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Thursday
Aug302012

How Creativity Works

Jonah Lehrer’s recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, spent 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Unfortunately, it appears that the author himself got a bit too creative, inventing quotes from singer Bob Dylan to support some of his points and causing the book to be withdrawn by the publisher. (Ironic, too that the author of a book on the creation of original ideas also stands accused of plagiarizing, although from his own earlier works.)

The author’s lapses don’t change the fact that the book was well researched and written, well received by critics, and popular among readers. If anything, its newfound notoriety and abrupt scarcity have added to its appeal, and frustrated would-be buyers are swelling already-long waiting lists at local libraries. The point is that, in this age of galloping invention, creativity is a hot topic, not just among creators but for the public in general.

It may be presumptuous for us to blog about creativity to an audience of the professionally creative, except for the fact that, when asked how they came up with a unique work or solution, those same creatives are often at a loss, offering explanations like “I don’t know, I just …” Right there is one of the keys to true creativity, which seems, as often as not, to come from the subconscious rather than the conscious mind. The trick, it seems may be to bypass the workaday brain, which frequently seems mired in its own well-worn paths.

Arguably the challenge isn’t as much to awaken the creative mind as to silence the overbearing conscious mind that considers itself the repository of all wisdom. There are formal approaches to this kind of mind-taming—meditation for example—and any number of informal, personal approaches like running, walking, biking, cloud-watching, listening to music, playing music, playing games, and gardening that lull the controlling conscious mind into quiescence. The goal, of course, is not to replace the conscious mind, which is great at details but often functions poorly “outside the box;” rather, it is to engage the parts of the mind that more-or-less live outside the box.

Another approach is to surprise, and thus bypass if only for a moment, the “stuck” part of the mind. Google the phrase “creativity tricks” and you’ll get almost eight million hits, many of which seem more oriented toward productivity than creativity. But you’ll also find gems like Ming the Mechanic: Perceptual Creativity Tricks, where there’s a long list of improbable ways to approach an obstacle including “stretch it, bend it, turn it upside down, inside out … magnify it, reduce it, reverse it, spin it” and so on. It’s a way to find ideas in the hidden recesses of your own mind. They say that, when developing the sewing machine, Singer found his solution—putting the eye of the needle at the front rather than the rear of the needle—in a dream.

Of course ideas may be found, not just “outside the box,” but outside your head. For that, there’s the Internet. The trick there is not to close off options by the nature of your search. For example, “screws” will find screws but not much else. “Fasteners” will find more options, and “unusual fasteners” may bust the entire process open. So next time you’re stuck, you can look for your solution “in there,” or you can look for it “out there,” but either way, keep in mind that just about everything we take for granted today was once someone’s “goofy” idea.

Greg Kagan is an independent writer specializing in technology marketing, and is author of his own blog, www.techammer.com.

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