Imagine: How Creativity Works


Imagine: How Creativity Works

by Jonah Lehrer



I enjoyed “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer and recommend it based on several important insights.

From blue walls to framing a question differently, there are simple tools to encourage creativity. In a couple of sentences Lehrer explained when it is helpful to focus more versus the times that it is more helpful to get away from the problem you are trying to solve. These are critical insights, specific enough to be useful in practice.

The importance of cross-functional teams, bringing in a mix of new and familiar team members, and focusing on constructive feedback were all specific and important takeaways. This has excellent parallels to the Agile software development methodology.

The “inverted ‘u’ ” of creativity can be avoided if a person makes a diligent effort to branch into new areas, but I was even more excited to consider Lehrer’s point that we know how to create a surplus of great talent. America’s ability to create world class athletes proves it. We have farm teams that begin with little league and a culture that elevates athletes to hero status. Lehrer suggests we take what we learned with football and channel it toward creativity – I would add science, technology, engineering, and math.

In other areas, the book could have been better. Lehrer points out that person-to-person interaction increases creativity. I agree, but Lehrer emphasizes the point ad nauseum and ties that closely to the idea that cities inspire creativity. Consider that the entire Greek speaking civilization had a population of 8-10 million in 400 BC when they were shaping the future of western civilization. Today, the state of Georgia in the US and the cities of Dhaka in Bangladesh, Lagos in Nigeria, and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo all have populations roughly equal to the entire Greek civilization, yet I doubt as many world history changing ideas will come from those areas. Lehrer acknowledges other factors are involved but keeps driving the point until his bias for cities becomes distracting from other ways to accelerate creativity. We could significantly improve the level to which local communities interact without having to redesign the entire infrastructure of America.

Lehrer relies too much on anecdotes and some of his arguments are circular. At one point he uses venture capital investment as a proxy for innovation and then touts that as proof that the culture of Silicon Valley is superior for creating innovation. Silicon Valley does have a culture promoting innovation, but that is only one kind of innovation. How would Silicon Valley’s place in the ranking change if we added PhD dissertations which, by definition, address a new aspect of a topic? There are amazing mathematical and scientific insights in Russian universities that will not be identified by VCs.

I agree with Lehrer that the Internet, even with Skype video calls or Cisco Telepresence, is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction and the spontaneous interaction that occurs in life; however, the topic deserves more consideration than he gives it. With MIT and other major universities aggressively moving into online education, collaborative innovation via the Internet is changing fast. Also, it was disappointing that Lehrer didn’t focus more on reading as a means of gaining new perspectives – there is a reason that scientific papers begin with a literature review. This is a case where his bias toward the extrovert ideal limits his creativity in identifying approaches for innovation.

Another circular argument is the use of popularity, financial success, and popular critics’ opinions as a gauge of creativity. In “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires”, Tim Wu makes the case that the radio, television, and movie industries have been controlled by monopolistic companies and government agencies to homogenize content, making it “safer” and more mainstream. The book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg describes a computer algorithm that has uncanny success at predicting the success of new songs. Rather than being especially creative with “Finding Nemo”, perhaps Pixar has learned the algorithm for popular, mainstream movies.

In life and in business, we need creativity and high performance. In the book “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” Geoffrey Colvin explains what is needed for world-class performance. The amazing ability of Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps is much better explained by tremendous hard work and focus from an early age than it is on getting new ideas from other people.

Jonah Lehrer shares important insights in “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” though it only addresses one aspect of creating a successful, high-performance organization and is burdened with a few of the author’s biases.