Imagine: How Creativity Works

Release Date: 
March 19, 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

“Given the great importance of creativity, especially now, these stories and many more make Imagine an engaging, rewarding, stimulating read.”

Innovation is both the means to progress and the survival imperative, for the progress of society, its culture, and its economy depend on creating the new, not merely incrementally advancing the existing.

The great economist Josef Schumpeter—who, as a member of the Harvard faculty perhaps instructed more Nobel laureates, the discipline’s highest recognition for ideas with extraordinary explanatory and transformative power, than anyone else—taught us that the created new destroys the old.

One implication of the teaching that the essence of the capitalistic economic system is creative destruction is that the idea that creates one thing may destroy another. The great importance of ideas has been identified in research that concludes that ideas—far more than any other resource or contribution—are the dominant source of value creation and distinct in real estate development and investment ventures.

In his stimulating Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer proclaims, “There is no more important meta-idea than knowing where every idea comes from.”

Creativity necessarily derives from and is expressed in ideas. Every idea has a story. And every story teaches, if not a new lesson, then established learning.

As important as are the lessons from ideas, there are far more stories about people and events than stories about ideas. Stories about ideas can teach different, arguably much more important lessons, especially to those who would wish to be on the creative rather than destructive side of innovation. Some of these stories about ideas are what Imagine: How Creativity Works is about.

Exploring the “alone” and the “together” aspects of how creativity works, Imagine blends stories and science explanations: discourses on the science of brain function and how surroundings stimulate creativity; the influence of the place on the individual, leading to that individual’s creative insights; and the interactions of individuals, which interactions lead to collaborative creativity. Creative community places are consciously created in tangible environments, such as Steve Jobs’ insistence that the Pixar office design lead to multiple encounters as well as the way to/from the bathroom and other places within the offices.

These creative places also exist in virtual environments, such as InnoCentive, a collaborative contest site that has attracted 200,000+ solvers from 170+ countries to solve challenges that “companies with research budgets in the billions of dollars had been unable to solve. The secret was outsider thinking: the problem solvers on InnoCentive were most effective when working at the margins of their fields. In other words, chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems, they solved molecular biology problems, just as nuclear biologists solved chemistry problems. While these people were close enough to understand the challenges, they weren’t so close that their knowledge held them back and caused them to run into the same stumbling blocks as the corporate scientists.”

In Jonah Lehrer’s telling, the story of creativity starts with the brain, proceeds to differentiated rather than standardized routine thinking, and is prompted and promoted by connection and interaction with other people. Mr. Lehrer concludes, “Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.”

Is there a magic of creative ideas? Some secret ingredient that might lead to more creativity? While creativity is not a formulaic undertaking, certain conditions strongly contribute to and are conducive to creativity. Creativity derives from connections—specifically putting together concepts, elements, things, relationships, and more—in novel, unprecedented ways. There are, in fact, magic conditions of creativity.

What are these? Magic, of course, does not occur in a vacuum. For example, not only is context essential, but the place of magic making is also critical, for magic that may sparkle in one place may be a nonstarter in another place.

In discussing the particular magic conditions of creativity enabling the work of David Byrne, a multitalented artist who for many years was lead singer of Talking Heads, Mr. Lehrer asks, “Where do all of Byrne’s ideas come from? His answer is simple: the city. It is the muse that inspires his music, the noisy sources of his art . . . He first discovered the creative potential of the city after dropping out of the Rhode Island School of Design to start a punk band. Byrne moved to Manhattan to be close to every other punk band, the place where groups like Television and Blondie were redefining the aesthetics of rock.”

Ultimately much of creativity is place inspired, for as Jonah Lehrer asserts, William Shakespeare was “an artist who could only have existed in the London of the late sixteenth century.”

Given the great importance of creativity, especially now, these stories and many more make Imagine an engaging, rewarding, stimulating read.