The Most Entertaining Obituary Ever…and, the Aspen Ideas Festival 2014

I’m here in beautiful Aspen, Colorado, at the tenth annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Yesterday afternoon, I gave a tutorial session about how to be more creative, drawing on my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. This morning, I woke up very early, and was reading the New York Times during morning coffee. With lots of spare time, I did something I rarely do: I read the obituaries, and I learned about a fascinating creative life, with lessons about creativity for all of us.

The musician and composer Michael Brown died on June 11th at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s one of those behind-the-scenes creators who rarely comes up when we’re talking about exceptional creativity. Brown was a true creative genius. He wrote, produced, and directed a musical that has been performed and viewed 17,000 times, more times than any other. After Brown’s musical, the second most watched musical is “Phantom of the Opera,” with 11,000 performances since opening in 1988.

The musical was called “Wonderful World of Chemistry,” performed at the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair–at least 40 times a day, by at least 8 different companies, for months on end. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” is what’s known as an “industrial musical.” Many of these musicals were paid for by large corporations in the middle of the 20th century for advertising and promotional purposes.

Mr. Brown was “one of the genre’s most sought-after creators,” according to today’s New York Times obituary. Brown created musicals for the J.C. Penney company, Singer sewing machines, and DuPont. He made big money creating a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine in the fall of 1956. In the 1950s, industrial musicals were a big deal. Companies paid as much as $3 million to produce Broadway-style extravaganzas for their employees. (Hollywood musicals, by contrast, typically were produced for $500,000.) The musicals were usually performed only once or twice at sales conferences and managerial meetings, to build employee loyalty and motivate the troops. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” was the rare exception that was performed for the public.

A fascinating creative life, right? But wait, there’s more. In addition to his many big-budget musicals, Michael Brown played an important role in the creation of Harper Lee’s famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Michael and Joy Brown had met Harper Lee through her friend Truman Capote; Brown came to know Capote when he wrote the lyrics to a song in the 1954 Broadway musical “House of Flowers” with a book by Mr. Capote and music by Harold Arlen. Ms. Lee was a basically a starving artist; she had no time to write because she was barely scraping by, working as an airline reservations clerk. But both Capote and Brown saw potential. In 1956, the Browns were flush with cash thanks to the windfall from creating the Esquire fashion show musical. As a Christmas present that year, the Browns gave Harper Lee a special gift: they told her “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year off allowed her to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. She told this story long ago, in a 1961 interview in McCall’s magazine, but she never identified the Browns by name.

Everyone kept the secret for almost 50 years. The story didn’t become public until the 2006 publication of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” a biography by Charles J. Shields.

I’m here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, with several of my creativity research colleagues, giving talks about “The Age of Creativity.” So naturally I’m making connections between Michael Brown’s life and the many lessons about creativity that we’ve been discussing over the last few days.

  • We have many stereotypes about creative people, about famous creators like Einstein or Hemingway. But imagine: how many other creative geniuses are there, like Mr. Brown, that never make it into the popular consciousness as creative figures?
  • We associate creativity with pure art, inspiration coming from an inner inspiration or intuition. But so much creativity is in service of a customer, a client, an audience. Mr. Brown created for large companies. Does that make him less creative, somehow, than an artist who works without constraint, guided only by an inner demon or genius?
  • We think of Harper Lee as “the creator” of the famous novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But before this work could be created, supporters and friends like Truman Capote and Michael Brown provided essential support. It turns out that this is always the case with great creativity–as documented in the brilliant 1982 book by sociologist Howard Becker, Art Worlds.

In my session here at Aspen, I described one of the creativity techniques from my book Zig Zag: I call it “strange magazines.” The next time you’re in a bookstore–for example, in the airport–make a point of buying a magazine that is completely unrelated to anything you know anything about. It could be a jewelry making magazine, or a motorcycle magazine, or a guns or tattoo artist magazine. Then, thumb through and try to figure out the key concepts and issues facing readers. Make sure to look closely at the advertisements. After you’ve gotten through the magazine, put it aside, and start thinking about a creative challenge you currently face. Then, by analogy, work to find links between your problem, and the issues and concepts you’ve identified in your magazine.

If I ever write a second edition of Zig Zag, I’m going to add another creativity technique: Make a point of reading New York Times obituaries, especially of people who work in fields very different from your own. The more diverse ideas and information you put into your brain, the more creative you’ll become.

Will We Ever Invent Anything Important Again?

Two professors at Northwestern University have been arguing: Is the age of innovation coming to an end?

Professor Robert Gordon, a 73-year-old economist, argues that we’re nearing the end of a historically unusual period of rapid innovation. Professor Gordon knows that we’ve invented many amazing things in the past 250 years; he just thinks today’s innovations are puny by comparison. Reading the historical list, one might be tempted to agree with him: indoor plumbing, running water, urban sanitation, steam power, electricity (and everything enabled by it: telephone, television, air conditioning), antibiotics. Many of these innovations saved millions of lives each year. Even the most optimistic Internet visionaries can’t believe that Uber or Instagram will do that. Dr. Gordon likes to ask: if you had to choose, would you give up indoor plumbing, or your iPhone?

His colleague, Professor Joel Mokyr, a 67-year-old economist, argues that technological innovation is most likely to continue its historical trajectory, and perhaps even to accelerate. The Wall Street Journal published an article about this debate on June 16, 2014 (subscriber content only), with a graph showing a fairly linear increase in GDP per capita, like the one below.

Most economists agree with Professor Mokyr that this historical rate of growth will continue, and that it will be driven by technological innovation.

So what do you think? Are you an innovation optimist, or an innovation pessimist?

Great Quotations About Writing

As I writer, I often buy and read books about writing. Here are some of my favorite famous quotations, from the book The Writer’s Quotation Book:

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. — Thomas Mann

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. — T. S. Eliot

Another illusion, seldom entertained by competent authors, is that the publisher’s readers and others are waiting to plagiarize their work. I think it may be said that the more worthless the manuscript, the greater the fear of plagiarism. — Stanley Unwin

(I include this last one because this has actually happened to me: once a complete stranger, when they found out I had published books, told me they had drafted a book, and when I offered to take a look, they said “I can’t show it to you because you’re a writer and you might steal my idea.”)

Create Collaboration With The Right Incentives

I just read some fascinating research by Marshall W. Van Alstyne in Harvard Business Review. The figure below shows a network of high collaboration on the left, and a network of much lower collaboration on the right. The explanation turns out to be simple: it’s caused by two very different incentive systems. Alstyne found that “the people rewarded for individual performance shared information least; the people rewarded for team performance shared more; and the people rewarded for company performance shared most.” In the figure, each connecting line indicates email traffic between two people. Thicker lines correspond to a greater volume of email. As Alstyne explains it, the reasons are pretty simple: it reflects each person’s self interest, aligning with the different incentive systems. If your compensation is linked to the performance of everyone else, then you benefit from sharing and helping others. If your compensation is linked to your own performance, relative to others, then you’re likely to “hoard” information to maximize your own performance (and to undermine that of others).

This aligns with my own study of W. L. Gore, as I wrote about in my book Group Genius. At Gore, everyone at the company receives the same profit sharing percentage; no one gets profit sharing directly from their own projects and successes. When I asked CEO Terry Kelly why, she said it’s because it encourages a culture of collaboration. She said, “at Gore, you can pick up the phone and call anyone in the company to ask for help, and they will take that call.” And imagine the alternative: with individual rewards, why would you take a phone call from someone in a different division, who you’ve never met? It’s just going to slow you down in your progress on your own work.



Sawyer’s Book “Explaining Creativity” Published in Chinese

I have something to celebrate: I just received a copy of the Chinese language translation of my book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, here it is!

Explaining Creativity, Chinese cover

To my Chinese blog followers, the publisher is East China Normal University Press. This is my third book to be translated into Chinese; the others are Group Genius and The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

Creativity = Expertise? Discuss…

Toward the end of an interview with the groundbreaking chef Ferran Adria, TIME reporter Belinda Luscombe says:

You talk a lot about creativity, but you actually seem to be emphasizing expertise. Which is more important?

Adria, the chef who created El Bulli, considered the best restaurant in the world, answered:

If I understand what I’m doing, I can create better. You can be anarchic only if you understand what’s going on. If you don’t, you’re not going to have a long life span within that world. Creativity, if you’re at the top level, is brutal and relentless.

This resonated with me, because I often get the same reaction when I give talks about my interviews with professional working artists: Someone in my audience will always say, “I’m not sure they are really talking about creativity” because what artists really talk about is learning about other ideas and works, mastering new techniques, and the hard slog of generating good work.