If the scaremongers claiming that the robots are coming, and coming for your job, have got to you, we have a feeling you’re going to get on well with Simone Giertz. A million miles from the slick, increasingly obsequious and intelligent bots that pervade the media’s visions of the future, Simone’s robots are, in short, a load of shit. They don’t work – in fact, they’re built to fail.
Whether it’s an alarm clock that wakes you up by slapping you in the face with a rotating, fake amputated Halloween hand, or a robotic arm that (aggressively) smears lipstick all over your cheeks while attempting to do your makeup, Simone’s robots aren’t likely to take over the world, but they are likely to teach you something about creativity.
I caught up with Simone over Skype as she was starting her day in San Francisco, and I was ending mine in London. What transpired was a conversation that lived up to the happy-go-lucky, carefree person I’d come to know through her YouTube channel and social media accounts (across which she has a following of over 2.5 million). But our chat also revealed a smart, warm, hardworking woman. Simone takes her job seriously, and she takes creativity seriously, approaching it with the dedication required to run a marathon. And it’s paying off.
Meet Simone Giertz, the Queen of Shitty Robots herself.
Born and raised in Sweden by a couple of “very creative hippies”, Simone’s proclivity for electronics and making began at an early age (at nine, she turned a satellite dish into a chair, for example). But it wasn’t until she found herself working at a tech company in the Bay Area, having dropped out of a degree in physics after a year because it was “too dry”, that Simone really took to experimenting with robotics. (That job, by the way, she had procured despite her lack of experience with electronics in an effort to get paid to learn the ropes.) Although the job was great, it wasn’t quite hitting the spot, so Simone cut her losses and moved in with her mum back in Sweden.
“I had become really interested in learning about electronics, so I was wondering if I should study it in school and do the proper route, but I figured that I should just build things and try to learn as much as I could from that,” she says. The world of electronics and robotics is an incredibly intimidating one, however, especially if you’re attempting to teach yourself. “I noticed that setting out to only build things really well and putting all these expectations on myself wasn’t working,” she recalls. “I realised that, if I just lowered the barrier, I was going to get a lot more stuff done. I was just trying to, for once, have a more relaxed approach towards things and building shitty robots was a part of that.”
It’s at this point that what Simone is really doing becomes clear: it’s unrestrained, unrefined and uncontrolled creativity. By removing any notion of what she should be making, as well as any notion that the thing should look or function in a certain way, she allowed herself to just make, stumbling upon what is now one of creativity’s most niche practices. “I’m a really duty-driven person and very good at pushing myself,” she explains, “and when I was in my mid-20s, I realised I wanted to change the approach and see if there was another way for me to work and create, where it doesn’t feel important because it’s hard, but it feels important because it’s fun.”
Simone was far from a rebellious teen. A straight-A student who endeavoured to excel in everything, she graduated top of her year. She was also, however, crippled by performance anxiety, a by-product of an adolescence filled with over-achieving. In her TED talk, which took place in May of 2018, she read out an email she sent to her brother in 2007 – she was 16 at the 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,” it read. “And no,” she assured the audience, “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.”
The decision to build a fool-proof system in which things are meant to fail, therefore, completely eliminated Simone’s biggest fear. By removing the pressure and expectations from herself, “that pressure quickly got replaced by enthusiasm, and it allowed me to just play.”
It’s in this space that Simone created much of the work she has become internationally known for. Beginning three years ago with a toothbrush helmet – it looks exactly as you’re picturing it – which she filmed for seven seconds, uploading the clip to YouTube, hers is a career that has played out online. Her channel, which regularly receives millions of views on its videos, has played host to myriad experiments. She’s fed herself soup and cereal, chopped carrots and washed her hair – all terribly, of course – but on 30 April last year, she uploaded a slightly different kind of video. Titled “I have a brain tumor”, it saw Simone tell her audience about a golf ball-sized tumour that had been found above her right eye. In the ensuing months, she posted videos detailing her treatment and eventual recovery with full transparency.
“It threw me for a loop, because I had no idea how to fit something like that into the image we’d built on my channel,” she admits. Although she considered not telling anyone, ultimately “it was really hard to keep it hidden and I’m really glad that I did tell people… It’s one thing when you know the story and how it’s going to end and often making videos for me is telling the story already when it’s ended. But that was something that I was in the middle of and I was digesting it myself and trying to wrap my head around so it was scary to let people into a process that was really hurtful.”
Unfortunately, in January of this year, Simone was forced to upload a video titled “My brain tumor is back”. An experience which might have panned out very differently for someone else, somewhat bafflingly for Simone, it appears to only have fuelled her humour and desire to create. (The latter video, for example, opens with a joke about how if this terrible sequel were a film, it would definitely go straight to DVD.)
“It’s weird, though, because I didn’t know if I should share it,” she says. “And although the decision was made partly because I don’t think, on a practical level, I could keep this secret, there was some part of me that was like, if I could turn it into a story and into content, in some way, that regained a bit of the control. Because I was in control of that narrative and I could tell the story the way I wanted it to feel.”
As our conversation drifts, it becomes clear that the philosophy of failing on purpose that Simone has carved out and, to a certain extent, preached is too one-dimensional for her interests today. Although it allowed her to get to grips with robotics and electronics, today, she’s pretty damn good at building things and she’s got an interest in building things that are slightly more serious. “It’s happened where I’ll think ‘I want to build curtain rods’ but then I’m like, what’s the point of that? That’s not interesting, that doesn’t have a punchline, you can’t turn a curtain rod info a gif,” she laughs. “It’s been really important to remind myself that if I find something interesting, then I have to let myself pursue that.”
Most recently, this culminated in the Every Day Calendar, her first “real” product inspired by her experience of meditating every day for a year, and how she could aid others in forming better habits. A sort of adult gold-star system, it allows you to easily track a new habit whether it’s writing a journal, practising an instrument or flossing.
With such a huge audience – at the time of writing, Simone has 1.93 million subscribers on YouTube – the notion of changing what you do, or how you present yourself, would terrify most people. But for Simone, this all started from a personal interest, a curiosity she decided to pursue and so why should that be any different now? “I really want to turn my YouTube channel into a journal of personal interests, and that is the loosely held theme of it,” she remarks. “Let yourself be, don’t feel guilty about spending time on a thing you don’t see the ‘point’ of because exploring is really the operant. The double-edged sword of my job is that I have to be happy and enthusiastic to be good at it, and in order to be happy and enthusiastic, I have to create space to explore the things I’m interested in.” And clearly people are happy with the changes; the Every Day Calendar hit its crowdfunding goal of $35,000 in a mere 31 minutes.
Recently, Simone’s projects have kicked up a gear. She built the world’s first Tesla pick-up truck, for example, because she “got tired of waiting” for Tesla to make one. This acceleration (no pun intended) is not part of a grand plan, though; it’s simply the inevitable next step for someone stretching their creative muscles.
While her management team “would so sorely want [her] to plan ahead”, Simone simply can’t. Instead, she blocks out chunks of her calendar and dedicates this time to getting bored. “The most important thing about working creatively is to really get bored,” she says. “We have very effectively built a society where we never have to experience real boredom and I noticed, just over the holidays when I took a month off, and I deleted all social media apps, suddenly I found ways to keep myself entertained, I mean I started drawing again for the first time in 15 years… I was sewing curtains and making all kinds of things.” Not merely a revelation that social media dulls her creative process, this experience has instilled in Simone a strong belief that everyone is creative; other things just get in the way. “We’re constantly surrounded by junk-food information and it means you never have to reach for the broccoli, because you always have your phone – the ice cream – right in front of you.”
So, according to Simone, creativity is something to be pursued. It’s not necessarily easy or even always fun; it comes as the result of working hard at doing nothing. In an industry where stacking up briefs back-to-back and running around from one meeting to the next has become the norm, perhaps we could all take a leaf out of Simone’s book. “In some ways, it’s a lot easier to be creative if you have a brief,” she muses. “But I also think there’s another type of creativity that’s just giving yourself time and space to explore whatever it is that you find intriguing. And, for me, that’s when I come up with things that feel bigger or more important.”
For her, practically, this means scheduling in time to do menial tasks, like sorting screws in her studio for three hours, and placing as much importance on this as the talk you need to prepare for, the contract you need to sign, the email you need to reply to. “It’s a weird combination of free, unrestricted creativity and discipline,” she says.
It’s interesting to consider that the majority of Simone’s work cannot be done at a computer. She has her YouTube channel to upload to and her nearly 900,000 combined Twitter and Instagram followers to keep updated, but in order to do so, she has to make stuff, out of materials and using tools. As her workload has increased, it’s something that could be – and sometimes is – handed over to someone else, someone with more skills who can do it quicker and in a more cost-effective way. “But I really try to fiercely protect my build time,” she tells us, because ultimately she understands its value.
Just this month, Simone unleashed a new creation to the world: the rat trap phone case, because “I need to use my phone less,” she wrote on Instagram. It feels like the perfect object through which to see Simone’s practice for what it is. It’s silly and, often, really quite funny, but when you take a step back there’s something genuine to be learned: get off your phone and do something. Get bored on purpose, allow your mind to wander by alphabetising your books or clearing out your spice draw – anything – and you might just come up with something brilliant. Just don’t reach for your phone, because, if you do, the consequences are going to hurt. A lot.