Takeaways from Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Imagine’

It isn’t often that a book compels me to write a review, much less post that review here on the Distilled blog.  But while reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer I found myself pausing frequently to properly absorb the cornucopia of ‘ah-ha moments’ and frighteningly actionable nuggets of wisdom that seem to apparate on every other page.

Some of the insights in Imagine are so applicable to the world of web marketing, consulting and general business-bettering that I frequently found myself folding back the corners of pages, knowing that our community would benefit greatly from their implementation.

I’d like you to consider a few of your greatest marketing achievements online or otherwise. Was there a single moment of clarity, an insight where it all became clear and your next steps became obvious?  Sure, you’d wrestled with the idea for a while but at some point it all hit you and your conclusion almost seemed too obvious to be correct.  

Perhaps you came up with the perfect landing page to nab that high volume, noncompetitive keyword.  Maybe you stumbled upon a better way to present some interesting data using an infographic.  These types of breakthroughs are often what separate good from great and can even end up defining our entire lives. We’d all love to be able to induce these events at our leisure. Imagine takes a look at some of the latest psycological and sociological studies on insight, intertwining them with real-life business achievements.  

Here are some of the major marketing takeaways from the book:

Creativity isn’t just another fixed statistic on the character sheet of life

“Not everyone can become an artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” - Pixar’s Ratatoullie

I won’t waste too much of your time trying to convince you that creativity is an invaluable trait for your company’s employees to posses.  The word creativity is synonymous with innovation and originality- intangibles that aren’t just the keys to winning the game in today’s fast-paced business world... they are the game.

But are we stuck with the initial D20 roll we ended up with at birth or can we boost that stat with hard work, dedication and/or enchantment?  The answer, according to Lehrer, is that creativity isn’t really a statistic at all.  It’s more of an acquired skill that can be compounded through environmental factors, state of mind and an understanding of the phenomenon itself.

So many of us have been caught up in the idea that we aren’t creative.  Some of you may have even said they words “I’m not the creative type”.  One of the main takeaways from Imagine is that startling insights can come from anywhere at any time regardless of how artistic, dramatic or imaginative you consider yourself to be.  This fact becomes obvious as you read about several scientific studies where moments of insight are enhanced or depleted by changing environmental and/or mental variables.  Below are just a few examples touched on within the pages of Imagine.

Connections create insight

Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing” - TS Elliot

More often than not, an insight does not require the ponderer to reinvent the wheel.  Think of some of the most successful advancements of the past 20 years.  The iPhone, the hybrid car, the dry-erase board.  

Startling.  

Amazing.  

Life-changing, right?

But were they truly original ideas or were they simply an evolution of an existing idea?  Steve Jobs didn’t need to invent the cell phone or micro-applications or even the touch screen himself.  He simply needed to be aware of those things and connect them in a way that functioned beautifully.  The advancement of human knowledge depends on our ability to take what others have discovered and connect it intelligently with other, sometimes unrelated concepts.

The book gives several examples of this occurring in the real business world:  A man working for a sandpaper company noticed that some of his auto repair technician customers had difficulty applying straight lines of paint to a car body.  The tape they were using contained overly-strong adhesive and ended up pulling up paint when removed.  Now, normally a sand paper salesman wouldn’t think twice about this issue but Dick Drew made the connection between sandpaper and tape which is that both are essentially a certain type of paper with a certain type of adhesive applied.  After months of experimenting with different types of glue Drew had invented what we now know as masking tape, transforming his “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company” into one of the largest corporations in the world (3M Innovations, today), selling 10 times more masking tape than sand paper a handful of years after its invention.  Great ideas come from making connections, sometimes obvious, sometimes less obvious.

At Distilled we hire people from varying backgrounds who often posses little SEO experience.  Technical skills are relatively easy to develop but finding people with the intelligence, hustle and hunger for new knowledge as these are often the traits that matter in the end.  

If you’re a fan of AMC’s Mad Men then you know that creative genius can come out of nowhere. At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the best creative pitches are often arrived at accidentally, through sleepless nights, hard work and a bit of liquor (okay, a lot of liquor). Would anyone in your organization spend sleepless nights working on an idea that may or may not work?  Does your company even allow for that sort of thing?  At 3M today, each employee is given a certain percentage of their time to work on these hair-brained ideas.  They’re given the environment in which to make these connections.  They also rotate their employees across departments in an effort to maximize the effect. You’ve heard about the power of diversity for years now and these latest examples only lend more credence to the idea.

Creativity isn’t always about ‘making something out of nothing.’  It’s more often about connecting two or more already established concepts into one beautifully cohesive solution.

Environment Matters

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted” - Albert Einstein

If you buy the idea that creativity is not a fixed number per individual then it must certainly be affected by one’s environment.  We’ve all heard about how major technology corporations spend lavishly on amazing workplaces and many wonder— is it really worth it?  The answer is a resounding: ‘Yes’ as far as Apple, Google, Pixar, Facebook and 3M are concerned.  

At Pixar, Steve Jobs helped design a building where employees are forced to interact across all departments with strategically placed and centralized bathrooms, large empty meeting places at the center of the complex and dedicated quiet zones for relaxing and day-dreaming.  

Google also gives their employees a certain percentage of their work time to dedicate to potential new projects and this expenditure of time has birthed products such as GMail and Google Images.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg recommends creating a space within your work environment that is ‘neither Home nor Work’.  He refers to this area as a “third place”.  Here you are not constrained by the pressures of deadlines or the hum of the office but you are also not so relaxed as to be going about your normal “pants-optional” home routine.  This balance is important if you are considering creating a space like this for your creative teams.  

Imagine also gives several examples of the brain working differently when augmented with various substances.  Caffeine for instance increased ‘focus’ but caused test participants to fail more frequently at tests of insight.  Small doses of alcohol on the other hand allowed participants to think less literally and arrive at insightful solutions more regularly.  There are also examples of poets and musicians whose work can be differentiated on and off harder drugs.  This isn’t to say that drugs are a solution to becoming more creative but it does highlight the fact that the brain functioning on different wavelengths can cause insight scenarios.

Small talk, random encounters with other employees, and drunken walks along the river bank with your Shiba Inu are where these ideas often manifest.  Try allotting time for ‘disciplined day dreaming’ into your normal routine. Concentration doesnt solve all types of problems. Many solutions are found only when we stop looking and allow our mind to consider connections that we’d never normally consider.  

Brainstorming Methodology

The problems that face today’s businesses are becoming more complex.  So much so that it often isn’t probable that a single gifted human being could make a breakthrough on their own.  Much of the low hanging idea-fruit is now gone in many fields.  

One way we often deal with this problem is through the notorious ‘brainstorming session.’  The idea is that the combined experience of several participants will add up to more than the sum of its parts. There are several aspects of group-think that Imagine addresses.

The size of group matters.  If there are too many participants then you risk several or all members feeling as though they can just fade into the background while also becoming more susceptible to a herd mentality as objectors are less likely to speak up.  Too few though and  you fail to incorporate new ideas, diverse opinions, and you risk not having enough brain power in the room to complete the job.

Each day at Pixar, the animators hold a meeting in the morning to discuss three seconds of film from the day before.  They rip into each scene and debate things like the shade of orange Nemo’s fin should be.  The team is expected to give and take criticism especially well and to even get excited about the ways they can improve.  This acceptance of error reduces its cost.  “We only get it right when we talk about what went wrong.” says Pixar. These positive cultural elements have a huge impact on the ideas that come out of a brainstorm.

Another brainstorming method suggests having participants brainstorm individually BEFORE coming to the group with the ideas.  This allows individuals to build out their own arguments beforehand while becoming excited to share them.  They’ll more than likely have ideas that are similar but come at it from a different angle.  It also allows everyone to have their own predetermined block of time within the meeting so as not to let anyone blend into the furniture.

Forcing Insight can Prevent an Insight

Often our first instinct when tackling a tough problem is to grit our teeth, down another energy drink and concentrate as hard as we can.  The problem with this strategy is that this shifts attention away from the right hemisphere of the brain (the part responsible for moments of insight and unlikely connections) and towards our left (our more analytical hemisphere).  When our minds are in this clenched state we tend to only make obvious connections and ignore the more remarkable.  You’re able to work long and hard on caffeine, Adderall and Ritalin but you are less likely to have a breakthrough.

Keep a Positive Mood

Insights are more likely to occur when you are happy.  This supports the idea of developing a great workplace, appropriate amounts of time off and working with people you enjoy.   Test subjects in a German study were more likely to solve intuitive problems designed to meausure insights if they were in a positive mood. Subjects were shown a Robin Williams clip for positive mood and a boring or scary video for negative.

Become a Child

“One needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello because why is that kid playing? He is playing for pleasure.” - Yo Yo Ma

Subjects in a study were told to imagine themselves as 7 year old children.  They scored higher on tests designed to measure insight such as pondering alternative uses for a car tire.  Reverting to our childlike mindsets can help strip away inhibitions and normalcies that may be chaining us to the literal and keeping us from more abstract connections.  Try asking yourself the same silly questions that your 4-year-old daughter might ask you about your business.

Color Counts

In 2009 a study found that students were able to solve almost twice as many puzzles designed to measure insight when the walls in the testing room were painted Blue.  It is thought to encourage a more relaxed, right hemisphere of the brain mentality.  Conversely students in a Red room were more alert, attentive and better able to solve analytic problems.

Write a Haiku (give your insights structure)

Look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.

But that is precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits an iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.

Conclusion

“For years people believed that creativity was similar to other forms of cognition.  Whether divinely inspired or a natural ”gift“ but today as we learn more about the brain we’re finding how the ”trick“ works.” -Jonah Lehrer

“I don’t buy it, Jacob.  So we should just spend our time daydreaming in a blue room with a diverse group of lightly intoxicated people writing hiakus?!” 

The answer is yes, quite frankly.  If you work in a field where creativity, originality and inventiveness are important (and I’m struggling to think of a a field in which they’re not) you owe it to the future of your company to spend a bit of that time maximizing your most valuable resource.  It isn’t that you need to hire more “creative people”— your company needs to create an environment where moments of insight are more likely to occur with the (hopefully) wonderful folks you already have on the team.  Some of the above may be more or less effective for your particular niche than others but even a simple understanding of the nature of creativity can have a huge effect.

Distilled Seattle’s blue, haiku-writing, whiskey-tasting, brainstorming room.

We’re anxious to hear about your experiences with moments of insight, creativity and imagination!  Share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments below.  

Want to work for a company that understands and appreciates all of the above?  We’re looking for a few good SEOs to join our ranks.