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review: Imagine

by Rob Friesel

Imagine by Jonah LehrerIn Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer presents a series of experimental findings and narratives, and draws them together into an optimistic thesis on creativity and innovation. But there are two books here: there’s the successful book, the book where Lehrer is a capable wordsmith with a knack for describing and synthesizing these scientific findings and their implications in a way that is accessible to a lay-audience; and then there is the mediocre book, the book where Lehrer substitutes anecdotes for evidence, where he lets latter points undermine positions formerly established, where he allows his rhetorical flourish to obfuscate the point he is trying to make. And it is with that in mind that I closed the covers with mixed feelings.

Lehrer’s optimistic thesis in a nutshell: Creative Genius1 is not some rare gift that only a remarkable and privileged few are born with; instead, Creative Genius is the product of exposure to diverse ideas,2 the synthesis of those diverse ideas to form novel innovations, and the diligent pursuit of those novel innovations in the face of challenges, setbacks, and outright failures.

For most of us, this is fantastic news. We don’t have to win the genetic lottery to be Creative Geniuses. We’re still at the mercy of other privileges (e.g., we still need to be situated such that we can be exposed to diverse ideas; we still have to have the financial and emotional resources to withstand the failures that stand between our ideas and seeing them to fruition; we still need to live in a culture or society, and live under the aegis of a government that does not have draconian intellectual property laws and/or censorship laws and/or lots of other apparatuses set up for maintaining the status quo at all costs) but assuming all those other things line up, we may all be poised to become Creative Geniuses and change the world.

Imagine contains a lot of evidence (anecdotal, scientific, and in between) to support this thesis. Lehrer talks about the research that went into the development of the Swiffer, and about the almost-random inspiration that led to its conceptions. He talks about how a burnt-out Bob Dylan retreated to Woodstock, NY, with the intention of never again picking up a guitar, only to write the best music of his career literally days later. He writes about how 3M has been doing “that Google thing”3 with their engineers for over 70 years. He writes about Broadway productions and what the right mix of “old friends” and “new blood” is necessary to make a hit. He talks about when to take a project and put it in the drawer for a year. He surveys studies (some shrewd, some dubious) from neuroscientists, and on the next pages there are yarns spun through interviews with advertising professionals, urban planners, musicians, magicians, graphic artists, and everyone in between. And all the while, Lehrer’s narrative style weaves this all together, and makes it easy for just about anyone to comprehend. But…

An accessible narrative style, the style required to reach a broad lay-audience, too often becomes… reductionist? Overly simplified? That kind of style can muddle some of the nuance that is otherwise necessary for a meticulous scientific discussion.4 Some have argued that Lehrer is drawing conclusions that simply aren’t there,5 but I don’t know if I fully agree with that. It’s more subtle than that. It isn’t that he doesn’t have a point, or that his conclusions are unfounded or banal, or even that he is interleaving scientific evidence and colloquial anecdotes with equal significance. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that he keeps slipping (ever so slightly) and undermining his own prior arguments as he enthusiastically works himself up to support whatever argument he is shaping in that chapter and on that page. The problem is that he tends to contradict himself. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the book’s penultimate chapter. Lehrer fetishizes big-city-living6 so much that he begins to celebrate this concept more than anything else78 and in doing so, he comes close to compromising many of the points he made before. In the preceding chapter, he beats the drum of travel as the critical path to gaining diverse experiences and gaining exposure to diverse ideas, but when he gets around to talking about big cities… Well, you may as well just move to New York City and call it a day; who needs to travel when you can just live in the place where everyone is going to (or through) anyway? Granted, this is not explicitly stated, but therein lies one of my gripes–that this seems to be such an obvious conclusion and such a clear cognitive path between the two discussions, that I am led to believe that he did not fully explore the implications of some (many? most?) of these critical concepts he was exploring to benefit his thesis. If he did not make the link between those two points, then what else did he miss? what else did he gloss over? what other connections were not made?910 Worse, there is a clear case of reverse causality happening here. Given the research cited, there is clearly an intriguing feedback mechanism taking place in these large and vibrant metropolises, but to say that the city itself causes the creativity is spurious and misleading.

These criticisms aside however, Lehrer’s thesis remains strong, and it is refreshing to see someone grapple with the subject matter in such an optimistic fashion. It seems that we too often treat the “creativity” of “innovators” as this scarce natural resource. There is romance in the mystery of Creative Geniuses, but it is not a helpful romance. You need not be born “that way”; being a Creative Genius (or even just Sufficiently Innovative) is something that you can work toward. All we need is the right climate:

We need to be willing to risk embarrassment, ask silly questions, surround ourselves with people who don’t know what we’re talking about. We need to leave behind the safety of our expertise.

The right kind of stubborn temperament helps, too:

In fact, most of us see perseverance as a distinctly uncreative approach, the sort of strategy that people with mediocre ideas are forced to rely on.

Lastly: Lehrer isolated this brilliant quote from Yo-Yo Ma:

If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing.

…which just about sums up everything in the book, and everything I feel about the book.

UPDATE: (7/31/2012) In which I respond to the news that he fabricated material in the book: on Jonah Lehrer’s resignation.

  1. ”Creative Genius” being a phrase that I do not recall being called out (nor Initially Capitalized) explicitly in the text, but it was used rather prominently in Matthew Francis’ review on Ars Technica, so I’ve decided to incorporate it similarly here. []
  2. And we use “ideas” here in a very broad sense. “Ideas” are challenges, concepts, customs, dilemmas, facts, hypotheses, memes, problems, stories, superstitions, suspicions, theories, traditions, words, and every other thing that you might pick up from interacting with another person. []
  3. ”That Google thing” being that their engineers get (by anecdotal accounts, at least; I couldn’t find anything official) upwards of 20% of their time to spend working on pet projects. []
  4. Granted: I was raised in a household where scientific rigor was de rigueur… And as such, my bias tends to lean toward “more rigor and less rhetoric”. Take that as “full disclosure”; take that for what you will. I just always assume that everyone else is looking for that same kind of exactness in the text. []
  5. I’m thinking in particular of Isaac Chotiner’s piece, “The Curse of Knowledge” (The New Republic), which features lines like this:

    More worryingly, Lehrer’s weightier confusions cast doubt on his glib interpretations of brain experiments.

    And the comment thread is filled with similar indictments. (Though you’re not missing much if you skip the comment thread on the Chotiner article.) []

  6. He really enjoyed using the word “superlinear”. []
  7. Why else would they positioned in the text as they are? if not to culminate with entrepreneurs in big cities? []
  8. There is also some fetishization of entrepreneurs going on in that chapter, which made me bristle a bit–but I can’t say that that undermined his point. There was plenty of room left-over for engineers and artists. []
  9. At which I note: there is some embedded irony there. []
  10. Yes, I should have kept better track of these contradictions. But by the time I’d gotten to this point, I wasn’t about to go back and start cataloging them for the sake of this lowly document. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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