Becoming More Creative

Stephen DeAngelis

April 06, 2012

“Creativity can seem like magic,” writes Jonah Lehrer, author of a new book entitled, “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” [“How To Be Creative,” Wall Street Journal, 9 March 2012] Lehrer, however, insists that “creativity is not magic” and that “there’s no such thing as a creative type.” He goes on to insist that creativity is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. He writes:

“New research is shedding light on what allows people to develop world-changing products and to solve the toughest problems. A surprisingly concrete set of lessons has emerged about what creativity is and how to spark it in ourselves and our work.”

Let me preface the post both by agreeing with and expressing some skepticism about Lehrer’s conclusions. First, I agree with Lehrer that all people are capable of coming up with good ideas. Second, I agree that there are ways that people can learn to be more creative. However, I also believe that some people are more creatively gifted than others and that no amount of training is going to make a less-gifted person a creative genius. If that were possible, the world would be filled with Shakespeares and Mozarts, with Einsteins and Hawkings, and with da Vincis and van Goghs. I’m also a bit skeptical of Lehrer’s talking about “the science of creativity.” Nevertheless, he makes some valid and worthwhile points. He writes:

“Imagination was once thought to be a single thing, separate from other kinds of cognition. The latest research suggests that this assumption is false. It turns out that we use ‘creativity’ as a catchall term for a variety of cognitive tools, each of which applies to particular sorts of problems and is coaxed to action in a particular way. Does the challenge that we’re facing require a moment of insight, a sudden leap in consciousness? Or can it be solved gradually, one piece at a time? The answer often determines whether we should drink a beer to relax or hop ourselves up on Red Bull, whether we take a long shower or stay late at the office. The new research also suggests how best to approach the thorniest problems. We tend to assume that experts are the creative geniuses in their own fields. But big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders. For prompting creativity, few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields outside our areas of expertise.”

There is really nothing new in those insights; but I like the fact that Lehrer stresses the point that different types of problems may be best addressed using a specific kind of creative approach. That simply makes sense — just like situational leadership teaches that particular leadership styles are best-suited for specific situations and circumstances. The power of Lehrer’s arguments is found in that insight. Speaking of insight that is the first creativity approach Lehrer addresses. He calls it the “moment of insight” and he relates how Arthur Fry came up with the idea of Post-it Notes for 3M. For Fry it was an “Ah ha” or “Eureka” moment. Lehrer calls it “a classic moment of insight.” For Lehrer, however, the main point is that even “though such events seem to spring from nowhere,” there is a lot going on in specific parts of the brain that contribute to those Eureka moments. More importantly, those parts of the brain can be stimulated so that chances of gaining insight are increased. He writes:

“Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where that flash probably came from. In the seconds before the insight appears, a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what’s needed when working on a hard creative problem. Interestingly, Mr. Beeman and his colleagues have found that certain factors make people much more likely to have an insight, better able to detect the answers generated by the aSTG. For instance, exposing subjects to a short, humorous video—the scientists use a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up—boosts the average success rate by about 20%. Alcohol also works. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and intoxicated students. … Drunk students solved nearly 30% more of these word problems than their sober peers.”

You knew there had to be a reason so many college students get drunk! It turns out, however, that the thing that comedy and alcohol have in common is the ability to take people’s minds off of their problems. It gets them to stop paying attention. “Although we live in an age that worships focus,” Lehrer writes, “this approach can inhibit the imagination. We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.” By relaxing our focus, the right-side of the brain is freer to make associations and provide Eureka moments. Lehrer notes that Einstein once declared, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

The next kind of challenge Lehrer addresses is the one that resists insight and requires simple hard work rather than a nap. He writes:

“There is nothing fun about this kind of creativity, which consists mostly of sweat and failure. It’s the red pen on the page and the discarded sketch, the trashed prototype and the failed first draft. Nietzsche referred to this as the ‘rejecting process,’ noting that while creators like to brag about their big epiphanies, their everyday reality was much less romantic. ‘All great artists and thinkers are great workers,’ he wrote.”

That does not necessarily mean that all great workers are going to become great artists and thinkers. The “hard work” argument sounds a lot like the 10,000-hour theory that was originally formulated a Florida State University psychology professor named Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, but made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book entitled Outliers. David Hambrick of Michigan State University and Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University, disagree with that theory and insist that intellect or in-born talent, not just practice, makes the most creative people what they are. [“Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters,” New York Times, 19 November 2011] Does practice make the less-gifted better? Of course it does and I think that is Lehrer’s primary point. Lehrer continues:

“But this raises an obvious question: If different kinds of creative problems benefit from different kinds of creative thinking, how can we ensure that we’re thinking in the right way at the right time? When should we daydream and go for a relaxing stroll, and when should we keep on sketching and toying with possibilities? The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions ‘feelings of knowing,’ and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don’t require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we’re getting ‘warmer’ or not, without knowing the solution. This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When we don’t feel that we’re getting closer to the answer—we’ve hit the wall, so to speak—we probably need an insight. If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.”

Lehrer next discusses what we can do to make ourselves more creative. For example, he notes that, if “you don’t have the right kind of raw material kicking around in your head,” you need do something about making that material a part of your life. He writes:

“If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed. Steve Jobs famously declared that ‘creativity is just connecting things.’ Although we think of inventors as dreaming up breakthroughs out of thin air, Mr. Jobs was pointing out that even the most far-fetched concepts are usually just new combinations of stuff that already exists.”

I agree with that and, as Lehrer notes, “The history of innovation bears out Mr. Jobs’s theory.” He provides several famous examples:

“The Wright Brothers transferred their background as bicycle manufacturers to the invention of the airplane; their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings. Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. Or look at Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with their famous search algorithm by applying the ranking method used for academic articles (more citations equals more influence) to the sprawl of the Internet.”

We are all able to make connections. The better we get at doing the more creative we become. So how do get better at making connections? Lehrer explains:

“The best inventors seek out ‘diverse experiences,’ collecting lots of dots that they later link together. Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. Because they don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere. … The sociologist Martin Ruef, for instance, analyzed the social and business relationships of 766 graduates of the Stanford Business School, all of whom had gone on to start their own companies. He found that those entrepreneurs with the most diverse friendships scored three times higher on a metric of innovation. Instead of getting stuck in the rut of conformity, they were able to translate their expansive social circle into profitable new concepts.”

In his very interesting book entitled The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures, Frans Johansson talks about the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Lehrer reports that many innovative companies try to create this effect. He writes:

“Many of the most innovative companies encourage their employees to develop these sorts of diverse networks, interacting with colleagues in totally unrelated fields. Google hosts an internal conference called Crazy Search Ideas—a sort of grown-up science fair with hundreds of posters from every conceivable field. At 3M, engineers are typically rotated to a new division every few years. Sometimes, these rotations bring big payoffs, such as when 3M realized that the problem of laptop battery life was really a problem of energy used up too quickly for illuminating the screen. 3M researchers applied their knowledge of see-through adhesives to create an optical film that focuses light outward, producing a screen that was 40% more efficient. Such solutions are known as ‘mental restructurings,’ since the problem is only solved after someone asks a completely new kind of question. What’s interesting is that expertise can inhibit such restructurings, making it harder to find the breakthrough. That’s why it’s important not just to bring new ideas back to your own field, but to actually try to solve problems in other fields—where your status as an outsider, and ability to ask naive questions, can be a tremendous advantage.”

I am a big fan of multi-disciplinary approaches to problem solving. The other advantage of tackling problems in an area outside of your expertise, Lehrer explains, is that you are attacking it as a beginner having no expectations of either success or failure. “It’s this ability to attack problems as a beginner, to let go of all preconceptions and fear of failure,” he writes, “that’s the key to creativity.” Lehrer concludes:

“Creativity is a spark. It can be excruciating when we’re rubbing two rocks together and getting nothing. And it can be intensely satisfying when the flame catches and a new idea sweeps around the world. For the first time in human history, it’s becoming possible to see how to throw off more sparks and how to make sure that more of them catch fire. And yet, we must also be honest: The creative process will never be easy, no matter how much we learn about it. Our inventions will always be shadowed by uncertainty, by the serendipity of brain cells making a new connection. Every creative story is different. And yet every creative story is the same: There was nothing, now there is something. It’s almost like magic.”

Lehrer’s article provides more examples of the concepts he discusses as well as a side bar that contains what he calls “10 Quick Creativity Hacks.” The article is worth reading and, I suspect, so is his book. Can you learn to come up with more and better ideas to improve your life and your company? Of course. Just don’t expect to become a creative genius — after all, that’s probably an unnecessary goal anyway.