Infinite Culture

Music. Art. Culture. Writing.

Book Review: Imagine

Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
304 pages

What would you do with key insights for increasing creativity and innovation? Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine, has dug into today’s most current research to uncover key components and processes linked to increased creativity. And while he doesn’t make promises or offer guarantees, he provides enough insightful analysis of successful companies, environments, and individual efforts to support his readers with plenty of how-to ideas for stimulating their more creative side.

In a breezy, densely-packed-but-not-too-heady-style, Lehrer explores the roots of creative thinking and process—from the mind of Bob Dylan and jazz musicians to the latest neuroscience behind creative insights. He takes us on an insiders’ tour of 3M and Apple and offers a fresh perspective on the necessity of urban friction—including a look at the most productive theatrical era in the western world, the time of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England.

But let’s take a semi-distracted moment (read: daydream, per Lehrer’s suggestion) to envision what being creative means for each of us, and to remind ourselves that creative output and process is not limited to painters, writers, poets and musicians. In a recent interview with Google, Sir Ken Robinson says, “It still amazes me how often people will say, ‘Creativity in the arts’, as if it’s a compound noun. Very often people associate creativity with a particular part of an organisation. They’ll think it’s about design, advertising or marketing.” Here we have two thought leaders on creativity that seem to agree on the following: being creative is the result of a process that can be nurtured by anyone in virtually any circumstance. And, yes, we are often subject to, and utilize, mental constructs that do exactly the opposite.

Even Steve Jobs, we learn, was not exactly the lone genius he’s been rumored to be. He was a creative thinker embedded in one of the most creative and productive hubs of innovation in the history of the US—Silicon Valley. In other words, Jobs was a product of a creative environment filled with people driving new ideas and, most importantly, sharing them liberally. That doesn’t discount Jobs’ genius, but it does underscore a significant point from Imagine—that talents of individuals are intricately linked to their cultural fabric, and when the two are in sync, great things result.

A compelling example of how the lack of innovation impacts organizations illustrates the inherent problems in organizational structure. The average American company lasts no more than 45 years, largely because organizations fail to innovate and evolve in response to changing business and cultural conditions. Compare companies to cities, however, and it’s clear that cities—with their increasingly compressed populations—represent a more sustainable structure for how groups interact and survive. Cities rarely collapse. They may swell and shrink, but the people that comprise the city continue to inject fresh thinking and perspective into how the city operates. They respond to an organizational hierarchy and a set of general rules, but they also maintain a great deal of autonomy. They are free to create, to innovate, to explore ideas and respond to local pressures, whether they be environmental, familial, economic, or what have you. Cities survive, they almost continuously reinvent themselves. Corporations rarely do.

When Lehrer, then, explains how 3M has maintained its innovative edge in product design by moving engineers into new areas of focus every six years, it’s clear that innovation requires authentic creative insights, and that those insights are best stimulated by receiving new information, repositioning ourselves with a fresh perspective, and letting the mind work its subconscious magic, integrating and reworking information into a new form, an original idea.

Answering the question of how creativity works, however, is a tall order. Ask any neurosurgeon to clearly define the machinations of the brain and you will quickly come to understand that the brain is still part of science’s final frontier. Lehrer builds a case for understanding creative insights by examining what happens in the brain as insights occur. Using the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology, several studies have shown that certain parts of the brain “light up” as the neural networks try to solve complex problems, sometimes showing significant activity seconds before the answer arrives in our consciousness. But actively trying to solve the problem may be the worst thing you could do. It is here that we find what could be considered a damning analysis of American productivity—that doing more in structured, time-managed ways may result in completing more tasks, but it will likely inhibit creative thoughts and innovative solutions.

It turns out that the brain and the mind, indeed our innate and unconscious methods of processing information and thoughts, need time to breathe and relax. Lehrer’s a believer in being bored, that daydreaming should be taught in schools, and that the one place you can’t take your iPhone—the shower—is one of the primary places for generating creative insights. Quoting Einstein, Lehrer says, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Embedded in this analysis of creativity are the age-old sociological concepts of the individual and society, the ways in which they interact and how they, through their cumulative choices, allow culture to manifest. Lehrer examines “the power of Q,” where Q reflects the “social intimacy” of a group of people. Low Q reflects a group of people with very weak relationships and high Q reflects a group with strong, well-established relationships (think of friends working with friends). Neither extreme is effective, as it turns out. The most effective, the most creative, and the most successful teams or groups function, knowingly or not, with an average level of Q, a “sweet spot” that depends on established relationships mixed with new ones, a little bit of old mixed with a little bit of new.

As the analysis of Q reveals, innovative and creative thinking rarely entails radically new concepts. Shakespeare and Dylan were both artistic thieves, taking plays and songs, narrative themes and melodies, and quite literally using what already existed and adding new flavors and twists to make something new. Creativity and innovation thrive in the free flow and use of information and ideas. Without that, systems, organizations, and communities are prone to shrivel and shut down. But new ideas rarely come in a rush. They occur incrementally, after hundreds of hours of hard work, and creators and innovators need something else: grit. They need, as Thomas Edison once said when responding to those who called him a genius, “…hard work, stick-to-it-iveness, and common sense.”

And so in this digital age, this information age, this age characterized by a technological rush, we know that technology cannot replace what is ours to do: the creation of ideas that will lend shape to our physical, hyper-connected world. The old and the new meet again in the dance of evolution, and just when we are driven to produce something more, something better, the best thing to do to spur that next great idea is leave the phone at home and get out on a long walk, or hop in a hot shower, or just let your mind wander. When in need of a solution, you might not need to get going, you might just need to get bored.

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All content on Infinite Culture, unless noted otherwise, is copyright © 2016 Rafael Otto. All rights reserved.