Jonah Lehrer recently wrote a book (called “Imagine: How Creativity Works”) that people are talking about. Is it important or is it trash? Steven Poole writing for the Guardian says it is trash. And now we find out that Lehrer made up quotes from Bob Dylan and took others out of context. Ooops. Poor Lehrer. The book is being withdrawn from sale and his promising career is toast.
So is it time to burn Lehrer at the stake? Well, not so fast. Poole has a point that we don’t really know how the brain works. Nor can we produce genius on demand. But at the same time, not everything Lehrer was talking about is rubbish either. We understand more than we used to about how creativity is related to exchange of ideas and interactions between people (Johnson and Ridley). And we understand more about the importance of the right side of the brain in producing creative solutions to problems (Cleese).
This does not mean that after reading a “how to” book, we could all suddenly write like Shakespeare. Nor does it mean that we can “explain” how Bob Dylan came up with the iconic lyrics for his songs. It does mean that by better using what we do know, we can more regularly find creative solutions to problems that we face in life. We can continue to raise the bar, so to speak, for what passes for normal. That is helpful for us as individuals and for group dynamics.
So Poole and Lehrer are on the wrong track in one sense, me thinks. Instead of obsessing about the genius that we cannot achieve (writing like Shakespeare), we do better by valuing the genius that we can and should achieve. That stuff is worth studying and talking about.
BTW, check out what Seth Godin has to say about the “hierarchy of success”. Seth argues that the starting point is to have the right attitude. And how does one nurture that? Remember that study about kids learning to play music? One group performed 300% better without more practice. A decision made by kids in that group produced an attitude that led to much more creative learning. Is this rubbish? I don’t think so.
FOLLOW - Dave Kinney points out an irony to the Lehrer story. It is about the subject of Lehrer’s made up quotes - Bob Dylan. Apparently in his non-fiction writing, Dylan made stuff up too. What’s more, he took artistic stuff that he liked from other poets and musicians and re-used it in his work. But Dylan gets a pass because we believe in him.