Book Excerpt

Jonah Lehrer’s Five Tips for
Reaching Your Creative Potential

From the bestselling author Jonah Lehrer comes “Imagine: How Creativity Works” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Lehrer explains that his latest book “is about our most important mental talent: the ability to imagine what has never existed. We take this talent for granted, but our lives are defined by it. There is the pop song on the radio and the gadget in your pocket, the art on the wall and the air conditioner in the window. There is the medicine in the bathroom and the chair you are sitting in…” He gives real world examples from Pixar and Second City to Bob Dylan and Yo-Yo Ma. He goes on to say that “creativity is not a gift possessed by a lucky few; it’s a variety of distinct thought processes that we can all learn to use more effectively.” Here he offers five tips from his book on how to increase your creative potential.

1. Get Stumped

The act of being stumped is essential to the creative process because we need to be convinced that there is no solution, that we will never solve our problem, never invent the next big thing, or finish writing the novel. We need that feeling of frustration because it leads us to a moment of eventual insight. The final Aha! In a variety of brain-mapping studies, scientists discovered that when faced with a problem, the left hemisphere of the brain – the side of the brain typically associated with analytical problem solving – got right to work. However, the tricky problems the scientists developed quickly wore out the left-brain thought process. The subjects became frustrated and complained about the unsolvable problems. This frustration was crucial because it signaled a need for an alternative method, and scientists saw a shift in activitiy from the left side of the brain to the right side – the more “creative” side – of the brain. Once activity shifted to the right side, subjects often experienced these moments of insight, a flash of activity in the brain resulting in them bolting upright in their chairs as the answer appeared to them. They had to get stumped in order to get creative and solve the problem.

2. Stick With It

Although giving up when you’re feeling frustrated and stumped seems like a good idea, perseverance and working through the problem is crucial to the left brain transferring activity to the right brain which hopefully will result in a creative breakthrough. These qualities, perseverance and passion for long-term goals, comprise grit, and no artist, no writer, no inventor would be successful without it. Grit is the quality that forces you to make sacrifices for the sake of your passion, to work long hours or keep practicing even when practice isn’t fun. Studies have shown that grit is one of the most important predictors for success, because no one is talented enough to not have to work hard.

3. Take a Break

Although persistence is key to creative breakthroughs, sometimes taking a break, backing off and refocusing, can help alter your mood and help you achieve a more creative state of mind. Studies show that a relaxed mind, soothed by increased alpha waves, is more likely to see the answers that were blocked by a frustrated state of mind. Relaxing the mind and letting the alpha waves flow is easier than you might think. Taking a warm shower, away from the buzzing cell phones and incoming emails, can be a great relaxer, both for body and mind. Studies also show that having a more positive outlook – simply being happier – increase creativity. If you’re stuck in the middle of a difficult problem, take a break from it to watch a funny video on YouTube. Although it might feel unproductive to stray from the task at hand, in the long run these breaks are proven to increase productivity and creativity. That’s why so many successful corporations – from 3M to Google – have adopted breaks for pursuit of outside projects and new ideas as a crucial part of the work day.

4. Become an Outsider

For the amount of writers who flock to Paris, you’d think we’d be stuck with an abundance of novels narrated by baguette-eating protagonists lounging in chic cafes. But instead, these writers return with cutting literary essays or novel set in their own American hometowns. They don’t go to Paris to write about Paris; it’s the getaway, and experiencing life as an outsider, that helps them create. Studies show that travel is one way to enhance creativity because it encourages thinking outside of your normal self. Even little things like not knowing whether to tip a waiter or how to say “thank you,” stimulate the mind and make you more observant of what is outside of what you already know. But “outsider creativity” doesn’t mean that you have to go to Paris if you are searching for a creative breakthrough. It can be a state of mind, it’s the same sentiment as telling someone to “sleep on it” when they are struggling to find a solution to a problem. Waking up with fresh eyes and becoming an outsider to your own problem can be hugely beneficial to solving it.

5. Channel Your Inner Seven-Year-Old

In a recent study, a psychologist assigned a few hundred undergraduates to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions. “You are seven years old, and school is canceled. You have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?” The second group was given the exact same instructions, except the first sentence was deleted. As a result, these students didn’t imagine themselves as seven-year-olds. After writing for ten minutes, the subjects in both groups were then given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or listing all the things one could do with a brick. Interestingly, the students who imagined themselves as young kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with twice as many ideas as the other group. It turns out that we can recover creativity we’ve lost with time. We just have to pretend we’re little kids.