A segment from a recent episode of This American Life featured a story about Kristen Finch, a speech therapist whose work with children with Asperger’s syndrome led her to wonder if her husband might have Asperger’s, too. Finch’s husband often struggled with being emotionally distant, being a slave to his routine, and not picking up on social cues. At one point in the story, after being diagnosed (he did have it) and learning about Asperger’s and how to deal with it, Kristen’s husband remarked that “it was as if someone had finally handed me a user’s manual for myself.” I have to say that reading Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, made me feel that, at least in some small way, the same thing had happened to me.
Imagine is about something that has been shrouded in mythology and speculation for centuries: human creativity. Even the most creative among us are frequently unsure of where their ideas come from. They often attribute their moments of insight to some otherworldly source, like a muse or genius which takes hold of them. Lehrer’s premise is that recent studies have helped us to now understand and explain a lot more about how creativity works than most people, even the professionally creative, might think.
As a graphic designer, I have to be creative every day. And yet, despite my familiarity with the process, there have always been certain parts of “being creative” that have always made me uncomfortable. For example, early on in every project when a client would describe their needs to me, there would come a point when I felt like I had NO IDEA what to do and I would get a sinking feeling in my stomach. Of course, the client wasn’t looking for a solution yet. They fully intended to tell me the problem then let me go work on it for a bit. But the initial feeling of uncertainty made me feel awful. This feeling would sometimes last for days. It led at times to feelings of doubt in my mind. “Maybe I’m not cut out for creative work, because I’m sure “truly creative” people don’t feel like this,” I would say to myself. I hoped and hoped that as I got used to doing creative work that this frustrated, no-idea-what-to-do feeling would go away. But it didn’t.
One of the first things Lehrer reveals is that before there can be a breakthrough, there must first be a block. An obstacle. A seemingly insurmountable problem which we wrestle with and lose. Only then will our brain be forced to search for clever alternatives. It’s this shift into a completely new and different thought process that lies at the heart of creativity. And it’s impossible to get there without first being frustrated.
Eureka! In an instant that very same feeling of frustration which before had caused self-doubt and trepidation was shifted, almost magically, to being a good thing and an indicator that what I was doing was not only not bad, but meant that I was on the right track!
And this was only the first chapter. Lehrer goes on to discuss other stigmas of creativity including how to keep creative teams from stagnating, why hot showers and cups of coffee are good for creativity (but not at the same time), and that it’s possible to cultivate creative genius much like we currently train athletes.
With so many industries changing radically everyday, it’s in everyone’s best interest to harness the power of our own creativity. The good news from Mr. Lehrer is that it’s possible for all of us to do so, whether we currently think of ourselves as creative or not. I wore out my highlighter reading Imagine. It’s a book I’ll be reading again and again in the coming years, right up there with Dan Pink’s Drive and Malcolm Galdwell’s Outliers. If you are or have a vested interested in helping other be as creative as possible, Imagine is a must read.