Easy Chair — From the June 2013 issue

Getting to Eureka

The writer for Harper’s Magazine had a problem. Books he read and people he knew had been warning him that the nation and maybe mankind itself had wandered into a sort of creativity doldrums. Economic growth was slackening. The Internet revolution was less awesome than we had anticipated, and the forward march of innovation, once a cultural constant, had slowed to a crawl. One of the few fields in which we generated lots of novelties — financial engineering — had come back to bite us. And in other departments, we actually seemed to be going backward. You could no longer take a supersonic airliner across the Atlantic, for example, and sending astronauts to the moon had become either fiscally insupportable or just passé.

And yet the troubled writer also knew that there had been, over these same years, fantastic growth in our creativity-promoting sector. There were TED talks on how to be a creative person. There were “Innovation Jams” at which IBM employees brainstormed collectively over a global hookup, and “Thinking Out of the Box” desktop sculptures for sale at Sam’s Club. There were creativity consultants you could hire, and cities that had spent billions reworking neighborhoods into arts-friendly districts where rule-bending whimsicality was a thing to be celebrated. If you listened to certain people, creativity was the story of our time, from the halls of MIT to the incubators of Silicon Valley.

The literature on the subject was vast. Its authors included management gurus, forever exhorting us to slay the conventional; urban theorists, with their celebrations of zesty togetherness; pop psychologists, giving the world step-by-step instructions on how to unleash the inner Miles Davis. Most prominent, perhaps, were the science writers, with their endless tales of creative success and their dissection of the brains that made it all possible.

It was to one of these last that our puzzled correspondent now decided to turn. He procured a copy of Imagine: How Creativity Works, the 2012 bestseller by the ex-wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, whose résumé includes a Rhodes scholarship, a tour of duty at The New Yorker, and two previous books about neuroscience and decision-making. (There was also a scandal concerning some made-up quotes in Imagine, but our correspondent was determined to tiptoe around that.) Settling into a hot bath — well known for its power to trigger outside-the-box thoughts — he opened his mind to the young master.

Anecdote after heroic anecdote unfolded, many of them beginning with some variation on Lehrer’s very first phrase: “Procter and Gamble had a problem.” What followed, as creative minds did their nonlinear thing, were epiphanies and solutions. Our correspondent read about the invention of the Swiffer. He learned how Bob Dylan achieved his great breakthrough and wrote that one song of his that they still play on the radio from time to time. He found out that there was a company called 3M that invented masking tape, the Post-it note, and other useful items. He read about the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and about the glories of Pixar.

And that’s when it hit him: He had heard these things before. Each story seemed to develop in an entirely predictable fashion. He suspected that in the Dylan section, Lehrer would talk about “Like a Rolling Stone,” and that’s exactly what happened. When it came to the 3M section, he waited for Lehrer to dwell on the invention of the Post-it note — and there it was.

Had our correspondent developed the gift of foresight? No. He really had heard these stories before. Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature. Bob Dylan is endlessly cited in discussions of innovation, and you can read about the struggles surrounding the release of “Like a Rolling Stone” in textbooks like The Fundamentals of Marketing (2007). As for 3M, the decades-long standing ovation for the company’s creativity can be traced all the way back to In Search of Excellence (1982), one of the most influential business books of all time. In fact, 3M’s accidental invention of the Post-it note is such a business-school chestnut that the ignorance of those who don’t know the tale is a joke in the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

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  • Stephen Anderson

    Just an aside about “urban theorists, with their celebrations of zesty
    togetherness.” The glibness of that intellectual terrain is a problem, a
    reactionary miscount of the subversive, anonymous, conflictual
    characteristics so vital to cities. Still, the relationship between city
    and creativity is strong, to say the least, and has much to do with
    structures between selves, others, and situations. I agree that we
    should be wary of concerns with creativity that are instrumental,
    consumerist, naive, or formulaic. We should also hold urbanity as a
    bright spot, and take care not to dismiss that as we dismiss its less
    enlightening theorizations. The sustenance of the city’s creative
    dimensions merits our attention — more so as much of that attention to
    date has been misguided.


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