Facebook. YouTube. The iPad. The Prius. The Internet itself. The innovations that change society always start with a spark of creativity that leads somebody to see something a different way.
Businesses and individuals crave creativity, because we associate it with breakthroughs, money, success and happiness. Yet we know surprisingly little about this powerful human impulse. Why are some people more creative than others? Can we learn to be creative, or is it innate? How important is creativity to being successful?
Journalist Jonah Lehrer has pondered and answered many such questions in his new bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works. I spoke with him recently in New York City. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
How do you define creativity?
There are a lot of ways to define it, but here's my definition: Creativity is a new idea that finds a second life.
Is creativity important for everybody? Or just for inventors and innovators?
Creativity is a universal element of human talent. The saddest surveys you've ever seen are the ones where they interview kids in second grade and nearly everyone thinks they're creative. By the time kids are high school seniors, it's down to about five percent. We teach the vast percentage of people that they're not creative. But it's something we all have. We can all get better at it. It's a human talent like any other and we should all be interested in how to nurture it.
There's an obvious practical advantage for some people. For a small business owner trying to solve problems, creativity helps. It's also where new connections come from, and it's a trait our society praises and worships. When Steve Jobs passed away, we had a national conversation about how to nurture the type of creativity he had.
What are some of the myths about creativity?
There's the idea that we've outsourced the imagination, that unless you have the gods of inspiration on speed dial, you shouldn't try to create or invent anything. A second myth is you either have creativity or you don't. We can all become inventors. It doesn't take a particular type of mind.
My favorite story of invention is about Art Fry, who worked at 3M and invented the Post-It note. One day while he was sitting in church, he put a paper bookmark in his hymnal. The bookmark fell out and he started to daydream about a weak adhesive he had heard about years before. He thought about putting that adhesive on a paper bookmark and the Post-It note was born.
Another myth is the notion that creative ideas come out of thin air, that Steve Jobs just magically connected things. More often, creativity is a new connection between old ideas. The printing press was really the technology of the wine press applied to words. Google's search engine took an idea that had been around for decades—that more citations usually lead to a better scholarly article—and applied it to the Web. The Wright Brothers ran a bicycle shop, and their first airplane was basically a bicycle with wings.
We hear a lot about "Eureka moments," when there's this sudden brilliant insight. I might have guessed that was a myth, too, but you've found that it actually happens that way, right?
People definitely have these moments of insight, which have two defining features. One is that it comes out of the blue. The second is that as soon as it arrives, it feels like the answer. It looks like the solution we've been searching for. This has been well-studied and we can replicate how it happens in the lab.
So how can we improve our creativity?
What happens to a lot of people is they get interested in solving a problem, then they hit a wall. They get stumped and give up because the problem feels impossible. But that's your brain telling you that you need a moment of insight.
The science on this gets surprising. We live in a gung-ho society where you chug a triple espresso and roll up your sleeves when it's time to really get something done. But that's exactly backwards. People are more likely to have a big breakthrough when they're relaxed. When they're taking a shower or going for a walk. When they're daydreaming. That's when you turn your attention inward and maybe hear the voice that's been there, but you just haven't taken a moment to notice it.
I'm sure people would love a few specific tips for how to find that voice.
Find a way to relax. Make time to waste time. It's not just about drifting off, but about the virtues of relaxation. The virtue of daydreaming is that it lets your mind wander. I notice that when I'm always carrying around a computer, I'm always interrupting my daydreams. There should be times when you leave the computer or smartphone at home.
Having a diverse social network seems to play a big role. Studies show that entrepreneurs with more diverse social networks are three times more innovative. If you really want to max out your creative potential, seek out strangers. Move to a city. Force yourself to have those interactions. And don't brainstorm. It doesn't work. Instead, engage in debate and dissent. Constructive criticism draws us out.
We're all multitaskers these days. Are smartphones and the Internet killing our creativity?
I don't think so. There's a natural anxiety that comes with any new technology. Plato was worried about books. When the TV arrived, we worried that it would rot our kids' minds. Right now, we're in the middle of a massive experiment and no one knows the answers yet. But we have learned that all these tools are not a replacement for the analog interactions of everyday life. People have not moved en masse to the suburbs and begun to telecommute, like some people predicted 15 years ago. There's something magical and intangibly useful about those random chats by the watercooler. Since Skype was invented, attendance at business conferences has gone up dramatically, not down, as many predicted.
Creativity is very much about serendipity. Look at the way Steve Jobs designed Pixar studios. He insisted that everyone work in same building so that different cultures would interact. Then it wasn't enough to put everyone in same building—he had to make them mingle. There was a single cafeteria, but groups would keep to themselves while eating. Then he decided there would only be two bathrooms in the entire building, and he put them both in the same lobby. That forced people to mix and mingle on their way to the bathroom. It was annoying for some people to have to walk 10 minutes to pee. But it worked. People at Pixar talk about these bathroom epiphanies, creative ideas they developed while talking to people in or near the bathroom.
Are you optimistic about our ability to cultivate creativity?
No. Our system is very good at killing creativity in kids. Schools have twelve years to sculpt a child's mind, and we end up convincing kids that they're not creative. But one good thing is that in the United States, we do have a high tolerance for the weird. We tolerate weirdos like Steve Jobs.
If you look at ages of excess genius, such as ancient Athens or Elizabethan England, what they basically did was waste less genius. William Shakespeare was taught to speak Latin by the time he was eight, for free, by a scholar from Oxford. A generation before, he would have been neglected, but now he had the best education anywhere. There's human capital everywhere. It's a matter of capturing it.
How can we do better?
The psychologist Angela Duckworth, who researches grit, has a maxim: Choose easy, work hard. Expose kids to a menu of possibilities. Let them discover things they might fall in love with. Then once they find their passion, the thing they love, remind them to work hard at it. Really hard. Put in their 10,000 hours, plus or minus 5,000. Let them know it's going to involve failure and they're going to have to put in the work. It strikes me as a simple idea we should do a better job of. Choose easy. Work hard.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.