Friday, May 25, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine: How Creativity Works

Lehrer comes at this topic with a goal: to see what we can and should be doing to improve the innovation successes in the United States. He tries to explain moments of inspiration and examples of ongoing innovation and uses anecdotes to illustrate. He has an easy style, tackles a very big subject, and comes at it from many angles. It’s interesting. Best of all, his work can be discussed, refuted, and improved upon. That’s where he was leading us all along.

There is something very sexy and energizing about the topic itself. We all like to think of a moment or two when we had a creative breakthrough. Some people have a lot more of them than others. Some actually take their moments to the bank. What does it take, and do we have it?

I grew up in a time when it seemed prudent to be cautious about talking about one’s great ideas. This book says that in fact, we’d do better to share our ideas as much as possible, since interactions improve the product and/or chance of success. Our great idea might lead someone else to make the breakthrough product or service, but hopefully our interactions with others will fine tune our idea to better serve its purpose.

Lehrer’s main point is that interactions and collaboration are essential to a flowering of inspiration and innovation. Companies that force interaction by their layout, or studies collaborated by several authors in frequent face-to-face interactions, intensify the creative atmosphere and may more often develop a product that will be widely accepted. On a larger scale, cities force face-to-face interactions among all kinds of people we wouldn’t ordinarily run into in our daily routines, and thus foster a creative atmosphere that cannot be replicated.

Lehrer takes a stab at a subject bound to create some controversy. He posits that Shakespeare was a great playwright, but his particular genius was only possible at the time when he wrote: playwriting was flourishing, and there was much Shakespeare learned (and stole) from his contemporaries and from enthusiastic audiences. But Shakespeare usually improved upon the ideas he appropriated. From here Lehrer makes a case that copyright laws in the U.S. should be loosened so that people can improve upon out-of-date patents or patents that slightly missed their target audiences.

Finally, he deals with failure. Every creative person fails. It’s part of the process. If eighty percent of success is just showing up, the rest is perseverance. “Art is work” and breakthroughs often come when we give our brains a rest from rigor and give it time to process all it has taken in. The rigor is first, the idea second, the solution last. But in the end, there may still be a little bit of magic.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Clearly, I'd need to read for myself what Lehrer has to say but as someone who has studied and taught Shakespeare at degree level for a very long time I would be inclined to agree with him. I could list dozens of ways in which he learned from fellow playwrights, members of his company and the audience. For example, the symbiosis between him and the actor Robert Armin is worthy of a book itself. One of the best ways into a Shakespeare play, it seems to me, is to compare what he wrote with his sources. The changes he made so often throw a light on what he was most concerned with.

    I was about to launch into a discussion of why the particular point in history was crucial as well and then realised I was setting myself up for an essay, not a comment. I'd better get a copy of the book:)

    1. I'd like to see what you write in an essay about this subject. When I posted this on the site, another fellow picked a different part of that paragraph to critique. If you'd like to see those comments, go here.

  2. If I read faster and had more time to read, this would be on my list of books to read again. Business leaders should have it on their required reading list.

    Zaira Lynn (Cash for Gold)

    1. I agree, Zaira. Lehrer was criticized for one of the quotes in his book, but the main body of the research was sound and he makes excellent points that we all need to consider re innovation, i.e., living in cities, improving on someone else's invention, revision, revision, revision. I have thought of this book more times since I've read it than most of the others.