A good book satisfies the same spot in our middles as a good cup of tea.
I believe the urge to create is just as strong, if not stronger than even the urge to eat sometimes. I have been called the “creative type,” but Jonah Lehrer shows in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, there is no such thing.
We all have the capacity, and more importantly, the desire to create. The question is, are we answering that call? Are we nurturing ourselves by filling this need? Whether we are or not, Lehrer shows us how we can do it better.
The pages of this book hold beautifully written real-world examples of people and companies that have learned to foster creativity. Lehrer offers insight not only into how our mysteriously malleable brains work, but how we can develop our environment and follow our own rhythms to a higher art.
These are just a few hand-pickings by the chapter-full.
Chapter One: Bob Dylan’s Brain & Chapter Two: Alpha Waves (Condition Blue)
The frustration that arises when trying to find a new way to describe the color of a sunset, or the dull black of a moonless night is a good thing. It’s an important, though very difficult and annoying part of the creative process. The truth is, our brains thrive on challenge.
What to do when you’ve hit the wall? Take a few steps back, and allow for a different view so you can find a new way to climb.
Pick a meditative activity and let your mind wander. Garden. Have a cup of tea. Go for a walk. The answer will come when you relax and stop beating yourself over the head trying to force it out.
Here’s another hint: the color blue gives the illusion of space, and actually inspires creativity. I plan to paint the wall behind my art table a bright sky blue.
Chapter Three: The Unconcealing
Some insights, unlike the wall scenario, emerge slowly with persistence. There are times when you know if you keep your butt in the chair, the answers will come. As Lehrer says, “A good poem is never easy. It must be pulled out of us, like a splinter.”
I think this speaks more to the editing process. You’ve had your big idea, now you just need to chip away the rough parts and polish it to a high gloss. Sometimes, this work feels like a weed wending it’s way through hairline cracks in cement toward the sun. It doesn’t always feel plausible, but if you stick with it, you know it can be done.
Chapter Four: Letting Go
One of the biggest challenges we face in breaking through clichés to produce something fresh is finding a way to bypass the filter in our brain that keeps us from farting at dinner parties. Self-control keeps us from embarrassing ourselves, but it also inhibits creative improvisation.
One way to overcome this is to pretend you are a little kid again. Stop worrying about truth, common sense, or logic. Let yourself go. So what if the trees are pink and the sky is green? Play!
Chapter Five: The Outsider
Interestingly, creativity does not increase with experience. In some cases, knowledge can even cripple. A study discussed in Imagine finds the ideal level of education in creative fields is two years of undergrad. It seems once we’ve put on the magician’s hat and learned to pull the Ace of Spades out of our own sleeves, our brains have the tendency to just sit back and enjoy the show.
The secret is to continually seek new challenges. Our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. Travel. Seek mystery. When you start considering your art strictly as “work,” it may be time to find a new game to play.
Chapter Six: The Power of Q
Another way to encourage innovation is through collaboration. When you get the right mix of rookies and old talent sparks can fly, particularly if the group is comfortable with challenging each other’s ideas. There’s nothing like a little criticism to get you riled up, ignite the fire, and push you to refine your vision.
Chapter 7: Urban Friction
New ideas come from connecting seemingly unrelated ideas. It makes sense that the creative process accelerates in cities where random experiences and people are jostled together more frequently than they would if they lived miles away from their nearest neighbor. This explains the innovative success of companies like 3M that not only encourage the interaction and sharing of ideas amongst their employees, they require it.
While some people worry that social media puts a screen between you and the people around you, if used properly (as in not at the dinner table) it also increases face-to-face interactions. Groups are more easily organized. It’s probably happened to you; you notice a friend on a social networking site will be in town and arrange to meet up with them. Without social media, you probably would never have known they were in the area.
The more interactions between people, the more random connections are made…which morph into ideas, and when circulated, ideas can become even better.
According to a study in Imagine, there is actually a correlation between walking speed and the production of patents. Cities with unusually fast pedestrians come up with more ideas (think NYC).
Chapter 8: The Shakespeare Paradox
Innovation inspires innovation. Education, the sharing of ideas, willingness to take risks, these are a few areas Lehrer points out that we need to improve on if we want to foster a new generation of genius, and genius is no small commodity in this ever-shrinking world’s market.
Curiosity is a fragile thing. If we don’t nurture it, genius cannot bloom.
Lehrer tells us, “Unless we encourage young inventors with the same fervor that we encourage young football stars, we’ll never be able to find the solutions that we so desperately need.”
The good news is, Shakespeare did not need Cambridge, or Oxford. He did not have the college education of his contemporaries, and yet he surpassed them. What he did have was a bookstore full of ideas worth stealing, freedom from fear of censorship, and time.
One can only imagine what new ideas will sprout in this, the Age of endless Information free at the touch of a button.
Thank you Jonah Lehrer, for collecting and sharing these wonderful stories and ideas. Formally at Wired.com, he recently accepted a staff position at the New Yorker and blogs at: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex
Here’s a few more blog spots and posts that have recently inspired me:
What do you do to nurture your creativity?