Jon Pittman is our VP of Corporate Strategy and Engagement - reporting to the CTO. Jon is also a Lecturer at the Haas School of Business of the University of California at Berkeley. Jon provided a review of Jonah Lehrer's book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. With his permission, I am sharing it with It's Alive in the Lab readers.
Lehrer is a popular science writer who tries, in Imagine, to demystify how creativity works. He does this by unpacking the notion of creativity and relating it to fields such as neuroscience, urban planning, and architecture. Imagine is a fairly light treatment of creativity but it does provide a nice overview and a bit of a framework around the fundamentals of creativity. Lehrer uses a lot of great examples, such as Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, Arthur Fry (the guy at 3M who invented Post-It Notes), YoYo Ma, Jack Keroac, and Milton Glaser (the graphic designer who created the "I HEART NY" campaign). A few of the key concepts that Lehrer explores:
- A creative breakthrough is necessarily preceded by frustration and unhappiness. We often celebrate the joy of the "ah-ha" moment, but forget to consider that the ah-ha is often preceded by frustration, angst, and unhappiness. Lehrer says that this is a necessary precondition for a creative breakthrough, and that experienced creators know and expect this. Those who are less experienced can be derailed by it. Lehrer says that we need to accept this period of adversity before the release that leads to a breakthrough.
- A related concept is that creators are not necessarily happy people. Creative people are sadder than the norm. This may have something to do with the precondition that a frustration with the status-quo drives creative thought.
- Creators often lose themselves in the flow of their work. They don't methodically and systematically work in a structure, but rather lose themselves deeply in the emotion of what they are doing.
- Creativity most often comes from the collision of ideas from unexpected sources. One can architecturally design spaces to encourage chance encounters; large cities are fonts of creativity because they create the conditions for chance encounters. Interestingly, Lehrer talks about how this concept is reflected in neuroscience, because we see that new thoughts are created at the intersections of existing thoughts. This carries over to the metaphors of architectural and urban space.
- Dense networks of people - the playwrights in Shakespeare's day, alumni of the Israeli Army, Silicon Valley - all create the conditions for creativity.
- Creativity comes from individuals - not from teams - although it does come from the intersection of individuals and teams when complex problems are being addressed.
Lehrer offers some prescriptions for increasing creativity:
- Valuing education broadly but also encouraging and concentrating the best and the brightest. He believes we need to nurture intellectual talent with the same dedication and fervor we do athletic talent.
- Openness to immigration - to bring new talent into the system
- Supporting risk
- Managing the rewards of innovation - for example, intellectual property rules and laws that reward the innovator but don't restrict copying and mashups, which are often the source of innovation.
Imagine is a good book, but not a great book. It is a reasonable treatment of creativity and innovation. I did not gain any startling new insights but it did treat the topic systematically and I picked up some new ideas from it.
Imagination is alive in the lab.