Bob Mankoff’s Life in Cartoons

Bob Mankoff has been drawing cartoons for the New Yorker magazine since 1977, and he’s been the magazine’s cartoon editor for years. We’ve had some great conversations about the creative process of cartooning; he was a fan of my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, and I’m a huge fan of his work, too, especially his 2002 book The Naked Cartoonist: A New Way to Enhance Your Creativity. Mankoff makes a strong argument that cartooning is a special window into the creative process.

He’s just published his latest book, a memoir, How About Never–Is Never Good For You? with the subtitle “My Life in Cartoons.” (Today it’s Amazon.com sales rank is an awesome 108!) To learn the story behind the title, read Mankoff’s own blog post about his new book, here, or this excellent review in the Wall Street Journal.

The Secret of San Francisco’s Entrepreneurial Success

I’ve been reading and re-reading an awesome article about San Francisco’s entrepreneurial culture, by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker magazine.* Heller spent some time shadowing Johnny Hwin, an entrepreneur and musician who he calls “one of the best-connected kids in San Francisco.” Heller’s article is driven by a puzzle he can’t figure out:

Hwin is “a collective kid who, for reasons I still didn’t understand, seemed to have mastered everything about the new Bay Area and how it worked….I didn’t understand how people like Hwin appeared to float above the exigencies of career….If I hoped to understand the first thing about American culture in this decade, I realized, I’d need to figure out exactly what was going on in San Francisco.”

Heller’s article is long and brilliantly written. To really get the full sense of what he learned, you really need to read the full article. But here I’ve excerpted some highlights:

The art and technology collective called the Sub…is part of a network of places where the new mode of American success is being borne out…..a blend of business and small-scale creative art.

Hwin has been working as a musician, a tech entrepreneur, and an investor in other people’s startups. His two-person band, Cathedrals, just released a debut single and is producing an album. He and a friend are managing investments of up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in private companies.

People who are young and urban and professionally diffuse [the three business card life] tend to regard success in terms of autonomy–designing your life as you want–rather than Napoleonic domination.

San Francisco’s young entrepreneurs appear less concerned about flaunting their earnings than about showing that they can act imaginatively, with conspicuously noble ethics. Hwin is into “creative, mindful living” in part because it helped his business interests.

In the second half of the article, Heller picks up on this theme of “business interests” blending with creative and mindful living, and begins to delve down into the underlying core of the culture:

In 1966, Hendrik Hertsberg wrote about San Francisco’s “new bohemianism” of the Hippies and the Beats. The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on lifestyle over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts–only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

But Heller’s article ends on a critical note:

The result is a rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams–and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise…. I just sat there, wondering whether this was it, the kingdom of which we so wildly, and so effortlessly, dreamed.

I am not sure I agree with Heller’s critical tone. I know many of these people, and they believe there is no contradiction in doing good and doing well. I myself am a former hippie, Grateful Deadhead, Rainbow-gathering attendee, and now I’m advising corporations on innovation, and creating a university program in educational entrepreneurship…and I don’t see any contradiction. It’s not like the Yuppies of the 1980s, who were former hippies who worried they were selling out by wearing suits and selling junk bonds. Hwin doesn’t worry about selling out, because he is pure; it’s never crossed his mind. Heller’s article, although wonderful, seems like an early thought piece…like Heller is still mulling it over, still not sure what to make of this new cultural moment. Maybe none of us really are. There are strong parallels with David Brooks’ 2001 book Bobos in Paradise, referring to the “bohemian bourgeois,” the former hippies who became affluent and yet retained the same values. Heller certainly made me see things, and wonder about things, I hadn’t before. I hope Heller continues and turns this into a series of extended articles about entrepreneurship and modern America.

*Nathan Heller (2013, October 14). “Bay Watched.” The New Yorker Magazine, pp. 68-79.

Roger Ebert Wins the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

I’ve been blogging about creativity in cartooning for years, ever since New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff contacted me about my book Group Genius. (See this post from October 23, 2009 for example).

In a recent blog post on the New Yorker web site, Bob Mankoff proclaims that film critic Roger Ebert has just won the contest with this cartoon and caption:

Mankoff quotes from my 2009 blog post:

Cartoon contest winners usually generate lots of captions. Studies of creativity have shown that quantity breeds quality—what I call the productivity theory, because high productivity corresponds to high creativity.

This was certainly true with Ebert: According to the New Yorker database, he entered the caption contest 107 times before winning.

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

Since it was founded in the 1920s, the New Yorker magazine has been famous for its one-frame black and white cartoons, each with a single one-line caption published underneath. For the last few years, the magazine has gotten readers involved in the art of cartoon humor: it publishes a one-frame cartoon, without a caption, and invites readers to come up with funny captions and submit them. The funniest caption is selected by a panel of judges and published two weeks later.

Here’s a short article I wrote after interviewing a few recent winners of the contest, after being introduced to them by cartoon editor Bob Mankoff.

How do you win the New Yorker cartoon caption contest?  Even if you never plan to enter the contest, taking the question seriously may help answer a bigger question:  where do good ideas come from?

Maybe it’s like this—the proverbial light bulb moment.  You stare at the cartoon for a while, stumped, until a caption suddenly jumps up from your unconscious mind like Newton getting bonked by an apple and thinking  up gravity. But that’s not the way it usually happens—not with cartoon captions, and not with scientific or artistic breakthroughs, either.

I’m a psychologist who studies what goes on in the mind when you’re being creative.  I found that there’s a pattern to their creativity—and this pattern provides a window onto how all creativity works for scientists and inventors and for The New Yorker caption contest as well.

The first important discovery about creativity is that ideas emerge over time, from hard work and constant revision.  The “sudden flash of insight” is largely a myth. And the same goes for the cartoon caption contest: caption winners almost never have their ideas instantly.  They think hard about the cartoon, and they keep trying new ideas and work on improving their first ideas.  One winner, John Brouwer told me, “The caption came slowly. I felt my mind would crack.” Second, creativity takes preparation: training and constant effort to get better, or what the psychologist Anders Ericksson calls “deliberate practice.” You think about what’s working while you’re doing it, and you constantly aim to improve.

Many contest winners hone their abilities by entering the contest every week  and think hard about what captions  are effective : Todd Bearson  said, “I’ve probably gotten better by watching which captions end up winning, comparing them to what I wrote and learning what seems to work and not work.” Third, cartoon contest winners usually generate lots of captions.  Studies of creativity have shown that quantity breeds quality—what I call the productivity theory, because high productivity corresponds to high creativity.  When  the famous physicist Freeman Dyson was asked how to generate good ideas, he said, “Have a lot of ideas, then throw out the bad ones.”  Cartoon caption winners are no different. Colin Nissan  said, “Keep writing until one rises to the top.”

The fourth and final feature of creativity is perhaps the most surprising of all.  The creative insight seldom comes to lone geniuses who sequester themselves from society; on the contrary, conversation and social ties enhance creativity.  Contest winners tend to bounce ideas off of friends or family. Patricia Carrington  had her  idea while discussing the cartoon with her husband. Harry Effron while talking about the cartoon with his dad. John Kinde actually gets together every week with a “humor master-mind group” to brainstorm caption ideas.

In my own research, I’ve learned that creating with a group increases people’s creativity.  It works like a jazz ensemble—everyone’s ideas build on everyone else’s, and the improvised performance is created collectively by the entire group.  To collaborate, you don’t even have to be in the same room; creativity over time flows in an improvisational river. Think of all the cartoons that include the mythical figure of death carrying a scythe.  When you connect them over the years, you notice that each new “death” cartoon invokes and builds on all the others  in what amounts to is a collaboration over time.

Consider the fact that everyone who enters the caption contest is collaborating with the cartoonist.  The cartoonist launches the contest by generating an ambiguous cartoon, one that can be interpreted many different ways. This kind of ambiguity, the kind that opens up many future possibilities, often prompts innovation.  Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that inspire good ideas in others.