Monday, August 06, 2012

In the image of the Creator

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, creativity

You know a book is good when it seems much too short. At just over 250 pages, Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is probably as long as it needs to be, but it seemed the reading was over all too soon. In this volume the author has done his best to gather all the best research and understanding about human creativity. The key finding: humans are creative. It is what we do.

Some people are much more productively creative than others. It may be that we are learning why. There are aspects of both individual and collective activity that foster creativity, and some that don't. But we need to realize that "creativity" does not refer just to "the arts". The handyman who fits a shoe-changing bench into a corner of the entry, or the cook who adds "a little bit of this and a little of that" to a recipe, or the sales clerk who says, "We can make that work," when confronted with a non-standard request, all are creative. So is a room full of kids learning backflips, or a company's employees putting up a makeshift movie screen where they can all watch the Olympics (this last is the subject of an ad for Chobani yoghurt).

Creation typically begins with frustration. The book's first chapter recounts Bob Dylan's disgust with his early career, when he literally headed for the hills. Before long, he wrote "Like a Rolling Stone", the first of an immense outpouring of songs that literally changed modern pop music. His lyrics are so memorable that when I first heard "The Times, They are a-Changin'" on my Dad's car radio, as soon as we got home I sat right down and wrote it out.

Dylan's experience brings out a second key to creativity: change your surroundings. In fact, you could summarize the first five chapters of the book this way: when you have a difficult problem to solve,
  • Go somewhere else, from around the house to around the block to around the world. New viewpoints bring new ideas.
  • Relax and think about something else. Unhappy people seldom solve anything.
  • Recast the problem. Benjamin Franklin records in his Memoirs (published as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin) that, to learn a difficult concept, he would write it out in poetry, set it aside a few days, then translate the poetry back into prose.
  • Sleep on it. I built my career as a scientific programmer upon insights that tend to arrive at 3 or 4 AM out of a sound sleep.
  • Try to explain to someone who knows nothing about what you are working on (but do spare your beleaguered spouse). That person is likely to ask a question that makes the solution you need pop into your consciousness.
 A few further hints illuminate our need for other people. Your life will be more creative if you
  • Involve others. There is a not-too-much-not-too-little aspect at work here. Lehrer calls this factor Q. There is a "sweet spot", sort of like the Goldilocks "just right" amount of Q, that leads to the greatest group productivity.
  • Live in a cosmopolitan city, though Lehrer has a few comments about cities to avoid and cities to seek out. Generally, the creative productivity per person increases by 20% every time you double the population. Much of this has to do with having a larger network of loose associations and chance contacts; the "I know a guy who knows a guy" effect. You are also more likely to find a milieu with just the right level of Q.
  • Seek an environment in which collaboration is rewarded rather than restricted. Small companies are more productive than large ones, just the inverse of the city effect. That is because cities don't make their residents sign noncompetitive and nondisclosure agreements. Eras such as Fourth Century Athens and Elizabethan England were mightily creative, but as T.S. Eliot wrote, "The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours, but less talent was wasted."
The book is filled with inspiring case studies, such as the Procter & Gamble effort that led to the Swiffer, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and its stunning record of placing graduates in top colleges, and a surfer with Asperger syndrome who has a maneuver named for him primarily because he didn't know it was "impossible" when he tried it.

I would add a word about group problem solving. In the chapter on Q, Lehrer rightly blasts brainstorming. It truly is the worst possible kind of teamwork. The biggest problem with it is the "no criticism" rule. To use the terminology of Edward de Bono in Six Thinking Hats, you don't want to Black Hat an idea too early, but if everything is "blue sky" without discernment, you don't produce anything useful. A certain level of criticism needs to be fostered. The best ideas are those that can survive the fire. But ad hominem criticism needs to be nipped in the bud. If a team member resorts to personal attacks, get him or her off the team.

I have found that the best teams have a mix of openers and closers. Openers are divergent thinkers. They come up with lots of ideas. Closers are convergent thinkers. They know how to make an idea work practically. And both kinds of thinkers need to enjoy the process.

I have a couple of books that I keep handy: Jump Start Your Brain by Doug Hall and David Wecker, and A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oeck. Imagine is a good companion volume alongside them.

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