Book Review: Imagine: How Creativity Works

“What kind of culture have we created? Is it a world full of ideas that can be connected? Are we willing to invest in risk takers? Do our schools produce students ready to create? Can the son of a glover grow up to write plays for the queen? We have to make it easy to become a genius.” Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works

I have always wanted to be creative.  I keep thinking that I will wake up one morning and be filled with Pinterest ideas that I will spend the whole day creating.  Then, as I create cool things, I’ll take Instagrammish pictures and then scrapbook them all together into the coolest Standard Theme WordPress blog on the block.  But…for the time being, I continue to not be creative.

I was sitting at the pool two weeks ago with a new friend talking about books and she mentioned that she wanted to read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.  I should mention that she is my fun new friend that is awesome at scrapbooking and ALL things creative.  I love to read her blog and imagine that it is just 1% of all the awesome creative ideas she has. So…I thought that this book would be my ticket to…basically, being cool too!

This book was really interesting on a number of different angles.  Since I have pretty much resigned myself to being a person of order that can follow specific non-creative instructions pretty well, I decided to see what I could take away from the perspective of a high school and middle school principal charged with cultivating the hearts and challenging the minds of our students at North Cobb Christian School so that they can impact culture for Christ.  This book is an outstanding read that really percolated some thoughts for me as it relates to how we teach and how our students learn.  My hope is to take these thoughts and use them to evaluate what we are doing to make sure we are giving our students the room to be creative and the motivation to run hard after their dreams.  God created us to be artists and artisans.

Here are several thoughts that I highlighted while reading…

  • Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next.
  • “An insight is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Beeman says. “There are a trillion possible connections in the brain, and we have to find the exact right one. Just think of the odds!”
  • The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process.
  • Creativity is the residue of time wasted. —Albert Einstein
  • Instead of insisting on constant concentration—requiring every employee to focus on his or her work for eight hours a day—3M encourages people to make time for activities that at first glance might seem unproductive.
  • One important consequence of this approach was the invention of the 15 percent rule, a concept that allows every researcher to spend 15 percent of his or her workday pursuing speculative new ideas.
  • Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease—when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain—we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve.
  • Another ideal moment for insights, according to Beeman and John Kounios, is the early morning, shortly after waking up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.
  • We do some of our best thinking when we’re half asleep.
  • Occasionally, focus can backfire and make us fixated on the wrong answers. It’s not until you let yourself relax and indulge in distractions that you discover the answer; the insight arrives only after you stop looking for it.
  • The benefit of such horizontal interactions—people sharing knowledge across fields—is that it encourages conceptual blending, which is an extremely important part of the insight process.
  • As Nietzsche observed in his 1878 book Human, All Too Human:   Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration . . . shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects . . . All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.
  • T. S. Eliot understood this: “The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.”
  • The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play. —Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Picasso once summarized the paradox this way: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
  • Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do. —Steve Martin, Born Standing Up
  • It’s not until the challenge is shared with motivated outsiders that the solution can be found.
  • 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.
  • When you escape from the place you spend most of your time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas previously suppressed.
  • Knowledge can be a subtle curse. When we learn about the world, we also learn all the reasons why the world cannot be changed. We get used to our failures and imperfections. We become numb to the possibilities of something new.
  • Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. —Anton Ego, in Pixar’s Ratatouille
  • A mediocre team will screw up a good idea. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team and let them work together, they’ll find a way to succeed.”
  • The Latin crest of Pixar University says it all: Alienus Non Diutius, which means “alone no longer.”
  • “This was a lesson I took away from the Toyota manufacturing process,” Catmull says. “In their car factories, everybody had a duty to find errors. Even the lowly guys on the assembly line could pull the red cord and stop the line if they saw a problem. It wasn’t just the job of the guys in charge. It was a group process.
  • The absence of criticism has kept us all in the same place.
  • “Meltdowns are always painful, but they’re a sign that we’re still trying to do something difficult, that we’re still taking risks and willing to correct our mistakes. We have to be willing to throw our scripts in the trash.”
  • “You need to hire the best folks and then get out of the way.”
  • “What I’ve learned to look for is the individual voice,” he says. “It might be an aesthetic, or a sentence style, or a way of holding the camera. But having that unique voice is the one thing I can’t teach. I can teach someone to write copy. I can show someone how to crop a photo. But I can’t teach you how to have a voice. You either have something to say or you don’t.”
  • “What typically happens is a friend tells me about his friend, who has this interesting idea,” he says. “And so then I talk to some other people, who also think the idea is interesting. And maybe they talk to some other people, and before you know it we’ve got a funding plan. That’s how the process always works.”
  • Dewey said it best: ‘Understanding derives from activity.’ Kids don’t learn when they’re consuming information, when someone is talking down to them. They learn when they’re producing stuff. That’s how you get them to work hard without realizing they’re working.”
  • Creativity is a skill that never goes out of style. When children are allowed to create, they’re able to develop the sophisticated talents that are required for success in the real world. Instead of learning how to pass a standardized test, they learn how to cope with complexity and connect ideas, how to bridge disciplines and improve their first drafts. These mental talents can’t be taught in an afternoon—there is no textbook for ingenuity, no lesson plan for divergent thinking. Rather, they must be discovered: the child has to learn by doing.
  • What kind of culture have we created? Is it a world full of ideas that can be connected? Are we willing to invest in risk takers? Do our schools produce students ready to create? Can the son of a glover grow up to write plays for the queen? We have to make it easy to become a genius.

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