Warm Showers, Friction, And Failure: Jonah Lehrer On The Keys To Creativity

Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, talks about cities, conceptual blending, and failure (but not brainstorming) as drivers of creativity.

From Bob Dylan writing "Like A Rolling Stone" and Wieden + Kennedy founder Dan Wieden conjuring "Just Do It" to sandpaper salesman Dick Drew inventing masking tape, Jonah Lehrer’s most recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works brings together a range of seemingly disparate cases of creativity in action.

And it’s precisely the connections between unlikely people and things that make creativity happen, Lehrer argues in the book. The New Yorker writer, Wired contributing editor and author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist and How We Decide, breaks down the creative process from brain level to corporate level and illustrates how new ideas are sparked when people and companies are able to think and act outside of the usual patterns and make new connections. Lehrer writes about conceptual blending, collaboration across disciplines, and the importance of perseverance (but also daydreaming and showers) in the creative process.

Here, Lehrer talks to Co.Create about some of the key themes in the book and offers 6 tips for making creativity happen.

CO.CREATE: What do you think are the most common creative roadblocks in corporate America?

JONAH LEHRER: Where to begin? I think the typical failures of corporate innovation are nicely illuminated by the work of Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist at the Santa Fe Institute. He likes to compare cities to corporations. At first glance, urban areas and companies look very similar. They’re both large agglomerations of people, interacting in a well-defined physical space. They contain infrastructure and human capital; the mayor is like a CEO.

But it turns out that cities and companies differ in one very fundamental regard: Cities almost never die, while companies are extremely ephemeral. As West notes, a cataclysmic hurricane couldn’t wipe out New Orleans, and a massive nuclear bomb failed to erase Hiroshima from the map. In contrast, the modern corporation has an average lifespan of only 45 years. This fragility doesn’t just apply to small companies: Only two of the original 12 companies in the Dow Jones Index are still in business, while 20% of the companies listed in the Fortune 500 disappear every decade.

This raises the obvious question: Why are corporations so fleeting? According to West, the main cause is that per-capita innovation and productivity shrink as companies get bigger. In other words, as the number of employees grows, the amount of profit and number of patents per employee is diminished. Cities, in contrast, exhibit the opposite trend: As cities get better, everyone in that city becomes more productive and creative, which is why big cities generate more income and patents per resident. According to West, this decrease in per capita production, at least in big companies, stems from the fact that most big companies inhibit our natural creativity. Instead of imitating the freewheeling city, overflowing with knowledge spillovers, these businesses minimize the very interactions that lead to new ideas. They erect walls and establish hierarchies and tell people to practice brainstorming, even though that doesn’t work. They keep people from relaxing and having insights. They stifle conversations, discourage dissent, and suffocate social networks. Rather than maximizing employee creativity, they become obsessed with minor efficiencies.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that corporations have a lot of room to improve. But I think West has a powerful point: When in doubt, imitate the city.

Lehrer’s Tips: 3 Ways To Boost Your Own Creativity

  1. Take a long shower. Play-Ping pong. Relax. The best ideas often arrive only after we stop searching for them.
  2. Diversify your social network. Talk to people who think differently than you.
  3. Become an outsider. Don’t be afraid to work on problems that you are less familiar with.

You use the example of Pixar in the book. What are the characteristics of its culture that you link with its consistent creative success?

If I were to pick one element of Pixar culture that has led to its immaculate track record of success, it would be the embrace of failure. Pixar realizes that failure is an essential component of the creative process, that there is no shortcut around it. And that’s why their iterative process is all about identifying those failures as fast as possible, whether it’s in the morning production meeting or when testing out the first drafts of the story. After five hours of being obsessed with mistakes, going through iteration after iteration, it’s possible to create a really good 90-minute cartoon.

You also talk in the book about conceptual blending—thinking and harnessing ideas across disciplines or categories. How can a company encourage this?

My favorite example of conceptual blending comes from 3M, which regularly rotates its engineers from field to field in order to encourage an increase in conceptual blending. 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. This led a team of 3M researchers working on scotch tape to apply their knowledge of adhesives to create an optical film that focuses light outward, producing a screen that was 40% more efficient. In other words, they helped solve the problem of battery life by blending together concepts in seemingly unrelated domains.

The best way to blend concepts is to blend people, forcing colleagues working on different problems to share information and solutions.

You’ve talked before about how brainstorming maybe doesn’t really work. What’s a better way of extracting the best ideas from people?

I think the failure of brainstorming is inseparable from its allure, which is that it makes us feel good about ourselves. A group of people are put together in a room and told to free-associate, with no criticism allowed. (The assumption is that the imagination is meek and shy—if it’s worried about being criticized it will clam up.) Before long, the whiteboard is filled with ideas. Everybody has contributed; nobody has been criticized. Alas, the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of these free-associations are superficial and that most brainstorming sessions actually inhibit the productivity of the group. We become less than the sum of our parts.

However, in recent years scientists have shown that group collaborations benefit from debate and dissent; it is the human friction that makes the sparks. (There’s a reason why Steve Jobs always insisted that new ideas required "brutal honesty.") In fact, some studies suggest that encouraging debate and dissent can lead to a 40% increase in useful new ideas from the group.

Lehrer’s Tips: Three ways to foster creativity in a company

  1. Don’t brainstorm: think debate and dissent.
  2. Fail hard and fail fast. As Bob Dylan once sang, "There’s no success like failure."
  3. Maximize horizontal interactions.

There’s been much discussion about the Internet making us dumb/shallow/distracted, whatever. These pronouncements seem shortsighted, but do you think that the way people are working and thinking and creating in the social/digital age is changing creativity—be that at the brain level or the process level or in terms of the stuff that’s ultimately getting created?

I don’t think Google/Twitter/Facebook/et al. are making us stupid, but I also don’t think that these tools are replacements, at least not yet, for the interactions of the real world. In the late 1990s, for instance, when the dot-com fever was at its peak, many technology enthusiasts predicted that cities would soon become obsolete, a relic of the analog age. After all, in an online world of email and video chats, why should we sacrifice our quality of life to live amid strangers? Cheap bandwidth would mean the end of expensive rents: The zeroes and ones hurtling across the fiber optic cables would supply us with all of our human interactions.

And yet, these predictions have not come to pass. In fact, the data suggests that the opposite has occurred: Cities and meeting in the flesh have become more valuable than ever. Just look at the continued vitality of Silicon Valley: One might expect high-tech companies to embrace the possibility of remote communication. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, the tech sector continues to concentrate itself in a single California valley, despite the high rents. That’s because the best innovators in the world know that the best way to interact is face-to-face. Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, has studied the effects of the Internet on face-to-face exchanges. Interestingly, he’s found that the online world has increased the returns of such conversations, at least as measured by metrics such as rents in urban areas and attendance at industry conferences. Isaac Kohane, a scientist at Harvard, has found something similar. By data-mining tens of thousands of science papers, he’s found that the best papers (as measured by citation count) were typically produced when co-authors were located closer together, often within 10 meters of each other. The worst papers, in contrast, tended to emerge from collaborators located a kilometer or more apart. In other words, our most important new ideas don’t arrive on a screen. Rather, they emerge from idle conversation, from too many scientists sharing the same space.

This doesn’t mean we should give up on the Internet. Instead, the limitations of technology should inspire us to rethink the nature of our online interactions. The first thing we have to ensure is that our new digital contacts don’t detract from our real connections, from the analog conversations of the physical world. While the Internet has mostly evolved to maximize efficiency, making it as easy as possible to find the information we’re searching for, it needs to do a better job of increasing serendipity. Sometimes, the most important idea is the one we don’t even know we need.

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  • Sirpa Aggarwal

    Thanks for another great piece! I particularly loved your tips on boosting personal and company creativity, and look forward to trying them out.

  • Steven Stark

    I really couldn't agree less with Jonah and all of the other folks who are kicking the crap out of brainstorming right now. I've seen great ideas come out of brainstorms hundreds of times in my career, and I've seen just as many die because of criticism applied too early. Brainstorms work when people free associate, bring things to the table that excite them, and build on that excitement in a positive environment. The wisdom of the crowd can be a great way to create ideas by harnessing the intelligence and enthusiasm of many. The biggest challenge I face when I run or participate in brainstorms is stopping the natural inclination people have to constantly bring up all the reasons why something won't work, instead of taking the time to figure out all of the possible ways there are to make them work—and make them great.

  • Cathy Presland

    My best ideas always come in the shower. Or when I'm out for a run.

    I never run brainstorms - bad for introverts. Rather, let people come up wiht ideas individually, then develop them together.


  • Robert Bloom

    Like your suggestion Cathy. Another technique to prevent the introvert
    being squashed problem is to use a technique known as BRAINWRITING.

    In it's simplest form people take their ideas and write them down
    (nothing is done vocally) except for setting the tone etc. In typical
    design thinking fashion ideas are then grouped together and discussed  and then another round of
    brainwriting begins.

    Now I like the idea that at some point in this process - to encourage
    dissent where people have to defend their ideas and sell them. In this
    way only the best ideas survive and parts borrowed from other ideas. To bring forth a robust sollution.

    Most of the comments in this thread have validity. The key is to bring
    together people and facilitate, encourage, challenge, inspire,
    stimulate and allow for inquiry, However valid criticims of each idea is necessary and at a certain point to bring things back on track.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • Leonard

    I agree with Cathy. Research (and my own anecdotal experience) has convinced me that individual brainstorming is necessary, and can precede group brainstorming for the most success. Group think can kill brainstorming. But the image of brainstorming as feel-good sessions of everyone putting up ideas of small value is a straw man. If all you do is tell people to say whatever come to mind without criticism, then you will wind up with a lot of obvious and silly ideas that go nowhere. But that's not how most people I know run brainstorming sessions. Brainstorming is great if you keep generating ideas until you exhaust the comfortable and easy ones, then see what might be of use in the craziest ones, and then yes--dig in and criticize those developed ideas. But if you don't know how to extract value from ideas and help people build on them (which is more than just not criticizing and mindlessly writing them down), then sure--group brainstorming doesn't work. If you have people engaged with the ideas--building and then critiquing--it's another story. That really doesn't contradict Lehrer's evidence about engagement, and getting past easy free-associations, etc. It just takes away the flashy  idea that group brainstorming is a failure.

  • Jring7

    One mode of placing yourself in contact with other people is the 'being of service" mode. Often, solving their problems helps highlight the more universal problem that reveals a new market.

  • Ian Scott

     “It is hardly possible to overrate the value…of
    placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with
    modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar… Such
    communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the
    primary sources of progress.” JOHN STUART MILL 1848"AT THE HEIGHT OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION - THE KNEW ABOUT THIS STUFF -Perhaps its back to the future?Ian Scott