“Imagine: How Creativity Works”

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

“When we obsess over tests, when we teach the way we’re teaching now, we send the wrong message to our students. . . . We’re basically telling them that creativity is a bad idea.”

“We’re a vocational school, but the vocation we care about is creativity.”

Kyle Wedberg, CEO of The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA)


Actually, those quotes are from very near the end of Imagine and the book isn’t centered on education, but I thought I’d start with it because any work about creativity can help teachers and students have a better idea of what can and should happen in school.

I’ve reviewed several books in the last couple of years about how the brain works and about what creativity is, or about what our country should do to get back on track to success—which is another way of wondering how we, as a society, can be creative. Most of those books have been in-depth studies, particularly Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which covers just about everything concerning thinking. Happily, Imagine will not scare off folks who have little time. It’s a jam-packed quick read—it’s short and even the pages are physically smaller than those of other books on the subject. It’s more entertaining than intimidating, and I think that’s why it’s a bestseller just now.

Imagine’s introduction discusses the invention of the Swiffer for cleaning floors and gives us the grinding process that leads to the mind shift that had to take place before inventors could stop thinking of the traditional mop and embrace such a simple idea. It proposes to show that creativity is not separate from other kinds of thinking but rather includes a variety of thought processes. Lehrer promises to show us this by following the creative journeys of Bob Dylan, poets, a bartender, an autistic surfer, Pixar, Yo-Yo Ma and corporate innovators. And he does. He also has some pretty interesting insights on Shakespeare and sixteenth-century London.

What we learn about the stories of creative individuals is that we need to honor the process and understand that just about everyone wants to quit many times before s/he has that moment of inspiration. Moments of inspiration come to ‘primed’ minds. So let’s all accept that both our students and we make a lot of mistakes, that we will often be stumped, and that we will have lots of false starts.

What finally makes for the breakthroughs—in individuals and in corporations—is a sudden connection made between and among things that, on the surface, appear to be unrelated. (As far back as philosopher David Hume, invention is recognized as an act of recombination.) This is why we have to do lots of different kinds of things, be around lots of different kinds of people and have the time to stop working and pursue “speculative new ideas.” That’s right: if we don’t daydream, we probably aren’t going to come up with anything very new. The success of companies that encourage speculation—about 15% of the workday seems to be an ideal amount of time—include IBM, Google, and Pixar. In addition—and I know this is a really hard one for us teachers—a little ADHD can help the creative process. Being distracted sometimes pulls the focus away from the wrong answer and opens the way for the right one.

So how do creative people make all this work? Well, their daydreaming is sort of disciplined in the sense that they can awaken themselves from it when they realize they have a good idea. If they are surrounded by lots of different people who are also creating, that helps. Thus, creative corporations have central spaces, which force chance meetings among employees from different departments. And thus we have Shakespeare—who flourished in London because of all that was going on there during his life, the most important things being access to literature (from which to ‘steal’ his ideas) and the central role of the theater in the lives of the populace.

Lehrer also gives the reader some of the science behind the connectivity in the brain as well as the ‘working memory’ (like RAM in a computer) that is responsible for creative sparks. He makes it easy to understand and includes illustrations. He distinguishes between divergent and convergent thinking, and shows how starting with the former and being able to continue with the later are marks of creative genius. He cites studies that show that creative folks are often ‘melancholy’ (depressed), but that too much sadness will interfere with having insights.

Some of Lehrer’s suggestions for grouping people to the best effect would be useful in the classroom. What he calls ‘Q’—for a density of connection—gives teachers insights into how to group collaborative work, how long to keep a group together and how often to throw someone new into the mix. Oh, yeah—and brainstorming doesn’t work. I’ve read this before in a short article citing Science Magazine. But Imagine has a more detailed explanation of why. People need criticism when ideas are bad—“a candid discussion of mistakes.” We don’t want to avoid a bit of combative grouping because disagreements refine work as long as it isn’t demoralizing. (Lennon and McCarthy of The Beatles are given as an example.) And last, personal contact generates creativity much better than online contact does. The research on this is important as we all move toward online classes and blended learning. Using technology is great, but it won’t be a panacea for educating our youth.

Lehrer makes some general suggestions for society, such as encouraging (educated, particularly in the sciences) immigrants to come to the U.S. He notes that we do things right with athletes, from childhood on—and that we should treat others with the same value we treat athletes, in the same way. If we did, we’d go a long way to nurturing creativity. (I know someone much closer to home that made a similar argument a few years ago and caught a lot of hell for it. 🙂 )

Everyone has the seeds of creativity. I recommend Imagine to everyone, students and teachers alike, because it will show you how to nourish those seeds into full blossom.



About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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