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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Perspectives on creativity

Update:  Jonah Lehrer admitted he fabricated Dylan quotes for his book, see

I recently finished reading Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works. (New York: Houghton Mifflin 2012).  The book includes numerous anecdotes that are presented as proof that creativity does register on the brain (that's our scientific part) and that people get inspired from other people. OK, I simplified a bit but really just a bit. While he does give a nod to  people who get their "best ideas" in the shower or on solitary walks or in lonely and melancholy contemplation, the thrust of the book is that creativity is largely collaborative, something that is quite the opposite of the argument Susan Cain makes.

In a letter to Helen Keller, Mark Twain asserted:
The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of allhuman utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.
Lehrer doesn't quote the letter, though he maintain a similar stance: "The most creative ideas, it turns out, don't occur when we're alone. Rather, they emerge from out social circles, from collections of acquaintances who inspire novel thoughts. Sometimes the most important people in life are the people we barely know" (204.) 

Several posts back  I quoted from  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking Cain  suggests that solitude is necessary for great achievement.  She quotes the following from  Steve Wozniak's memoir iWoz (pp. 73-74):

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Lehrer also references Steve Wozniak's memoir, but he spins his inventiveness completely differently, saying "the innovations of the first Apple computers depended entirely on this Homebrew culture" (p. 197). That is the "horizontal interactions" that took place in the  club made up of like-minded engineers who swapped ideas in "friendly collaborations."

Cain had mentioned the club, but said that Wozniak saw the creativity itself that only works independently. Lehrer uses the exact same example to try to prove the opposite. That the two writers diverge in this way is important to note because some articles lumped them together because they both pointed to the fact that brainstorming doesn't work. However, Cain would say that is because one head is better than several, while Lehrer maintains a group does enhance creativity. His explanation for the failure of brainstorming is that the ban on criticizing any ideas is what makes it ineffective (160-161).

He then elaborates:
 the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engag with the work of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it's the imperfection that leads us to really listen. (And isn't that the point of a group? If we're not here to make one another better , then why are we here?) (161)
Cain's answer to that is that groups themselves inhibit creativity and simply allow the loudest person to assume leadership and direction. In fact, she did say so in her depiction of the failure of group work in classrooms. The introverts are utterly silenced and the outgoing kids just take over. There is no possibility of thoughtful criticism because the first one to assert something confidently gets everyone to follow suit. Now, I'm not saying it always is that way, but many group dynamics do have a leader and followers rather than equal contributions from all.

Lehrer touches on one of the problems inherent in collaboration; the fact that people tend to gravitate to friends. That is what Brian Uzzi, a sociologist, points out in identifying why so many Broadway shows flopped in the 1920s: "'the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity." (142).The ideal mixture for success is made up a group of people who are not too familiar with each other, so that they have different ideas and will not just second everything their pals suggest.Being too comfortable, as one is when surrounded by friends, does not result in the best work.

Side note: what's fit to print and what is not has definitely been redefined. In my review of Orwell's Down and Out, I noted that the book includes an analysis of swear words in which not a single one other than "bloody" is spelled out. In contrast, Lehrer's book includes a number of quotes that include swear words that are not allowed to be pronounced on television. In fact, most books written in the 21st century seem to include them, whereas really old books, like Twain's letter quoted above, didn't even finish out mild swear words: Just before he ends off, Twain writes:
Oh, dam—
But you finish it, dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.

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