Samantha Sharf | The gritty reality behind creativity
Elements of Style | Understanding the science of creativity can help us innovate
March 20, 2012, 11:10 pm·
Elements of Style
I wrote this column in the shower.
Not literally, of course. Paper, laptops and even smart phones are not yet waterproof. But when I decided to take my mind off writing for a few minutes, the piece finally took shape. According to Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, such relaxed moments are exactly when many creative problems are solved.
At World Café Live on Tuesday, Lehrer addressed a diverse group that had been brought to the music venue at the east edge of campus by the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia. His talk, like his book, dealt with the neurological basis of creativity. He argued that creativity is a tool available to all humans if we approach the questions that afflict us in the right ways.
There is, for example, an area on the right side of our brains called the anterior superior temporal gyrus. This small space above the ear has been associated with joke and metaphor comprehension. Lehrer says this area helps us know that Romeo does not actually think Juliet is the sun, but rather that she shares qualities with it. Recent studies have also found that the aSTG becomes active before we experience insights or epiphanies.
Like understanding a metaphor or getting a joke, creative insight requires us to pull together bits of knowledge we may have never combined before. A hot shower or a cold beer can help us achieve this kind of creativity because such relaxation helps to end the common cycle of focusing on the wrong idea.
Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”
Not all creative output, though, can be boiled down to random insight. Lehrer argued that Einstein wasn’t technically that much smarter than the rest of us. What he did have, was “grit.” Even if Einstein realized that E=MC2 in the shower, the concept of mass–energy equivalence was a result of hard work and persistence.
Angela Duckworth, a Penn psychologist, studies this characteristic refusal to quit — “grit.” Her surveys, cited in Lehrer’s book, show this trait is one of the greatest predictors of success. High levels of grit have been associated with achievements such as strong performance in Teach for America and whether a West Point freshman will graduate.
Duckworth is currently studying if and how grit can be learned, according to Lehrer, who is writing a portrait of Duckworth for The New Yorker. The positive psychologist encourages people to “choose easy” but “work hard,” meaning we should follow our talents, but that we also need to put in the effort to become successful at those talents.
Whether this leads to grittiness or not, adults should help maintain the creativity that comes innately to young children. Around age 10, the frontal lobe begins to develop. Children, therefore, lose much of the desire to create. They begin to censor themselves as they gain awareness that there could be a wrong color or that it may not be correct to draw outside the lines.
It is not hard to imagine the opposite end of the spectrum: a stodgy old corporate type who stifles creativity by focusing on metrics to define success. As college students, we fall somewhere between the child and the hypothetical businessman.
A panel discussion following Lehrer’s talk explored how to avoid becoming stale. Marketing professor Jerry Wind, who is writing a book on how to build a creative organization, was among the panelists. He told me that college students “are all a function of schooling that from a very young age restricted your creativity.” Wind also teaches an MBA course on creativity to fight this fact.
Lehrer agrees that universities can stifle creativity, but told me after the talk that for students, not being an expert in anything has some advantages. We are not held back by what worked for us before. And because we don’t know much, we ask questions — an important creative device.
He explained that he wrote Imagine because he liked the mystery of creativity. “When you have an idea in the shower, you have no idea where it came from,” he said.
The study of creativity is relatively new. As students, we have the advantage of entering the workforce with more information about our creative tools than any generation before.
Innovation will always require effort. If we take time to understand how it works, we can become more effective at it and perhaps come up with theories as potent as Einstein’s or prose as enduring as Shakespeare’s.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.