How To Be More Creative

The journalist Jonah Lehrer is getting some incredible advance publicity for his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. A few weeks ago, he had an extended article about group creativity in The New Yorker. And now, in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, his article “How to be creative” took up the entire front page of Section C and another full page inside the section (March 10-11, 2012).

I had a chance to read the pre-publication version of the book last month. Lehrer does a good job of getting the science right, and, he’s an excellent writer. My only mild criticism is that there’s nothing really new in it: much of the research he describes was summarized in my 2007 book Group Genius, or in Peter Sims’ 2011 book Little Bets. But still, I’m glad to see that Lehrer is helping to disseminate what scientists know about creativity.

Let’s take a look at Lehrer’s “10 Quick Creativity Hacks” from the WSJ article.

1. When you’re in a blue room, you’re more creative.

2. You’re more creative when you’re a bit groggy.

3. People who daydream more score higher on creativity tests.

4. If you imagine yourself as a 7-year-old, you have more ideas.

5. Watching a comedy video makes you more creative just afterwards.

6. If you think the creativity puzzles come from another country or state, rather than your own local university, you’re more creative.

7. Use more generic verbs to describe your challenge.

8. If you sit next to a box (but not in it) you’re more creative.

9. Students who’ve lived abroad are more creative.

10. When people move to a bigger city they become more creative.

It’s true that these 10 tips are based in research studies. But it’s good to be a bit skeptical, because most of the studies used paper-and-pencil creativity tests that have only a limited relationship to real-world creativity. It makes me think of a study published a couple of years ago that found that if you stare at the Apple logo, you score higher on a creativity test than people who stare at the IBM logo. Does anyone really believe that simply looking at an Apple will make you more creative in any meaningful way? Not me.

Successful creativity results from hard work over a long period of time, from a systematic and deliberate process that raises the ratio of success to failure. Lehrer knows this too, of course. And his book is a pleasure to read. If you like to read about creativity, you definitely need Imagine on your shelf.

3 thoughts on “How To Be More Creative

  1. I look forward to reading Lehrer’s latest effort, but I find that the title of his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works prompts this response from me. I realize that my comment on this is simply a matter of semantics, but I feel it’s worth mentioning.

    When I look at Lehrer’s “10 Quick Creative Hacks”, my opinion would be that these points might be more aptly termed as “10 Quick ‘Imaginative’ Hacks”, and here’s my point.

    I see creativity best defined as Applied Imagination, the title of Alex F. Osborn’s 1953 release as well as author Ken Robinson’s shall I say most fitting definition.

    I agree with Keith Sawyer in the sense that creativity as he states it results from hard work over a long period of time from a systemic and deliberate process. I see creativity as a definitive process as well.

    For myself, I’m clear on these linguistic abstractions of imagination and creativity. However, I find that if I’m presenting to someone the “entire” process of coming up with an idea and bringing it into fruition, being able to elucidate on the distinctions between one’s imaginative undertakings and the process of creativity seems to help clarify the overall experience for them. Just a thought, triggered by Lehrer’s title.

    1. I agree, Lehrer’s list is more about coming up with ideas, and that’s only one small part of the overall creative process. A lot of people mistakenly associate “creativity” with “idea generation.”

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