May 25, 2013
The Elusive Ghost of Creativity
Posted on Apr 5, 2012
By Michael S. Roth
Lehrer shows why brainstorming usually fails to result in real innovation because nobody is pushing back on bad ideas. “The only way to maximize creativity ... is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. ... We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.” Or, as Pixar’s Lee Unkrich put it: “We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it. Together.”
Lehrer concludes with a discussion of why certain epochs seem to be more creative than others. Culture, he says, determines creative output, and it is through sharing information and making connections that we maximize that output. He quotes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who emphasizes that “even in this age of technology, we still get smart being around other smart people.” Glaeser and Lehrer are showing why cities remain so important, but as the president of a university, I can also see how this applies to our campuses. Students and faculty seek the inspiration that is available all over campus, and that’s why so much learning happens outside the classroom. Sitting by yourself with your computer, even if you have access to thousands of Facebook “friends,” just isn’t the same as being in a creative, cosmopolitan culture in which new connections are continually (and surprisingly) formed.
“Imagine” doesn’t offer a prescription for how we are to become more imaginative, but it does emphasize some key ingredients of a creative culture: taking education seriously, increasing possibilities for human mixing, and cultivating a willingness to take risks. Lehrer practices what he preaches, showing an appetite for learning, a determined effort to cross fields and disciplines, and a delight in exploring new possibilities. Reading his book exercises the imagination; the rest is up to us.
Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. His “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past” was recently published.
© 2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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