Editor’s note: Imagine was withdrawn from the market after it came to light that Lehrer fabricated some of the quotations in the book. Lehrer resigned from his staff position at The New Yorker and has not been published since. 


Is there a difference between creating for the sake of commerce (like 3M) and creating for creativity’s sake (like Bob Dylan), or is it fundamentally the same process?

It’s fundamentally the same process, especially from the perspective of the brain. I think that’s why the brain is an interesting avenue with which to pursue some of these questions.

The brain is a category buster and the brain doesn’t respect differences between when I’m working on an assignment or when I’m working in my spare time.

Simply put, creativity is the invention of something new that’s useful. Obviously we could spend the rest of our lives debating the details of what exactly new and useful mean, but I think we know what creativity is when we see it.

Your book talks about the importance of form in creativity but you present conflicting views. First you say that “You break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” but then you quote Milton Glaser: “To have a style is to be trapped.” Should we see constraints (even budgetary ones) as good for creativity?

We need the right kind of constraints. Look, for example, at the history of poetry. There’s a reason why poets always stump themselves with poetic forms. Those very intricate forms force us to come up with truly original lines. They force us to dig below the obvious clichés and associations.

So sometimes constraints can be essential in a very real way, because creativity is not our first mode of thinking. We really have to be forced into it. In that way, constraints can really unleash our creativity.

Of course, the wrong kind of constraint is just a trap. That’s what Milton Glaser is talking about. You develop routines, or just develop this standard approach that is rooted in efficiency. It makes your life a little bit easier but it also reduces the realm of possibilities that you consider.

This is the leading theory for why creativity drops off as we get older. People develop styles of thinking. They develop habits, routines, and all those routines get in the way.

That’s why those who stay creative throughout their entire career or life constantly risk reinvention. They always experiment with new products and new problems. They’re always trying to find new ways of attacking the problem. In a sense they’re always looking for a new set of constraints, and that’s the healthiest way.

Milton Glaser (right) at work with Walter Bernard at WBMG in the 1980s. Image via miltonglaser.com

You talk about the importance of focus in the creative process, but you’re also cheerleader for daydreaming. How should we find the right balance between focus and distraction?

I think the first step is to recognize that creativity isn’t a single way of thinking, that the creative process goes through these phases where sometimes you will have epiphanies, but afterwards you’ll have to work it out. You’ll need to go through draft after draft, edit after edit, iteration after iteration.

You really have to diagnose the problem that you’re working on and try to figure out whether what you need is a moment of insight. Do I need an epiphany? Do I need to take lots of hot showers, or do I have a feeling of knowing? Do you have a sense of making progress, in which case you should just keep putting in the work and drink another triple espresso.

Do you think it’s possible to replicate the “serendipity” of face-to-face interactions (which you credit for the creativity of brands like Pixar and industries like Broadway) on digital platforms? Is that where social media come in?

When you go back 15 years, there was this sense that the online world would somehow replace the analogue interactions of real life. That hasn’t happened at all. We need these real world connections, meetings in the flesh, more than ever.

In terms of imagining online exchanges that will foster the serendipity of real life, it’s tough to say. At its best, Twitter makes it possible, but what you often get with Twitter is people obeying the self-similarity principle. They seek out people who are just like them, so you end up with a set of people you’re following who share your interests, your sensibilities, your attitudes, your political leanings.

We certainly do the same thing in the real world. We seek out people who are just like us. But when it comes to maximizing creativity, you really want that friction. You really want that tension in the room. You want some fresh and strange and weird voices too because they’re the ones that are going to unleash your creativity.

Pixar’s Headquarters were designed to encourage employee interaction. Image by Joe Wolf via Flickr.

Do you think IP laws have hindered creativity? You write about the importance of “recombination,” of building on old ideas (Shakespeare is the prime example in the book). Is the web’s culture of curation, linking and mashups bringing that culture back?

It’s a very difficult line to draw. People have been trying to figure out how to draw this line ever since intellectual property was invented back in Elizabethan England. In Lincoln’s phrase, the purpose of intellectual property is to add fuel to the fire of genius.

It is an important motivational force, but at the same time, one also has to recognize that there’s a tension there because, as Steve Jobs put it, creativity is just connecting things. It’s finding new connections between old ideas.

You have to give people access to those old ideas, you have to allow the future Shakespeares of the world to rip off plots and to steal lines. Dylan described his process as one of love and theft: First you fall in love with an idea and then you steal it. Then you make it your own.

We have to make it possible for people to steal the right way.  It’s not about theft so that you can watch it on your laptop. I’m talking about theft so that you can reinvent it. I think too often copyright laws make it too hard to recombine, too hard to mash together old ideas in new ways.

Bob Dylan in 1966. Photo by Barry Feinstein via Flickr

Where does the editing or refining process come into play? Is that still part of the creative process?

It is. When you talk to creative people they begin by telling these romantic stories about how they had a big epiphany in the shower, but if you keep pressing them they’ll confess that even after that big epiphany they still had to go through endless drafts.

Look at Beethoven, the definition of an artistic genius. The guy was going through 70 drafts of a single musical phrase until he found the perfect one. Editing is an essential part of the creative process.

This kind of work doesn’t seem as romantic or grand as the light bulb going off when we least expect it, but it is just as important. There’s nothing glamorous about it, it’s quite dismal in fact and may even make us a little depressed, but it’s how we make our ideas perfect.

The larger point is that creativity is damned hard. If it were easy, if it were just about finding ways to relax and going on vacations, Pablo Picasso wouldn’t be so famous.

What about your own creative process? Do you browse the academic literature to find a narrative, or do you start with an idea and build from there?

I start with the mystery. I start with something I want to know more about. In this case it was the mystery of the moment of insight. Figuring out where these ideas come from when they arrive out of the blue just struck me as totally befuddling. I wanted to learn about it. That’s where I began.

Then, of course, I go to the peer review literature and the science. The hardest part is finding the stories that bring the science to life, that will let you make the connections between the abstract experiments in the lab and the creativity in the room.

Jonah Lehrer will be speaking at C2-MTL, a global conference that explores the relationship between commerce and creativity. As a media partner, Sparksheet will bring you exclusive content before, during and after the event, which takes place May 22 to 25 in Montreal.