Yesterday morning while running, I listened to an interview of Jonah Lehrer discussing his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, in which he explores the roots of creativity and tries to answer the question of where people get ideas.
The interviewer asked Lehrer about his premise that all kinds of creativity have common elements in terms of how and where they generate. Creativity does not manifest only in writing a poem or painting a landscape; Lehrer posits; creativity can also be found in the formation of an advertising tagline, the invention of masking tape, or the solution to a software bug.
Not surprisingly, when I think about the presence of creativity in my life, I tend to think about my writing, especially essays and blogging. Coming up with ideas – no fewer than three a week, to meet my self-prescribed blogging quota – sometimes feels like an almost agonizing workout of my creativity muscles.
So I was interested in what Lehrer had to say. One key point he made was the importance of the mental stimulation we get from other people. To take his point a step further, the secluded-cabin-in-the-woods concept for writing isn’t really the best way to generate ideas, though it may seem awfully tempting to a would-be novelist who is also a stay-at-home mother of three young children or a would-be poet who is also an accountant heading into tax season.
My experience definitely bears this out: although solitude is wonderful for output, a retreat tends to be most useful when you already have an idea you want to pursue. For sheer generation of ideas, what I find to be most useful is, more than anything else, exposure to other people who have something to say, whether in the form of friends, academic lecturers, clergy members giving sermons, or even celebrities making off-the-cuff comments about their own lives. Even chaperoning kids’ activities always gives me a rich storehouse of new ideas. So does a half-hour of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, though I’d rather not have to do that to be inspired.
Lehrer tells the story of Steve Jobs insisting that the Pixar Studios be reconfigured such that everyone was required to use the same pair of bathrooms rather than have one close to their desk. It was, quite simply, the optimal way to be sure that employees had regular and inescapable contact with one another – and it was from that constant exposure to other minds that the ideas started flowing, no pun intended.
All of this is a good reminder for me when I start to feel reclusive and try to justify staying home to write rather than going grocery shopping or meeting a friend for coffee or volunteering in my kids’ classrooms. No: I know that really I need all of those things. Those are the moments from which creativity is generated. And next time I’m stuck for an idea, I’ll shrug off the temptation for quiet and solitude, and will instead grab my notebook and head for wherever the crowds can be found.