By Heidi Simmons
IMAGINE: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Shouldn’t all of life be about creative pursuit? Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages) explores the nature of creativity and how creative thinking can and has shaped our world.
Maybe you don’t consider yourself a “creative type”; that’s for painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians. But according to Lehrer, creativity is not a single gift possessed by a lucky few. It is a distinct thought process that we can all learn to use effectively in our daily lives.
Small entrepreneurs, large corporations, nerdy scientists and ordinary housewives — not typically thought of as “artsy types” — are some of the examples in Lehrer’s book who have proven to be exemplary creative thinkers. As a science writer, Lehrer seeks to understand the “ah ha” moment — where did the idea come from and how did it arrive?
Lehrer takes the reader on an exciting journey of discovery (which, it so happens, the human brain loves). He interviews Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne, all musicians, all with different ways to generate and express their creativity. Lehrer talks with business executives from 3M, Google and Pixar, companies that continue to produce quality product by promoting creative connections and work environments. There are examples of how simple observations become great inventions, like the creation of masking tape, the Barbie Doll and the personal computer.
What makes the examples in Imagine so fascinating is Lehrer includes scientific studies from universities and labs around the country that support the creative processes and their success stories. In many of the studies, the results seem counter intuitive. For instance, who doesn’t love to be a part of a great brainstorming session, right? Turns out “brainstorming”, a term coined in the 1940’s by advertising executive Alex Osborn, is not ideal to generate a group to think more creatively. Osborn believed, “In order to increase our imaginative potential, we should focus only on quantity, quality will come later.” According to a Washington University study, “brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
Lehrer includes illustrations to jump-start the creative process. There’s the chapter called Get Stumped. Which describes how the act of being “stumped” can lead to insight. He reports brain studies show that when the left hemisphere is challenged with an unsolvable task, that frustration signals the right hemisphere to help. It is in this shift — that bolt of lightning — when the problem is resolved.
Other chapters that help cultivate creativity are Stick With It, Take a Break, Channel Your Inner Seven-Year-Old and Become an Outsider. The titles are self-explanatory and perhaps obvious for some, but each chapter provides something provocative to consider.
The most fun in Imagine is the terminology, or jargon, which companies and individuals have developed to define, understand and maximize the creative process. There is the “flexible attention policy” developed by 3M that encourages employees to take time in their long day to nap, walk or daydream. Paradoxically, these activities done throughout the day actually increase productivity.
There is the Israeli entrepreneur who encourages “weak ties.” Most prefer “strong ties” that is, spending time with people they know best and with whom they are most comfortable. The “weak ties” are those they meet and greet occasionally. This exposure leads to surprising and diverse interactions, which generates “informational entropy.” Simply put, people learn something they didn’t know before, from someone outside their circle.
“Horizontal and vertical interactions” are terms most common in business for the way information is shared. Some companies only allow “vertical interactions.” That’s when communication and information sharing is limited to inside the company walls and only within departments. These companies often have confidentiality agreements and noncompete clauses. This makes the business less creative and can shorten its life span.
However, companies who embrace “horizontal interactions” tend to be more creative because the employees are allowed to share ideas, talk freely and move about projects with colleagues inside the business, as well as out in the wider community. This is also known as a “horizontal culture.” Silicon Valley boomed because of the culture of idea sharing.
“Plussing” is a term coined by animation studio Pixar. This company that lives, breathes and craves productive creativity begins each day criticizing the work from the day before. What sounds like an awful way to start the day, turns out to be the boost of creativity that supports the rest of the day.
A Pixar team presents their work, and the bigger group criticizes it literally frame by frame. It can take hours. The way Pixar keeps it creative is by engaging in what works and what doesn’t work. The criticism contains a “plus” or new idea. They add to the project to improve the quality of the work. They don’t focus on the mistake, but rather how to make it better. Pixar has found that “plussing” stimulates everyone in the room to new ideas and expands creative potential.
There are plenty of other great terms and interesting topics. There is also “superlinear scaling” which describes the increase in output of people in big cities, which leads to a “knowledge spill-over” of ideas. That is, the metropolis allows for constant interaction, curiosities and unexpected connections where information and knowledge flow from everywhere in all directions.
Turns out, creativity itself is pretty dynamic and worthy of study and understanding. Lehrer does a terrific job showing us exactly how creativity functions and just how important it is to society, business and the individual. Apparently, we are wired to be creative.
The book’s main title, Imagine, seems a bit of a misnomer. This book is not really about imagination. Lehrer hardly mention imagination or any correlation between it and creativity. Perhaps it’s because to be creative, it’s not necessary to be imaginative. Maybe the title is more of a thought. Like, “Just imagine a world that is always creative.”