A few months ago my dad sent me a lecture he heard that deals with process of creative insight. Ever since I first listened to it I’ve been excited to share this lecture with you, but today is the first opportunity I have had to really study it.
The process of creative insight. This is somewhat strange idea. Does insight even have a process? Don’t we normally think of it as a function of luck, or a gift from the muses, or a sign from God himself? Is there really anything we can do to map and capitalize on how creative inspiration is achieved? Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, believes we can. In the lecture below, he argues that creative work requires knowing how to balance grit–the passion and persistence that keeps us from quitting–and the ability to relax. Both of these sides of creativity are necessary, and both characterize the works of history’s creative giants.
Lehrer begins with a story about the tumultuous genesis of Bob Dylan’s masterpiece, “Like a Rolling Stone.” He argues that this song would likely never have come about if Bob Dylan hadn’t given up music. Given that Dylan was completely exhausted and burnt out, it was only when he retreated from his grueling schedule that he was struck with inspiration. Why was this? Neuroscience is showing that these “moments of insight” correlate with increased activity of Alpha waves in the brain, which in turn become more active when we do what we do to relax. In other words, Lehrer posits that our creativity, in many cases, would be better served by taking a shower, going for a walk, or grabbing a beer. On the one hand, this seems completely obvious–we have all experienced times when a problem was solved by stepping away and doing something else…daydreaming on the toilet, for instance. On the other hand, this finding has implications in the professional world, in that people whose vocations depend on regular creative insights would benefit, not by adopting a stricter schedule or chaining themselves to their desk, but instead by taking more vacations. After all, he says, Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of wasted time.”
This sounds like excellent news, but Lehrer is quick to point out that insight is only part of the creative task. Incidentally, this lecture was given at a conference called the 99 Percent Conference which, as I understand it, focuses on the idea that creative work is 1% inspiration and 99% hard work. Lehrer brings in the concept of grit, and reminds people that grit is the defining feature that links together people like Beethoven, Bob Dylan, and Steve Jobs. History’s creative giants are linked through their respective grittiness, and we would do well to remember that a stubborn refusal to quit is what will set us apart. Beethoven, he shares, was known to document approximately 70 different versions of a musical phrase before choosing his favorite. .
So how are we to know when to bear down and when to down a beer? Lehrer says that our brain is actually already wired to discern the answer. If we reach a point in our work where we believe strongly that a solution exists…that it is just “on the tip of our tongue”…we might do better to stop working and go do something else. The majority of the time, however, the work we do provides the stimuli for further good work to be accomplished. Most of the time, grit is key.
See what you think. What insights do you draw from these ideas? What impact does it make on your work schedule?