Bob Dylan

March 2012

Jonah Lehrer on How Creativity Works : 5 Insights from Julia Child, Dylan, & Picasso

By |03.23.12|


In 1965 singer Bob Dylan was burned out after a grueling tour; he was sick of reporters’ questions and tired of performing the same old songs. Dylan told his manager that he was quitting music for good and proceeded to disappear. He squirreled himself away in a cabin in Woodstock. Dylan’s plan was to write fiction and paint, so he didn’t even bother to bring along his guitar. But after a short period of rest, words began pouring out of the songwriter. By some accounts Dylan wrote 10 pages of stream-of-conscious verse in a short burst of activity; in other accounts, Dylan says it was 20 pages. Regardless of the length, in only a few months the singer was in the recording studio again recording one of his most memorable and influential songs, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan called the creation of the song a “breakthrough,” later explaining that it changed his perception of where he was going in his career.

Why do creative epiphanies like the one Bob Dylan experienced happen? Is there a scientific reason that breakthroughs occur at certain times in our lives and not at others? Are there specific things we can do to encourage innovation in our personal lives and in the workplace?

Writer Jonah Lehrer delves into questions like these in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer, whose previous books include Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, specializes in the relationship between science and the humanities. Lehner’s work could be described as Gladwell-esque. His books and articles for publications like Wired and The New Yorker are aimed at a general audience and attempt to synthesize research from the fields of neuroscience and psychology with interviews and biographical accounts of artists, creative thinkers, etc.

Lehrer’s recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air is a useful introduction to many of the ideas discussed in Imagine. While most of these findings won’t be new to those of you who have read other popular books on the subject of psychology and creative thinking, Lehrer does a skillful job weaving together disparate sources. This book will surely be a hit with the TED crowd and with entrepreneurs, managers, and creative professionals who are trying to foster innovation in the workplace.

But after listening to Lehrer’s NPR interview this morning, I’ve been thinking more about how Lehrer’s ideas apply to artists of all disciplines, as well as to the employees of organizations. Here are some key insights that I find most compelling…

The deepest, creative insights usually occur when we relax and let go.
The worst thing we can do as artists is to try too hard. We try too hard in all sorts of ridiculous ways–we set unrealistic goals and deadlines, we set out to make the ultimate “masterpiece,” we compare ourselves to others, and we chastise ourselves when we fail to live up to these lofty standards. In order to make our best work, we have to leave all of this mental baggage at the door and approach the work empty-handed without expectations.

Lehrer cites Bob Dylan and the story of how he came to write “Like a Rolling Stone” as a prime example of an artist who experienced a major breakthrough as a result of letting go.

When we’re stressed, under deadline pressure, and trying desperately to produce our best work, we are likely to fail unless we step back, force ourselves to unplug, and take a break. As Lehrer points out, we’ll actually be more innovative and efficient if we stop obsessing and instead go for a walk, take a shower or nap, tinker with a favorite hobby, or meditate. Scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts.

Lehrer gives some striking illustrations of this symbiotic relationship between creativity and relaxation. Researchers have found that people are more creative and productive when they work in a room that is painted blue, to give one example. Why? Because blue is associated the ocean and the sky and relaxation.

Relaxing and letting go is not just an internal process, but in many cases demands changes in our external behavior as well. As William Powers has pointed out in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, we must make conscientious choices about how and when we use technology, unless we want to be slave to a screen 24/7. Compulsively checking email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. interrupts deep creative thinking. We’re addicted to screens; too often we forget that we control technology–it doesn’t control us. We have a choice–we can keep technology in it’s place, or allow it to erode our attention spans and precious work time. Taking digital breaks is just as important as taking physical ones. Whether we use internet blocking software like Mac Freedom, turn off social networking, phones, and email while working, or commit to staying offline on weekends (as Powers has done), our creative work will benefit.

Art isn’t all fun and games.
If only the deep insights and epiphanies were enough…But it takes a lot of hard work to realize a creative project. Here’s Lehrer discussing the subject in his Fresh Air interview:
“It would be wonderful if the recipe for all kinds of creativity was to take showers and play ping-pong and go on vacation and go for walks on the beach, but when you really talk to people in the creative business, they want to tell their romantic stories about the epiphanies but then if you push them, they say even that epiphany had to go through lots of edits on it and iterations and lots of hard work after we have the big idea. And that’s a big part of the creative process too, and it is not as fun. In fact, there’s evidence that it makes us melancholy and a little bit depressed. But it’s a crucial part in creating something interesting and worthwhile. If creativity were always easy or about these blinding flashes, Picasso would not be so famous.”


In order to do our best creative work, we need to find the right balance between mental absorption and letting go.
Silence, focus, and concentration are important. But too much introspection and self-awareness can get in the way of innovation. Research has found that when professional musicians and performers improvise on stage, their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex–the part of the mind that controls inhibitions–actually shuts down.

Self-consciousness is an enemy of creativity. Remember how exciting art class was in kindergarten when we had no inhibitions? But eccentricity, individuality, and creativity are discouraged and eventually “schooled” out of us. At some point, we all learn the so-called “rules” about art–rules about staying inside the lines, coloring in one direction, and choosing the “right” green crayon for a grassy lawn.

Lehrer’s research shows that ignoring such rules and allowing ourselves to be playful again is an essential ingredient for the creative life. As Yo-Yo Ma told Lehrer, we must welcome the first mistake, because the first mistake makes us free. To do our best creative work, we must be focused, but also relaxed and at ease in our own skin.


December 2011

Can Christmas Music Ever Be Cool? The Real Reason Dylan Made the Critics Squirm

By |12.01.11|

It’s time to discuss a topic more divisive than religion, more inflammatory than right versus left or the 99% versus the 1%. A topic that will either make your eyes twinkle or your blood boil.

Christmas music.

There are two distinct camps when it comes to this subject: the lovers and the haters, and never the twain shall meet. The hipsters and aficionados who love to hate Christmas music deride its sentimentality, kitschiness, and commercialism. And the Christmas music lovers (the ones who put the first Christmas carol on the stereo before the Thanksgiving leftovers have been safely secured in the fridge) accuse the haters of being scrooges–no fun and too sophisticated for their own good.

The case of Bob Dylan wonderfully exemplifies this musical rift. In 2009 when Dylan announced that he would be releasing a Christmas album with the alarming title Christmas in the Heart, nervous critics panicked and attempted to cover for their hero’s lack of judgment by explaining that Dylan’s holiday album was “ironic.”

But Dylan didn’t cooperate. He disputed the claim, saying although he is Jewish, the songs were part of his Minnesota childhood. “These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs,” he told Bill Flanagan. “You have to play them straight…Critics like that are on the outside looking in. They are definitely not fans or the audience that I play to. They would have no gut level understanding of me and my work, what I can and can’t do — the scope of it all. Even at this point in time they still don’t know what to make of me.”

Dylan simply brushed off the musical establishment’s bafflement and proceeded to donate all of the profits from his best-selling album to charity.

Bob Dylan understood something that many of his critics didn’t. He understood that all music is nostalgic. Whenever we hear a song, it is forever tied to a specific time and place in our lives. From that point forward, whenever we hear that song again, we evoke that past experience, while simultaneously adding another layer of association.

Music always contains these layers of memory. For Dylan, Christmas music was closely linked to his Minnesota childhood. Instead of ignoring or dismissing this part of his past, he chose to embrace it instead. In many ways, Dylan’s sincerity for this project was a radical act. It was unexpected and, for some critics, not in keeping with his image as a cutting-edge, creative artist.

Music’s close connection with memory is one of the reasons it is so tied to personal taste. This is true of Christmas music in particular. Songs like Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” or Perry Como’s “There’s No Place Like Home (For the Holidays)” are steeped in memories of Christmases past, both good and bad.

Is it any wonder the holidays are stressful? While we might dream of sitting around the fire with our loved ones, dressed in our hand-knit Christmas sweaters and sipping eggnog, this isn’t reality. Comparing our lives to a Christmas song or a dreamy album cover is a sure-fire way to make yourself miserable.

Musical taste taps into some of our deepest ideas about personal identity, about where we come from, and where we want to go. It can be a badge of belonging or exclusion, or even a way of gaining prestige. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues, taste is never disinterested. Our judgments are a form of social currency that place us within a certain social class or community.

Dance parties and holiday gatherings are ripe environments for these musical divisions to play out in dramatic fashion. As long as Aretha Franklin or The Talking Heads are playing, most people are happy, but the minute you break out the ABBA, Madonna, Gene Autry, or any other artist with a high campiness factor, the grumbles will begin. You can actually feel the wave of condescension as the hardcore hipsters and tastemakers migrate to the edges of the room in protest.

But is it really the music we’re arguing over, or is it our own ideas about who we are (or who we were as our younger selves) and who others should be? There are many reasons to like or disdain a certain piece of music, and few of them have to do with quality. Our own personal baggage drives the bus of taste more than we’d like to admit.

Personally, I don’t mind a few cornball standards at the holidays. I could live without the 24/7 Christmas music barrage when I’m shopping for toilet paper at the local CVS. And those songs about grandmother getting run over by a reindeer and the Christmas donkey? Do I even have to say it?

Here are a few of my own personal holiday music favorites. Granted, not all of these albums are strictly “Christmas” music. I only know that listening to these records reminds me of decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies with my mother, and my grandfather’s annual Christmas ritual–grinding the family’s only knife down to a nub on the electric knife sharpener in preparation for the big turkey carving.