Best-selling author Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was A Neuroscientist and How We Decide) found himself increasingly drawn to the mystery of creativity a few years ago. “We live in a world surrounded by our own inventions, and yet we really don’t understand how the imagination works,” he explains. “That’s why we’ve always outsourced it to the muses.” Lehrer, no stranger to creativity himself (a Rhodes scholar, he is a contributing editor at Wired and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker), set off on a mission to learn about the subject from scientists and talents alike, “to find connections between the well-controlled conditions in the lab and the real world.” The result is his fascinating new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which will be No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction list on Sunday. TIME spoke with Lehrer about the genius of Bob Dylan, the creative benefits of urban friction and the wondrous invention of the Swiffer.
You cite Bob Dylan as an example of how frustration is critical component in creativity. Why?
I’m a long-time fan of Bob Dylan and have always been fascinated by the moment in 1965 when he comes back from his UK tour and he decides to quit singing and songwriting. He has already published some pretty epic albums…but he feels stuck. His crowd still wants him to be a folk artist. They won’t fully embrace his changes. And so he’s just so fed up with it. He’s so sick of being labeled that he decides to quit and go to upstate New York to be a novelist and a painter. It’s there in a remote rural cabin that he starts scribbling again after just two days — and those are the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone,” one of the most influential songs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
That’s surprising. It seems as though frustration would drain creativity, rather than build it.
I think most people assume that when you feel stumped, you should just give up, that that’s a sign the problem is just too hard for you. But it’s also a sign that your standard method of trying to solve the problem just isn’t working so it’s also a cut to your brain to really start searching for much more remote associations for far-fetched ideas, for real speculation. In order to benefit from that kind of thinking, it helps to get relaxed — to take a shower, go for a walk — so you can turn the spotlight inward and finally hear that quiet voice, which is trying to give you different insight.
You also write about the benefit of artistic constraints.
When you give people a constraint they think it’s just something to get in their way, something that makes creativity harder. But it actually compels you to think in more interesting, abstract ways. This explains why poets use poetic form. You know it would be so much easier if they all just wrote free-verse poetry. And yet they have always insisted on these elaborate schemes like the sonnet and haikus. I think that’s because they know that those constraints force them to think in very interesting ways to come up with really unlikely and original words. In a sense we can only break out of the box when we step into some shackles.
Steve Jobs is considered by many to be the epitome of creativity. How would you explain his abilities?
Steve Jobs was an amazing manager of creativity. He had a really profound sense of what a beautiful gadget should look like, what a beautiful computer should look like. He had some very interesting insights about how to get creative people from different domains to work together — how to get engineers to work with designers at Pixar, how to get computer scientists to work with animators, directors and screenwriters. He didn’t invent these products himself but he knew how to manage their development.
People think that genius or extreme creativity is a very solitary, individual undertaking, but you believe there’s something interactive about it.
Creativity is often associated with the singular, with a single person at his desk or talking a walk. It’s actually much more social. We often associate entrepreneurship with one person — it’s Steve Jobs, it’s Richard Branson, it’s Oprah Winfrey — when actually part of their creativity is who their friends are. The same is true for genius like William Shakespeare or Plato. They arrived in clusters; they weren’t alone. William Shakespeare lived in the same city at the same time with Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and John Dunne. That’s not an accident.
Would a first cousin of this be what you call urban friction?
Yes, absolutely. I think the fact that Shakespeare lived in London, which was the densest city of the time and a very successful metropolis — that was not an accident. Cities really are an engine of innovation. They are where so many of our good ideas originate. Ten years ago and people were saying, now that we’ve got Skype, email and video chat cities will wither. Of course that hasn’t happened because cities are more valuable than ever before. Being around all these other smart people makes us smarter.
You write that there are people who find creativity in taking drugs. Can that really open up true creativity?
I think the reason creative people have this history of self-medicating is because creativity is so damned hard. It’s so hard writing that perfect poem, coming up with that next gadget, finding the next consumer product. That’s why they’re looking for any edge, any boost that they can find.
You also find creative excellence in product inventions like the Swiffer.
Anyone who has mopped the floor many times has been frustrated by mopping. When you’re mopping, you realize this probably isn’t the best way to do this, because you spend more time cleaning the mop than cleaning the actual floor. But it never occurred to me in all those years of mopping that there could be a better way. I simply marveled at the fact here are these guys spent nine months watching people mop and realized this isn’t a frustration we have to live with. It was you know a very audacious and interesting move on their part. I’m a fan of the Swiffer — I’ve got the whole family in my closet.
What can we do to be more creative — or is it outside our control?
I’m kind of a shy person, but now I’m much more willing to ask a question of the guy sitting next to me on the plane or train. I force myself to do this because of all the research on how diverse social networks make us more creative, how talking to lots of people leads to more new ideas. Friction making sparks — that is absolutely true. And when I feel stumped in my own work, I’m now much more willing to take a break, to go take a shower, to go for a hike. Einstein has that great line about creativity being the residue of time wasted. Well, now I’m much more willing to waste some time.