t know many people who have done a TED Talk. In fact, I only know one person and you’re about to hear from him.


I look back at talks I gave before then and thought, “wow, that wasn’t very good.”


That’s Ed Boyden, an associate professor at MIT. He’s in charge of a neurotechnology group but his knowledge and expertise has him working with others in all kinds of different science and engineering studies. Oh, and he’s on a really important journey.

…on a quest to understand and repair the brain.


Now, when it comes to this type of quest and other quests Professor Boyden is a part of, including the aforementioned TED Talk, assuming you have the skills you need, the first step begins with…


….how do you find the plan of attack?  You have this big mountain and this little crowbar. You have to find some place in the mountain to start prying the rocks apart from each other, and where do you begin? It can be very daunting.


Professor Boyden is also not one to sugarcoat something when talking to students or others who are about to embark on a difficult quest of their own.


Sometimes you really want to point out just how difficult something is and prepare people for failure. I often ask people to think about aiming for a constructive failure. It is probably going to fail, but you will know what you need to do next. I think from that comes wisdom.


Ok, let’s dive a little more into this constructive failure idea, and for several reasons.

What Professor Boyden has pointed out is that you are going to fail, including when trying to communicate concepts and ideas you’ve been immersed in for many years. Once you accept this, it then becomes how do you turn that into your favor.

Also, this wasn’t something Professor Boyden just thought up one day. This notion of failing up, so to speak, came out of his own processes and failures.


I figured out the constructive failure strategy and other strategies I used to help guide people to solve big problems a bit by trial and error. I would see other people talk about how simple it was to solve a problem. So, join my group and you can solve this problem really fast. I tried that out, but the problems I wanted to work on were much harder, and it backfired. People were like, well, I couldn’t solve it in one day, and I feel bad now. So, I said, alright that didn’t work. So, then I started trying the opposite. I said, alright, this problem is really annoying. We are going to be really frustrated tackling it. We have to bring it down to lots of parts. We are going to really deconstruct them one by one and go after them. It is not going to be fun, but the impact is going to change the world. Then, something amazing happened. People learned how to deal with these problems, and they toughened up and were able to go through the constructive failure process and make their way to the other side and get to the wisdom phase.


When it came to the TED Talk, Professor Boyden went through a pretty significant preparation process, as well. First, an initial script was written. It was then practiced in front of small groups of people from various backgrounds numerous times in order to make sure everyone understood it. This practice part of the process, whether in front of others or by himself, turned out to be one of the more helpful things Professor Boyden took away from the entire situation.


I have always been the kind of like, write the talk the morning of or the night before. But practicing many times, I actually found myself rethinking things, like, wait, that sentence doesn’t really quite follow there. Then, I would reorder everything. I gave a talk at the World Economic Forum earlier this year on engineering revolutions, how to help revolutionize a scientific discipline or a field, an inventive area, or some other area when it got stuck. How do you overturn something for the better? After the talk, people would bring up all these questions like, Oh, I’m in this war-torn part of the globe and I want to galvanize humanitarian efforts, and this sounds like it could help. I thought, really, wow, I didn’t think about that because I was thinking about the scientific and engineering implications. That one, I practiced that every day for like a week. I have given now, I don’t know, well over three hundred talks, not including all my classes that I teach, but every time I practice it, I would change it just a little bit. Over a period of four, five, or six practices, I found myself really almost converging upon an ideal message, at least at the time. Now, looking back at the script, it is like, wow, I could have improved a bit more. So, that is the thing I learned most; communication that is experienced can be stressful because you are critiquing, you are finding flaws, but it is better to find them early and catch them, you know, be your own critic before the world is your critic.


Professor Boyden also has a semi-serious doctrine that sort of aims to ensure the science you are attempting to convey to an audience doesn’t get mangled or lose it’s footing in proof of something. He calls it…


…the principle of applied laziness.


The idea behind it is that when things become too problematic…


…it is probably not worth doing. For example, to try to take a really complex topic and force it into a TED Talk, and it just does not fit and you end up ruining the science. You know, well, that is too hard to do, you should not try it, right? It is going to ruin the science and backfire in the long run. So, when I agreed to do that TED Talk and now am writing a second one, these were topics I thought could fit in that format and that could be clearly communicated without losing any of the science, but there are certainly topics where to squeeze it in would cause you to lose too much of the science or you would work so hard to get it into that time limit. It could take many, many years to try to force it in, and it might not still work. Maybe that should not be tried. So, yeah, I have a sort of way at looking at things where things that naturally seem to fit, go with those. If something just does not work, then you know, as long as you have good skills, you tried hard, and it was not for lack of trial or judgement, then that is that.


Of course, Professor Boyden knows that people are different and not all advice is one size fits all or there’s one general rule that should be applied to everything by everyone. However, there is a process he considers significant enough to mention.


I am a firm believer that if you really think backwards from the end goal and if you really work backwards from the outcome you want to achieve and then survey all the possible paths, or at least as many as you have patience for, then you make your strategy or plan after that. That is sort of a general meta rule that can help with communication and with life in general, frankly. So, yeah, whether somebody is crafting an advertisement to try to sell a product or a manuscript to a scientific journal, you want to be thinking about what you want the outcome to be and then anticipate other outcomes as well.  “Oops, this may have a side effect. People might interpret this the wrong way. This is not quite what I wanted to say. This is not accurate.” You should anticipate those things early on. What is the old saying? All great battles are won before they are ever fought? I think that is especially true with things like communication.


At the top of the show I brought up a quote that stressed patience and strength, as there will be failures in life but from those failures comes success. And really, that’s a lot of what Professor Boyden was talking about when it comes to constructive failure, wasn’t it? That all those little rocky bumps in the road eventually smooth over. This is certainly the case in communication.

Professor Boyden also talked about how beneficial practice can be. This is brought up by several communicators in this series but in Professor Boyden’s case, after giving hundreds of talks, he’s learned that practicing a communication is very helpful in trimming out things that don’t further the idea he’s trying to get across.

And finally, when preparing a communication, start with the desired end result and work your way back to the beginning. This’ll help you anticipate any potential problems that need clearing up before it comes time to give the actual communication.

Thanks for listening to The Great Communicators Podcast brought to you by The MIT Office of Graduate Education. My name is Adam Greenfield, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves.