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


I can't sing

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.

Jonah Lehrer

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 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 taking a break and letting go. (Photo courtesy

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.”


"Sunset over Mt. Monadnock" by my six-year-old friend Louisa


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.

Yo-Yo Ma "tells this great story about Julia Child making a roast chicken...She was talking to the camera and the chicken would just fall off the plate, onto the floor. And he said, 'Did she make this look of horror? Did she scream? No, the smile never left her face. She picked up the chicken, dusted it off and just went on with the show.' -Jonah Lehrer

Growing older doesn’t have to mean a decline in creativity.

Scientists have observed that creativity often appears to wane in later years, but the reasons why this happens have been an ongoing topic of debate. According to Lehrer, recent research suggests that declining creativity isn’t necessarily physical or genetic, but instead, is usually the result of cultural assimilation.

As artists, writers, scientists, composers, architects, etc. gain notoriety, respect, or tenure in a specific field, they become deeply entwined and invested in the status quo. Routines develop. They earn respect. They become part of the establishment, when once they were anti-establishment. Once they’re entrenched in the system in this way, it is much harder to think outside of the box.

This is similar to designer Milton Glaser’s ideas about specialization being antithetical to artistic development. Picasso is an example of an artist who chose creative development over specialization–he was someone who sought out new creative challenges as soon as he had mastered a skill.

But how many of us are willing to choose the discomfort of being a beginner over the ease of being a expert? If we want to continue to develop and push the boundaries of our artistic practice as we age, we need to remain playful, and re-train our egos to be comfortable with “beginner’s mind.”

Pablo Picasso (Photo by Robert Doisneau)


Most organizations inadvertently stifle creativity by following rote management practices that don’t work.

Here are two examples…

1. Businesses and non-profits shoot themselves in the foot by insisting on productivity at the detriment of innovation. 3M, which has almost a one-to-one product to employee ratio, gives their engineers one hour of free time a day to do whatever they want–they can nap, go for a walk, research a topic that interests them, work on a side project that isn’t in their official job description, read, play ping pong, etc. “It doesn’t have to be directly relevant, they don’t have to justify it to their boss — all they have to do is promise to share it with their colleagues,” says Lehrer. “This sends an important message early on: we’ve hired you, we think you’re smart, we trust you, we trust you to find solutions, you manage your time in your own way.” According to Lehrer, this free hour is directly responsible for a major cultural shift at 3M.

Imagine how your own relationship to your work would change if you were given such creative license? Instead of wasting time shopping online, browsing Facebook, or chaining yourself to your desk when you’re stuck, what if you could actually do something restorative AND useful with that hour and return to your desk with a fresh perspective? The trouble is that most organizations are so obsessed with profit and efficiency, they have no space for these kinds of innovative, radical ideas.

According to Susan Cain's research, employees who work in shared offices suffer from higher blood pressure, more stress, exhaustion, flu, etc. than employees who have private spaces. These employees also make more mistakes and are less efficient because they're constantly interrupted. (A scene from Billy Wilder's "The Apartment")


2. Research also shows that traditional brainstorming sessions don’t work. And yet how many organizations continue the tired practice of forcing their employees into a room with a flip chart to brainstorm and problem solve without allowing any real debate or criticism?

According to Lehrer’s research, innovation and problem-solving are at their peak when employees are given some control over their schedule and allowed to work alone. Susan Cain’s recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking also advocates for quiet work spaces and unstructured time.

According to Cain, the unfortunate result of the recession has been smaller workspaces with shared offices, cubicles, and open-concept designs that are disruptive and stifle creativity. Studies show that employees who work in shared offices suffer from higher blood pressure, more stress, exhaustion, flu, etc. than employees who have private offices. These employees also make more mistakes and are less efficient because they’re constantly interrupted.

It’s interesting to note that while Lehrer advocates for free time for employees to work in solitude (as Cain does), he also touts the benefits of Pixar’s open-concept environment. He argues that Pixar’s open office fosters regular discussions and debates among employees.

On the surface Lehrer and Cain’s ideas seem contradictory, but I wonder if the answer isn’t about quality over quantity? In my personal experience attending and working at artist residencies, quality solitude and quality community are both essential to fostering a creative environment. We all need solitude, stimulating conversation, and time to relax and play.

What do you think of Lehrer’s ideas about creativity and innovation? Have you experienced some of these challenges in your own work as an employee of an organization? Your feedback is welcome in the “Comments” section below.

You can listen to Jonah Lehrer’s Fresh Air interview on the NPR website and purchase his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works in hard copy or for Kindle here or at your local bookstore. Visit Jonah Lehrer’s website to learn more.

Bob Dylan Chasing a Tire

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About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. […] “Jonah Lehrer on How Creativity Works: 5 Insights from Julia Child, Dylan & Picasso,” Michelle Aldredge, Gwarlingo: Another takeaway of the Lehrer book? “Art isn’t all fun and games.” Work never is. […]

  2. Fran Beallor March 23, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    First off, I love Gwarlingo – congratulations on a fantastic blog, Michelle! I like the new look, it’s very fresh and I really enjoy the Sunday Poems…

    I am so glad that you are highlighting Jonah Lehrer. I am looking forward to reading his new book. I read, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” last year – another great read, not to be missed!


  3. P Ramam March 23, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    While the topic is interesting and much of it is known, I went searching for a way to channel my muse before I sat down to do anything creative- be it writing, working with clay or drawing. My solution: Before I start anything creative I do 10 minutes of blind contour drawing to shut down my left brain (from Betty Edwards’ Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain). This technique *very effectively* shuts down all brain chatter,and allows you to let go of your inner critic — switching you to the right brain. During the 10 min exercise,it is important not to check the time(set a timer), not to use language or to look at numbers-all of which switches you back to the left brain. Some of my best work comes from this space, and at times once I tap into that space I want to stay there for days on end. Disciplined 10 minutes, and the results are magical!

    Thanks for your blog. I really enjoy it!


  4. Anna Dibble March 24, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Another inspiring post. I’d heard about Lehrer’s book, but missed the Fresh Air episode – thanks a lot for writing about it. So many things you’ve addressed here….One thought I had while reading the passage about our addiction to technology being detrimental to our creative impulse/work – I think a lot of people in the arts have a certain amount of the ADD condition, and the multi-tasking nature of the internet probably encourages our condition. I know it does that for me. Discipline for creative work is hard enough without the addition of social networking, email ‘candy’. So necessary to turn off ‘the crap’! from time to time. As well as all the non-digital distractions, of which there are many.

    On the subject of muses and creative inspiration Lehrer’s point (and yours) is well taken re not trying too hard. But in my view the main thing is the work. The more you stick to the work the better your imagination works. When I go through periods of not working I am not only miserable and edgy, I am keenly aware that when I do begin again I am going to have to go through a certain hell to get back on track. It’s that crazy balance we’re all looking for. And this must also hold true for other ‘creative’ jobs, outside the arts.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 24, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Thanks Fran, Pallavi, and Anna for your thoughtful comments. Pavalli, I have another friend who swears by the book Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain, but I’ve never tried it myself. I’ll have to investigate…

      Anna, I love the mantra, “‘Turn off the crap!’ from time to time.” It’s so obvious, and yet so hard to do. In the Fresh Air interview, Jonah Lehrer jokes that the shower remains a safe-haven for creative thinking because we haven’t yet figured out how to take our smart phones into the shower! I’m sure it won’t be long before a water-proof smart phone is on the market.

      I agree with you about the importance of doing the work. Honestly, so many long-winded books and essays on artistic practice could probably be winnowed down to that one simple word: DO!.

      Like you, I also find a regular work routine incredibly helpful. We don’t always feel inspired when going to the desk or the studio, but half of the battle is just showing up. If we honor our work in this way, then odds are something will come out of it. But if we don’t even bother to make an effort, there’s no chance that a creative project will reach completion. This is one of the central differences I’ve noticed between successful professional artists and frustrated “dabblers”–discipline.

      When I said that it’s important to relax, I certainly didn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard. As Lehrer says, hard work is critical. I only meant that once we’re at the desk or in the studio, we need to let go of striving and sink into the work. Immersion is important because the minute we start focusing on things outside of the work–critics, money, our audience, pleasing others, pleasing ourselves, etc.–we become distracted and put unnecessary pressure on ourselves. Personally I’ve found that my best work comes out this place of immersion–when I enter a space of deep concentration where I’m entirely focused on what’s in front of me.

      These are great comments. Thanks to everyone for their responses. I always love hearing from readers!

  5. […] “Jonah Lehrer on How Creativity Works: 5 Insights from Julia Child, Dylan & Picasso,”Michelle Aldredge, Gwarlingo: Another takeaway of the Lehrer book? “Art isn’t all fun and games.” Work never is. […]

  6. Anne @ Zen and Genki April 2, 2012 at 12:48 am

    Have been ‘lurking’ for a while and really enjoyed this post.. compelled to comment: LOVELOVELOVE! Thank you 🙂

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