“Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer

"Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah LehrerIf you are looking for a definitive treatise on the exact mechanism of creativity, with page after page of laborious references and footnotes, this is not your book. I doubt you will find such a book anytime soon either. Creativity is too complex an issue to boil down to a formula, or set of rules. If you enjoy lots of fascinating anecdotes about the subject of creativity, and enjoy it told to you in a light, popular science style, then read this book.

Despite the author’s past transgressions, he who has been raked over the coals for self-repeating his previous writings [the absurd designation of self-plagiarism] and for fabricating a quote by a famous person, this book has a great deal of value. I have even used it in educational settings, like grad school, to provide bold perspectives for students to discuss; for in this book one learns that people, ideas, fertile soil, and free thinking is what imagination, that fragile flower, is all about. This combination often yields fields of flowers … but the exact amount of component mix is elusive and non- precise. That rascally human nature enters in to blur the coveted formula.

I like the way Lehrer tries to connect creativity between people and differing areas of study from music to our understanding of the brain and how it works.

While reading the book, I kept thinking of how the author was consciously or unconsciously channeling another wonderful author, who produced the Connections TV show along with authoring the book series … James Burke, that’s the name; and one of my favorite TV hosts. This also invoked in this reviewer modern writings about the neuroplasticity theories of the brain, and how we can physically change the neuronal wiring of our brains by how we think and analyze problems. The richer we question the problem at hand the more richer and robust the answer to that problem is likely to be; and the food for thought that provokes a richer context to our questions is often dependent upon how we see the world and the diversity of ideas and thoughts we are exposed to by the learning, people, problems and situations we have encountered.

Ever wonder why kids are afraid to be creative? School is a harsh disciplinarian as well as peer critique which can often be overwhelming for fragile young minds to contend with; and today we keep telling tomorrow’s leaders that we need such things as STEM thinking and people who are not afraid to take risks. Lehrer offers practical insight here.

For over 36 years, I worked as an R&D project manager, in a setting not unlike the great Thomas Edison envisioned—in an organizational structure that was low and flat, to maximize a mingling of ideas across topical areas and promote people interacting. I loved my work until my company no longer cared for this style of collaboration, provoking me to retire early and quickly. I know the value of what Lehrer espouses, I know it viscerally; and I had a great many successes to relish forever.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s telling of the development of the Swiffer ™ cleaning product; and how cities can be naturally occurring hot beds of creativity and innovation because of the accumulation of people with different viewpoints and problem solving paradigms…a real celebration of diversity.

Of powerful import is Lerher’s discussion about “outsiders”–folks who are not connected to a particular industry who venture in as entrepreneurs and innovators. Such interlopers with no past allegiances to an industry who can see through the weeds and past customs, and shatter previously held beliefs; and be real disruptors … something Thomas Edison often did. This chapter of the book was quite compelling for me.

As kids learn in middle school today, interactions with fellow students in student project teams is powerful stuff … and it is messy too, but that is where creativity and imagination lurk and prosper–the mingling of ideas and people. Walt Disney had it right. He called his engineers “Imagineers”. He would have read and learned from Lehrer’s book.