Imagine: How Creativity Works
While many of us have wondered about the origins, processes and secrets of creativity, Jonah Lehrer has turned this old inquiry into the topic of his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Lehrer shatters the myths of muses and divine powers. He challenges our perceptions of creativity and “creative types” and demonstrates that everyone can be creative because “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes” that involves a phase of research, a phase of experimentation and frustration, a moment of insight and an execution phase. A finished product is a result of multiple forms of creativity, not just a single “a-ha” moment.
“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.”
Finding the right connection is what we call an insight, the term with which most strategists have a love/hate relationship. But even insights don’t occur in 0.003 seconds as we think because the brain needs to investigate all possible connections to find the one that solves the problem. I can’t think of a more appropriate scenario to use the needle in a haystack metaphor.
When we talk about our projects we tend to focus on the insight phase of the creative process and leave out the phases of research, experimentation, thinking, despair and frustration. We forget to mention the days when our projects seemed impossible to solve, when we wanted to quit, when we wanted to go to the bar and start drinking at 10 a.m. Instead we focus on the breakthrough moments because they are exciting and reaffirm the idea of the creative genius.
The irony is that most of our insights come when we stop searching for them, when we step out of the elevator or when we order a drink. These “a-ha” moments don’t solve only part of the problem. They present a complete and elegant solution to a problem that until just seconds ago seemed impossible.
“When you look at where insights come from, they come from where we least expect them. They only arrive after we stop looking at them. If you’re an engineer working on a problem and you’re stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you’re going to be really frustrated. You’re going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you’re actually wasting time. Instead, at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax.”
The last phase of the creative process is execution, which requires a different thought process. This phase involves great attention to details, focus for a long time and commitment to create the perfect combination of different elements. The selection of the right colors, sizes, images, fonts isn’t the result of a-ha moments but of patience and attention to details. The execution process is very different from the insight moments. The creative thoughts in this phase tend to be minor and incremental — “one can efficiently edit a poem but probably won’t invent a new poetic form.”
After identifying the different thought processes and elements of creativity, Lehrer reveals the importance of embracing childlike curiosity, adopting an outsider’s perspective, collaborating with different people, daydreaming productively and learning when to wander and wonder and when to apply concentration. He unveils the secrets behind building great teams, productive companies, vibrant neighborhoods and effective schools.
Lehrer introduces us to the writing habits of Bob Dylan, the drug addictions of poets, the infusion of chemistry thinking behind the invention of new cocktails and the thinking behind Nike’s famous slogan. He explains the creative explosion in Elizabethan England and the creative processes and culture of Pixar and 3M. And this is exactly what makes Imagine an outstanding book - connecting seemingly unrelated stories and experiences, culture and human insights, people with various backgrounds and groundbreaking science, it is an epitome of creativity.
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