On Creativity

25 Aug

Note:  On July 30, 2012, Jonah Lehrer resigned his position at The New Yorker after it was revealed that he fabricated quotes by singer Bob Dylan for his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and then engaged in a series of lies and misdirection in order to cover up his fabrications.  This comes only a month after it was revealed that he had “self-plagiarized’ – using three paragraphs of his own work previously published in The Wall Street Journal for a blog post.

Fabrication and “self-plagiarism” aside, Lehrer’s books have also been criticized as pop-science; cherry picking questionable studies in order to legitimize his self-help theories.  Isaac Chotiner, a contributor to The New Republic, compares Lehrer to Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks – two other authors whose work I find insightful and enjoyable, stating that “Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty.  Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.”

It is unfortunate that Lehrer’s indiscretions will detract from the many insights his writings (and the supporting studies) provide into the inner workings of the mind and the creative process.

5 key points to be gleaned from Lehrer’s work:

  1. You have to do the work.  There is no way around it, truly creative endeavors require effort – doing the research, writing draft after draft, prototyping, making sketch after sketch or taking hundreds of photographs.
  2. Set it aside.  On the plus side, there is room for leisure.  After you have done the heavy lifting, set it aside and let your subconscious mind work on it – work on a totally unrelated project, take a long walk, go on vacation, play a sport – anything to get your mind off of the subject.  How many times have you searched your memory in vain for the title of a movie, only to have it “pop” into your head in the shower?
  3. Let your ideas see the light of day.  Traditional brainstorming rarely works as it skips 1 and 2 above – and exposes fresh ideas to review and scrutiny before they have had a chance to percolate.  What I commonly see is an effort to provide solutions without fully understanding the problems.  Conversely, too few people expose their ideas to the fresh perspectives of others for fear of rejection, criticism or having to change direction.  Find trusted advisors and seek their insight.
  4. Rinse and repeat.  Creativity is a continuous endeavor that may require several runs through 1 – 3.  What separates the truly creative from those of us just trying to manage is the persistence (or grit) to keep trying to find the “it”.
  5. You know when you have arrived at “it”.  Recent research provides fascinating insight into that moment when you “know” you have found what you were looking for – a viable new business idea, the solution to a problem, the painting, poem or photograph that captures the essence of what you were trying to convey.

I am not prescribing this as a sure-fire process to groundbreaking creativity – but as a guide for approaching everyday challenges from writing a business plan or school paper to creating works of artistic expression.  I have seen first-hand the negative effects of trying to apply rigorous approaches to the creative process (such as implementing Six Sigma methodologies to R&D in an attempt to reduce the time/cost involved in finding “the next big idea”). The modern history of innovation at 3M offers a potent example.

For more information on the minds’ creative processes, check out Jonah Lehrer’s books including:

  1. Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2008)
  2. How We Decide (2010)
  3. Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012)

Hear Jonah Lehrer discuss his work in this podcast: http://authorsontourlive.com/jonah-lehrer-podcasts-imagine/

2 Responses to “On Creativity”

  1. Recrais 08/26/2012 at 02:38 #

    True indeed. Can I share this ?


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