I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately. I’ve been going through a bit of a dry spell myself, so I picked up a copy of “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that there are multiple forms of creativity — improv, for example, is it’s own animal. Nor was I surprised to know that creativity involves both the receptive right brain and the focused left brain.
The right brain is the source of those “ah hah!” moments when the answer to a vexing question seemingly magically materializes.
The left brain, on the other hand, brings discipline and persistence to the process. The flash of insight usually needs polishing, refining, editing. So the two halves of the brain form a kind of back-and-forth dialectic.
This resonated with me since I have long conceptualized the creative process as having two distinct parts: exuberance and restraint. Exuberance being the I-can’t-write-fast-enough-to-get-it-all-down part, and restraint being the discipline to recognize what is worth keeping and the attention to deliberately refine it.
More interesting to me were the ways we can collectively increase our creativity. The chance encounter is one way. Companies that design their workspaces so that folks are more likely to run into others that they might not normally interact with are more successful.
Using outsider insight is also important. An outsider is someone on the fringes of a field, a passionate amateur who doesn’t “know better.” Lehrer gives the example of a broken-hearted computer programmer who turned his knowledge of chemistry into a second career as a heralded mixologist.
Or consider pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, which posted its hardest scientific problems — along with monetary incentives — on a website called InnoCentive. According to one review, 40 percent of the most difficult problems were solved within six months. These were problems that stymied Lilly’s best scientists. Lehrer cites a physicist who solved several chemistry and engineering problems.
The ultimate outsiders are young people, who “haven’t become enculturated, or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom.”
Plumas County has an aging, static population. If we are to thrive in the future, we need to find ways to cultivate outsider insight and tap into youthful creativity. Feather River College is important in this regard, bringing fresh minds into our community.
We may do better when it comes to “social intimacy.” Researchers have discovered that groups are most creative when their members have the right amount of social intimacy — not too close, not too far. The best teams have “some old friends, but they also had newbies. … They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.”
In Plumas County, it’s easy to get acquainted with a lot of different people, which bodes well for creative thinking. The flip side is that we need to be careful of always grouping up with the same people. The “good ole boy” network is an example of the bad that can come from too much social intimacy.
Interactive “third places” — neither home, nor office — are key to bringing people together. Here in Plumas, we have a number of these kinds of spaces in our walkable downtown areas: the post office, library, park and coffeehouse. The more people run into one another and the more they talk with one another, the more productive and creative they become.
Taken to the macro level, cities increase in productivity and creativity as they grow in size. (Lehrer doesn’t address how undesirable attributes like crime and insanity also increase with size.)
This would seem to bode ill for rural Plumas County. But we can counter that by encouraging density in our towns. (As they grow, suburbs do not enjoy the same increase in productivity as urban areas.) We can seek out places and ways to engage with one another.
And we can think about “meta-ideas” that unleash creativity. Lehrer uses the example of Shakespeare to explain meta-ideas. Larger societal trends like freedom of expression, the concept of intellectual property and the spread of education and literacy were all key to Shakespeare’s success.
What policies can we develop at the local level to increase our collective creativity?
—Support education that values creativity, whether in science and technology or the arts.
—Concentrate talent. Talent thrives when it’s inspired and challenged by other talent.
—Travel. Going to unfamiliar places helps cultivate outsider thinking.
—Take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail big!
—Encourage borrowing and adaptation. Shakespeare was an avid “borrower.” Protect the commons.
I think summer is the perfect time to get out and about to connect and inspire one another. So I encourage all of you to take in the bounty of cultural offerings summer in Plumas County brings.