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Can You Imagine?
A few weeks ago I was getting ready to travel to a conference in San Francisco. I needed something to read on the plane and stopped by the neighborhood bookstore looking for a copy of Jonah Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
“I’m sorry. We don’t have it anymore. The publisher recalled the book.”
Now, I’ve heard of product recalls. The Toyota dealer is expecting our car any day now to swap out a faulty floor mat. But a book? Were the pages inflicting an inordinate number of paper cuts? Was it printed with disappearing ink?
As it turns out, Mr. Lehrer fabricated a couple of quotes attributed to Bob Dylan, amid other sloppy reporting, and it cost him his day job with New Yorker magazine in addition to his publishing contract. Fortunately, our local library didn’t get the recall memo, and last week the copy I requested became available.
Looking for answers
Lehrer is an entertaining author in the mold of Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, or the Heath brothers, who has carved out a niche by skillfully stringing together business and scientific anecdotes to make the study of human behavior more accessible.
In addition to the cautionary lesson of his ethical lapse, Lehrer’s Imagine provides reason to believe that we have enough examples and understanding of how creativity works to facilitate more widespread innovation. Let’s examine a few of the key ingredients identified in the book.
Human mash ups
New York City was doomed. If you’d asked people in 1860 to imagine the future of the United States’ largest city, they would likely have predicted an uninhabitable wasteland filled with disease and mountainous piles of dung. If the city continued to grow at the same pace there would be nowhere to put all the horses, and no way to clean up after them!
But, despite the crime, high cost of living, and scarcity of space, the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. Why do cities succeed? As explained in research by the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, the bigger the city the more productive each resident becomes. Cities are hotbeds of creativity.
According to Lehrer, the key lies in both the density and diversity of cities, which encourages human friction – the unexpected “collisions” or interactions that spur new thought. We get smarter by being around other smart people. In fact, many successful businesses, from Pixar to 3M, design their offices to maximize these kinds of accidental conversations and experiences. They aim to mimic the creative power of a city.
Ideas are an inexhaustible resource
Every year about this time there are news stories about the latest “must-have” toy and what people are willing to pay – and do – to acquire it. Unlike tangible goods, which gain value when scarce and lose value when in abundance or out of favor, ideas are always valuable. The more an idea is shared, the more valuable it becomes.
Most big ideas don’t have a single author. If Edison hadn’t invented the incandescent light bulb, someone else would have done so within months, if not weeks. Any idea that passes through the hands of a few smart, creative thinkers is always the better for it.
Good artists copy; great artists steal. – Pablo Picasso
Concerned about theft, some people and companies prefer to keep their ideas closely guarded, but this tends to stifle breakthroughs. Lehrer points to ancient Athens, Florence during the Renaissance, and Elizabethan England as examples of places that multiplied creativity through a culture of sharing.
Many paths to the same destination
When it comes to using one’s imagination to fuel innovation, every story is different. And every story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something.
Lehrer delves into techniques and practices of encouraging creativity in individuals. Sometimes we need to relax; sometimes we need to chug caffeine; sometimes we need to bear down, while at other times we need to daydream. Lehrer acknowledges that summoning creative thought will never be easy, but suggests being aware of how it works gives us more tools to use – making it more likely to happen.
At times, complex problems require the creativity of a group, not just one person. Getting groups to work creatively, however, is not an easy assignment. It requires the right mix of people – some familiarity with each other, but not too much, is desirable – and the right approach.
Nearly everyone has spent time in a conference room with a stack of Post-It Notes and a group of colleagues with the goal of generating lots of ideas. What’s the number one rule of brainstorming? No criticizing another idea! That rule, research has shown, results in meetings with fewer and more lackluster ideas. In a group setting, debate, dissent, and constructive criticism produce far better results – but inevitably some people will have their feelings hurt.
An optimistic future
Despite the scandal surrounding Imagine, I think the book contains many useful insights on creativity and how best to summon it. Lehrer’s prescription for a more imaginative future boils down to four big ideas:
- Access to quality education for all, because we don’t know where the next big idea will come from.
- Encourage immigration. We all benefit when good ideas are allowed to freely move about.
- We must be willing to take risks. Fail big. Fail faster. Fail better.
- Manage the rewards of innovation. Protect intellectual property, but not with so many restrictions that ideas can’t be shared and improved upon.
Human creativity is undeniably mysterious – like a magic trick. Even when we understand the source of the trick, it doesn’t dull our appreciation for what happens – and how it happens. The good news is that creativity is not the provenance of a chosen few, but something we can all learn to be better at.