John Lehrer’s articles have been featured on this blog before, due to his upcoming book on creativity, but here’s an interview about the man himself.
Lehrer doesn’t suggest we can all be brilliant artists, but he does lay out a set of conditions – relaxation, curiosity, divergent interests and determination – that make creativity more likely. “For far too long,” he says, “we’ve seen creativity as this all-or-nothing thing: you’re either blessed like Bob Dylan or you’re not. But look at kids, and that’s not the case.”
He now has the chance to observe his own daughter’s developing mind. “It’s made me marvel at these three pounds of meat,” he says, referring to the human brain. “They come out and can’t do anything, and now she understands language.” Lehrer then indulges in some gushing about how lovely his daughter is, but stops himself abruptly. “I’m throwing out clichés like a Hallmark card,” he says.
Naturally, Lehrer does not deny the existence of the exceptionally creative types, the Picassos and Steve Jobses of the world. He acknowledges the limits of our understanding: “I’m not sure there’s any rigorous way of how we define genius, it depends on a lot of contextual things,” he says. “Genius is like porn, you know it when you see it.”
And if geniuses in the corporate world are rarities, Lehrer does have some advice for businesses. “Cities never die. Companies die all the time. So what’s the difference?” he says. “As cities get bigger, people get more productive.” Lehrer begins talking about “superlinear scaling” and cites the work of theoretical physicist Geoffrey West.
“Companies,” on the other hand, “erect walls,” Lehrer says. “They tell you who you can talk to, they inhibit our natural creativity.” So he advocates the breaking down of walls, both physical and symbolic, within the organisation; open floor plans, paid free time and collaboration can help companies stay innovative. “Being distractable and being smart is the perfect combination,” he says.
Yet even as Lehrer helps advance understanding of how creativity works, he is quick to point out that even the most thorough book won’t be able to fully explain how Bob Dylan writes a song, or how Picasso reimagined figurative painting. “So much remains mysterious,” he tells me. “I don’t think we’re in danger of unweaving the rainbow.”