Jonah Lehrer, a boyish 31-year-old with a striking resemblance to Tintin, is a science writer of no small repute, with one bestseller under his belt already (How We Decide) and likely another one in the making with Imagine: How Creativity Works. His appearance at the DMA Friday night as part of Arts and Letters Live packed the Horchow Auditorium; overflow watched a simulcast down the hall, at the Center for Creative Connections.
Lehrer had the crowd charmed with his first anecdote, about how after a grueling tour, Bob Dylan was burned out and decided to quit show business. He holed up out in the country and was settling in for a quiet life when the song Like a Rolling Stone (the extended version) fell out of him, practically in one piece. And he knew right away that he had something good.
And this illustrates two important concepts about creative breakthroughs, Lehrer said. One is that the answer comes out of the blue. And two, as soon as it arrives, you know it is the right answer.
An engaging speaker, Lehrer wove together research in neuroscience, cognition, personality, even economics, to make a case for the particular circumstances, thought patterns, and mindsets that lead to creative breakthroughs. The speech was both scattershot and inspiring, full of useful take-home messages and keeper quotes: "Creativity is the residue of time wasted"--Albert Einstein, and "Creativity is really, really hard"--Jonah Lehrer.
Lehrer didn't impart a foolproof formula for creativity (phooey), but he threw out enough concepts, correlations, and cautions for us to make our own creative connections. As a conscientious objector to the cult of busyness, I liked hearing that busyness isn't good for creativity. "Creativity is not about efficiency," he said. It needs space and serendipity.
He spoke at length about creative collaborations. These, he said cannot thrive through emails, which tend to be too much to the point. Creativity needs "inefficient communication." And it does better face-to-face, so people have enough time to get comfortable enough to really communicate. And, he cautioned, "Don't brainstorm. Whatever you do, don't brainstorm." Brainstorming is the enemy of creativity if the rule is that all ideas are good ideas, because creativity requires friction.
Creativity thrives in chance encounters, which is why when designing Pixar studios Steve Jobs tumbled engineers, animators and directors all together in one enormous facility, and gave them just two bathrooms in a central location. That way, you never know who you'll end up chatting with in the loo or en route, leading to what they call "bathroom epiphanies."
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And creativity requires a trait that researcher Angela Duckworth, PhD has named "grit." That's the kind of persistence that lets creative people fail and fail and fail and fail and still stubbornly believe in a vision worth pursuing. "Creativity requires endless frustration and failure, brutal, sometimes crazy levels of persistence," Lehrer said (can I get an amen here?).
And Lehrer also tossed into the creative stew the concept psychologists call "the feeling of knowing." That's when you know you know something, even if you can't remember it at the moment, and you know that if you think about it long enough, you will eventually remember. "How do you know you know something if you don't know it?" Lehrer asked. That feeling of knowing is what keeps creative people looking for their breakthrough, while grit is what keeps them from saying, "screw it," and getting a real job.
Lehrer himself took the opposite journey. He actually had planned on a real job and was studying to be a neuroscientist until he realized he wasn't any good at it. "Actually," he said. "I didn't realize it. My mentor had to tell me I was terrible."
And so, still in love with the sciences, he became a science writer, which was a creative solution to his problem. It seems to have worked out nicely.