At Michael Meiner’s Hackerspace, If You Dream It, You Can Build It

We talked with Meiners, an architect and “serial creative,” about the workshop he founded outside Chicago, where all “authentic pursuits” are welcome—even burning Doritos.

At Michael Meiner’s Hackerspace, If You Dream It, You Can Build It
Michael Meiners, founder and CEO of Hackstudio. Photos: Nathanael Filbert, courtesy of Hackstudio

Michael Meiners wants us all to have more grit. So in his latest endeavor, he’s outlawed quitting.

Last fall, the architect-filmmaker-furniture designer (who once ran a film production company and comes from a long line of entrepreneurs) opened Hackstudio, a 16,000-square-foot creative space outside Chicago that the website defines as “a support system for authentic pursuits.” For $150 a month, elementary- and high school-age kids (as well as adults) can sign up for weekly two-hour sessions where they undertake any project they want, however they want, under the guidance of Hackstudio mentors. Go-carts, stuffed animals, even bombs—there is no “no” here. The only requirement is commitment. Giving up is not an option.

We recently spoke with Meiners about the studio, self-directed learning, and why failing is so awesome.

Your professional background is diverse. How did you end up with the idea for Hack Studio?

It all really stems from me coming from a family with a tradition of taking any ideas that we think would be good for ourselves and the world, and then acting on them. After architecture school I knew that I didn’t want to stay an architect because it wasn’t directly expressive enough. I went into filmmaking and, for six years, had my own film production company based out of Chicago.

I started working on something intended to have meaning for the world, and at that same time I saw my own kids, who’d just started school around then, were not getting an opportunity to express their ideas and make them happen, which they had been doing up until they went to school because that’s just kind of naturally what kids do.

We set aside an hour a week to do Project Time, where we could work on any idea they had as long as they told me in the beginning what it would be in the end.

Project Time was sort of the beta version of Hackstudio?

Sort of, yeah. It resulted in a lot of unexpected learning. One of the joys was all the things we learned that we didn’t see coming. That always happened because of our commitment to getting things done…and always in the moment when we wanted to stop working on the project because it got too hard, because it challenged our self-image or it wasn’t what we initially bargained for. That obstacle we always faced in those moments was precisely the same obstacle that crops up any time we are working on something.

Meiners (center) at Hackstudio, with young pioneers of “authentic pursuits.”

What was it?

The obstacle is personal. It’s the one you always face. Let me put it this way, if you give someone permission to do anything they set their mind to, if you remove all restrictions and say, “Yes, you may do this,” the only obstacle left is you.

Okay, so as an entrepreneur, how do you go from Project Time to Hackstudio?

While Project Time worked well one-on-one, through our research we discovered the transformative effect of doing this in a group setting. We use the term “authentic pursuits”—a pursuit that originates in the heart of the pursuer, defined and evaluated by the pursuer, for which there’s no clear-cut path.

When we are pursuing things like that we can tell ourselves stories about whether or not we are capable, but when people are pursuing authentic pursuits together, essentially they end up failing in front of each other in ways that demystify where success really comes from.

What if a kid comes to the studio and says, “I want to build a bomb”?

When a project raises concerns about self-care and the care of others, and a bomb would qualify, the Hackstudio rule is that those concerns must be addressed before work can begin. With a bomb we’d say, “Okay, awesome. I’ve got some concerns about that.” It’s the kid’s responsibility to write down what our concerns are, and then work toward alleviating each of them with things they have done—not with things they promise.

That project would probably result in something along the lines of a 10-year timeline because there’s a lot to alleviate first, but our attitude is, Yes, let’s do it, but this is the work that has to happen first.

What have you most enjoyed seeing at the studio?

My favorite project came from a kid who first spent many weeks on projects that he wasn’t very engaged in. This is surprisingly common. Given complete freedom to do anything, some kids pick things they don’t really want to do.

Why do you think that is?

They’re afraid to do something that’s too hard for them. Instead of saying, “This is what I really want, I’m going to go for it,’ they say, “That’s what I really want but I’m not going to go for it because it’s going to be hard. I’ll do this thing that’s less hard.” Then they are not engaged in the project. We actually want that to happen. That’s great data, great growth. Kids learn that when they’re not going for something they really care about, even though it’s easier, it’s still hard because they don’t really love it.

Authentic pursuits.

Exactly. One of the most important parts of the program is the notion that we are failing to get what we want and learning through that failure. Kids have scant opportunities to do that in their lives right now.

What happened with the kid who picked projects he didn’t want?

He didn’t buy the truth of the invitation that he should choose what he really wanted, so he challenged his mentor. He had a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in his hand and, probably just to expose the lie, said, “I want to burn this Dorito.” His mentor said, “Awesome, let’s do it. I believe that’s something you want to do.”

There were concerns about fire in the building, the example to other kids—was it going to bring about a whole bunch of burning projects at Hackstudios?—and so on. He got really excited and he wrote down all of the concerns. This is a kid who has fairly pronounced ADHD, and he sat down and worked for a solid hour and 10 minutes on a highly detailed plan, including a blueprint of the building with proposed distances for action, water placement, protective gear, everything.  

This all seems kindred to Angela Duckworth’s notions about kids and grit. Is there a cutoff age where it’s too late to develop grit?

We have an adult program, and I think it’s the purest expression of what we do. My belief is that everyone is born with grit and then we lose it, and we have to get it back. Think about learning to walk and to talk—those are exercises in grit. No one ever feeds us the information. We have to develop it all on our own. And we develop it through iteration after failure. Get up, fall down. Oh, that didn’t work. Do it again. Keep going until we’re walking. With talking we pronounce words wrong, we use incorrect syntax, but we don’t worry about it, we keep going. We are born with the ability to keep going even when things go wrong. When we get older we become more self-aware and our culture delivers unpleasant messages about our failures. It starts to choke this natural process. We need to intentionally reawaken it through intentional work.

Let’s talk about your mentors. If a participant wants to build a robot, do you have a mentor who’s an expert in robotics?  

We don’t have domain experts in anything, except in meeting a moment of struggle with empathy and understanding. Because we are human beings, we all have expertise in a particular field. Because I have a degree in architecture and because I’ve built some buildings and designed furniture, I’m good in the workshop. When someone is working on a woodshop-building project, I try to stay as far away as possible and let another mentor who doesn’t have that experience work with them. I’m susceptible to solving their problems for them because I know the “right way” to do things. It’s much better if they have a mentor who can be in the perplexing moment with them.

Have you ever considered evolving this into a school?

I think this would be a great way to go to school. What we want to do through working this way is to prove the concept. We want to start this outside of the school system so that it can provide an example of what’s possible. There are so many barriers to bringing what we do directly into schools. Common Core. State standards. Frankly, parental expectations are probably the biggest barrier of all. We want to affect the culture of learning and growth so that the elements of what we do here can bleed into schools.

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