As advertising and marketing professionals, we are all in the creative business. In the business of coming up with new ideas and executing them. Including the people with titles not containing “creative” or “art”.
We all have a hypothesis on how creativity works – and rituals and processes to trigger productivity based on our personal experiences. But, for the most part, we have no idea how creativity works.
How do we come up with ideas?
How can we trick our brains to come up with more good ideas – and fewer bad ones?
What’s the best time of the day to come up with ideas?
While many of us have wondered about the origins, processes and secrets of creativity, Jonah Lehrer has turned this old inquiry into the topic of his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
“The sheer secrecy of creativity—the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us—means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, until the Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means “breathed upon.”) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”
Lehrer shatters the myths of muses and divine powers. He challenges our perceptions of creativity – and “creative types” – and demonstrates that everyone can be creative because “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes” that involves a phase of research, a phase of experimentation and frustration, a moment of insight and an execution phase.
A finished product is the result of multiple forms of creativity – not just a single “aha!” moment.
“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.”
Finding the right connection is what we call an insight, the term with which most strategists have a love/hate relationship. But even insights don’t occur in 0.003 seconds as we think, because the brain needs to investigate all possible connections to find the one that solves the problem.
I can’t think of a more appropriate scenario to use the “needle in a haystack” metaphor.
When we talk about our projects, we tend to focus on the insight phase of the creative process and leave out the phases of research, experimentation, thinking, despair and frustration. We forget to mention the days when our projects seemed impossible to solve, when we wanted to quit, when we wanted to go to the bar and start drinking at 10 a.m.
Instead we focus on the breakthrough moments because they are exciting and they reaffirm the idea of creative genius.
The irony is that most of our insights come when we stop searching for them – when we step out of an elevator or when we order a drink. These “aha!” moments don’t solve only part of the problem; they present a complete and elegant solution to a problem that until just seconds ago seemed impossible.
“When you look at where insights come from, they come from where we least expect them. They only arrive after we stop looking at them. If you’re an engineer working on a problem and you’re stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you’re going to be really frustrated. You’re going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you’re actually wasting time. Instead, at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax.”
The questions we usually ask ourselves after an insight occurs:
“How did I miss it?”
“Why didn’t I see it earlier?”
We can’t just skip to the insight phase without the previous phases.
Without the research phase we wouldn’t be able to form new associations and connections. Without the experimentation and frustration phase the brain couldn’t scan all associations to find the right ones.
The last phase of the creative process is execution, which requires a different thought process. This phase involves great attention to details, focus for a long time and commitment to create the perfect combination of different elements. The selection of the right colors, sizes, images, fonts, etc. isn’t the result of “aha!” moments, but of patience and attention to details.
The execution process is very different from the insight moments. The creative thoughts in this phase tend to be minor and incremental – “one can efficiently edit a poem but probably won’t invent a new poetic form.”
The question becomes:
How do we know which thought process to apply at which phase of the creative endeavor?
“The human mind has a natural ability to diagnose its own problems, to assess the kind of creativity that’s needed,” Lehrer observes.
After identifying the different thought processes and elements of creativity, Lehrer reveals the importance of embracing childlike curiosity, adopting an outsider’s perspective, collaborating with different people, daydreaming productively and learning when to wander and wonder – and when to apply concentration. He unveils the secrets behind building great teams, productive companies, vibrant neighborhoods and effective schools.
Lehrer introduces us to the writing habits of Bob Dylan, the drug addictions of poets, the infusion of chemistry behind the invention of new cocktails and the thinking behind Nike’s famous slogan. He explains the creative explosion in Elizabethan England and the creative processes and culture of Pixar and 3M.
And this is exactly what makes Imagine an outstanding book:
Connecting seemingly unrelated stories and experiences, culture and human insights, people of varying backgrounds and groundbreaking science.
It is the epitome of creativity.