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.