Russ Roberts

Jonah Lehrer on Creativity and Imagine

EconTalk Episode with Jonah Lehrer
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Jonah Lehrer, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the science of creativity. They discuss focusing vs. ignoring as a way to solve problems, the potential for computer-based creativity, how W. H. Auden used drugs to improve his poetry, Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs, and the creative power of mindless relaxation. The conversation closes with a discussion of what policies might increase creativity.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: June 1, 2012.] Russ: Until recently, creativity was something of a black box. It was a magical, mysterious thing; and of course at various points in your book you remind us that it still is. But in recent years, neuroscience has helped us understand more about how creativity works. What are some of the important things we've learned about the brain and creativity? Guest: I think the very first thing we've learned is that imagination does exist inside those three pounds of meat, that even over thousands of years we in a sense outsourced imagination to the Muses, now it's quite clear that it really does come from inside our head. And one thing, I think the big idea neuroscience has given us--I think it's very important at the outset to emphasize how provisional all this research is--it's very much a first draft of what's happening inside the brain whenever we do anything, whether it's make a decision on a, you know, investment task, or you give people a difficult creative problem--this is very much a first draft. But I think what neuroscience has revealed so far is that really creativity is not a single thing at all. I think we've often used "creativity" in the singular. It turns out to be a catch-all for a variety of distinct thought processes, each of which are useful at various phases of the thought process. So, sometimes you are going to need a moment of insight, one of those big, Eureka moments, one of those epiphanies in the shower or those answers that come out of the blue. And sometimes it's going to need good, old-fashioned work and working memory. The 99% perspiration side of things. So, the science has so far shown us that it's actually quite complicated, that there's no one way we should always be thinking when we want to be creative; that instead, it's really about different ways of thinking, different kinds of problems. So, in a sense, the real task for someone in the creative business is to make sure they are thinking in the right way at the right time. Russ: And we see that different kind of creativity in different parts of the brain, right? Guest: Yeah, yeah. Russ: Which is really extraordinary. Guest: So, this is thanks to the wonder of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), these various tools that actually see the mind at work. And once again, these are imperfect tools; they are just kind of rough glimpses. But I think they have shown us some interesting stuff. They have shown us that the brain at work looks very different if you give someone a problem that requires a set of remote associations--so, typically solved in a moment of insight--than if you give them a creative problem that just requires more analytical thought. That we can see that these different types of thinking really have different substrates inside the brain. Russ: So, let's talk about those two different kinds--the Aha and the persistence kind, what you later call grit, which I like a lot because I think grit is remarkably undervalued. There's not as much romance about grit. Guest: No, no, no. There's nothing romantic about it at all. I'm actually writing an article right now for The New Yorker about grit. So, I'm deep in the midst of grit. But I couldn't agree more, that it really is a very, very important creative trait. Russ: So, I'm 57; and it took me about 50-something years to realize that when you can't remember something--which is something that starts to happen to you as you get older--one of the best things you can do is not think about it. Which is sort of paradoxical. You think: Well, the more I think about it, the better I'll be. And one of the themes of the earlier part of your book, which is very moving and beautifully evoked, is how sometimes not thinking about things helps you think about them. And I wonder if you might talk about that and some of the ways people have enhanced their creativity by not working. Which is, by the way, always a great idea. Guest: It's always wonderful when the science justifies laziness. It's my favorite kind of science. The larger theme here--and this is just a theme in modern neuroscience in the last 15 or 20 years--is the importance of unconscious thought processes. That even when our conscious attention is being distracted, when we are not lavishing our attention on a problem, we should know that our unconscious is often still mulling it over. And our unconscious is the massive supercomputer inside your head; it's a parallel processor; it can actually take in and digest a lot more information than your conscious brain. So this is kind of the larger thematic backdrop for this research on moments of insight. Which is that, you know, even when you are not thinking about it, you are still thinking about it. And I begin the book by talking about Bob Dylan and how he wrote "Like a Rolling Stone"; and he actually wrote the song after he quit the singing/song-writing business, after he told his manager after a grueling tour in London that he was done writing protest songs, he was done singing/song-writing; he was going to move to Woodstock and become a novelist and painter. And so for a couple of days, that's what he did. He began writing his novel, made a few little paintings. And then he felt what he called the itch of unwritten words, this very familiar feeling. And then he just started writing them all down. And after 20 minutes of writing--excuse me, after several hours of writing and 20 pages of writing--he ended up coming up with the lyrics for "Like a Rolling Stone," which he then recorded the following week. I use that story both because I'm a Dylan freak and a huge fan, but also because it does, I think reveal something very interesting about the creative process--that even though we live in this day and age that worships attention, that assumes the only way to be productive is to chain ourselves to our desk and have the computer screen, when it comes to solving the hardest creative problems, during that radically kind of new kind of rock song, to having one of these moments of insight, that's often the exact wrong approach. That you absolutely--you know, as you put it, in terms of recovering that word you can't remember--you want to stop thinking about it. That makes the answer more likely to arrive. There's this wonderful line of Albert Einstein's that creativity is the residue of wasted time. And when you need a moment of insight, when you need a very big breakthrough, you need to put it in of course, to hit the wall. But once you hit the wall, you need to make time to waste time. Russ: Yeah. It's great advice. As I said. But I think it's undeniably true as well, not just comforting to those of us who don't just work 24/7. What I find is when I'm in creative mode, you can't turn it off. It's that 20 pages of Dylan. And not just Dylan. There's times when you know you are wasting your time. You need to let the well fill up. Guest: Yeah, no, and it's important to really waste time. To not be like, yeah, you know, working in front of the television. A paper just came out by Jonathan Schooler at UCSB and a bunch of his research on daydreaming in the book. He had a new paper on daydreaming where he shows you need to be lost in the process, you need to really not be working on the problem; that people who are kind of half-working on the problem, though they are kind of half-working on the same kind of incubation games, the same games in unconsciousness, people who are totally wasting their time. So, I was just talking to [?] and he is basically: When you go on vacation, you should really go on vacation; you shouldn't be checking your email every ten minutes; you should really-- Russ: You should do it every 20 minutes. Guest: Every 20 minutes. You should really let go every once in a while. He can't even quite explain yet. But he just argues, his data so far, suggests that is quite important. Russ: And so, I think you've been in work places, I think you've described in the book--I've certainly been in many myself as a visitor--where there are things you find surprising. So, I was at an investment firm last year in New York and they have a ping pong table. And people play ping pong in the middle of the day. They are clearly fooling around. They are doing nothing productive on the surface. Google's got a volleyball court in the middle of the campus. And this seems to justify that. It's probably a good thing. Guest: Yeah, and, no, no. I think this research does justify the classic ping pong table in the lobby. What I often find is ping pong tables that people are not playing ping pong. So, just that you actually saw some people playing ping pong. But if you are asking people to solve difficult problems, to come up with, you know, new solutions to long-standing challenges; and I think you also need to give them time to not think about those problems. Give them time to escape. You really need to build in some wasted time to the day. I think the larger lesson here is about trying to micromanage the mind, about trying to, you know, trying to legislate what productivity looks like. Simply because I think our notions of productivity are far too narrow. That they have to do with kind of the appearance of productivity more than they have to do with productivity itself. Simply because we look at the human mind--it's got many different ways of coming up with useful answers. Sometimes it's about grit, it's about persistence, it's about sitting at your desk and not getting up until the problem is done. But often when you are working on very difficult problems, you know, that don't have trivial solutions, you need to play some ping pong. Lots of ping pong.
10:08Russ: Now, somewhat paradoxically, you also argue that in some situations the exact opposite is what you need. And you talk about W. H. Auden; and I learned some things about Auden I didn't know. I'm also a Dylan fan; I'm also an Auden fan. So, I got a big kick out of that. And I love that poem, "September 1, 1939." Guest: Yeah, exactly. Russ: So, talk about his chemical experience and why that helped him, despite what we've just said. Guest: Well, Auden was a Benzedrine addict. Auden in the late [?] moved to New York City, got hooked on Benzedrine [bennies]. Benzedrine is an amphetamine. So it sharpens the spotlight of attention, makes it easier to pay attention to stuff, keeps us awake and alert. He first got hooked on the drug because he wanted to work in the day and then go to nightclubs in the evening, and so he wanted to stay up late. And that's why he started taking the drug. His editor actually gave it to him. Russ: Nice. Guest: But then he quickly discovered that the drug turned him into a poetry machine. That he could, for the first time in his life, spend 12 hours thinking about a single metaphor, or a single line. Just tweaking his lyrics, his verses, until they were perfect. And so you see, during the Benzedrine phase, you know, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942--this new kind of poetry emerged from him. It's much more spare, transparent, lyric, rhetorical. And many of Auden's most anthologized poems--in fact, virtually all of them--come from this 3-4 year window when he was hooked on bennies. Which is interesting; Auden himself would later turn on these poems. He hated "September 1, 1939." Russ: Hmm. Guest: He really disliked a lot of his poetry from the Benzedrine phase. Because he thought a lot of it was too neat, and too clear, and made kind of banal points with this lovely language. So you look at his collective poetry--September First, his most famous poem is nowhere in it. When he chose his own anthologies, he left out his most famous poems that were written when he was on amphetamines. Russ: I wonder if he felt that that really wasn't him. Guest: My guess is that may be kind of part of it. I think he mistrusted kind of the clarity of his language there. That, you know, we must love one another or die, is like the iconic line from September 1st, and as Auden later put it: That's not true; you die anyways. So I think he had this tendency to look back on those poems and just see them as too clear, that he was mistaking the elegance of the line for the truth of the line. Personally, I've become much fonder of Auden's late poetry, which is messier and more ambiguous, but maybe a little bit truer. Russ: When was "Musee de Beaux Arts"? Guest: That was again the Benzedrine phase. Russ: Another great one. Guest: That's a classic. And that actually is one of the few poems from his bennie phase that is in his Collected Poems. That was one poem which he still found a way to enjoy even later on. But, I was just fascinated about what it was about Benzedrine that turned him into a poetry a machine, and neuroscience can shed some light on this. We know how amphetamines work in the brain; they increase dopamine in the midbrain, which makes it easier to pay attention, which makes even trivial things, tedious things like editing a poem or sitting in a classroom getting a pre-algebra lesson--it can make those things more interesting. Make them easier to pay attention to. Which is of course why we give kids with attention deficit disorders Ritalin and Adderall, which are mild amphetamines . And when it comes to certain parts of the creative process that's exactly what they need to do--just unconceal the problem, stick with it until it's perfect, go through draft after draft, iteration after iteration. As you noted earlier, there's nothing romantic about this part of the process. It is not fun at all. In fact, the evidence suggests it makes us all miserable. But there's no getting around it. It is absolutely necessary. It's 99% perspiration-based. Russ: And yet it conflicts a little bit with the point you make later, which as I writer I know, and which I'm sure you know as well, which is that it's really important when you are editing your work that you put it in a drawer for a while and let it cook, because it gives you a chance to forget it; and then you can read it with a fresh eye. When you are sitting there hunched over that poem for 12 hours, it's an interesting thing that works. But it clearly does. Guest: No, no--that's definitely a contradiction, not work all the time. You need to go through the edits and you need to get it into the shape where you can put it in a drawer and forget about it. And then hopefully take it out a week later, maybe a year later, whatever it is, so you can finally read it as a reader, not as the writer. One of the reasons I can't bear to read my books--I can't actually read the text of my books because I'll be sitting with the book and I'll have this tremendous urge to get out a red pen, just correct all the things in the book. Like, there's something about looking at a book that you wrote, or an article, whatever it is, a little while ago; and like the errors incandesce. All those bad metaphors, they glow on the page. And you just want to take them all out. It's quite painful. Russ: It's hard to happen when you are reading your own book, but a lot of times I've read passages of documents that are teamwork, and I've thought: that's obviously so-and-so's, because I would never have written that. And then you go back to your old draft and you realize: Oh my gosh, I wrote that. I know. We could complain all day about writing.
16:20Russ: Let's move on. Let me ask you--artificial intelligence has made some enormous leaps and bounds. It started with tremendous fanfare; didn't reach its promise; recently it's doing better, the ability computers and other algorithms to mimic human brains. But I was thinking about AC--artificial creativity--instead of AI--artificial intelligence. What do you think the prospects of that are? Do you think we'll ever be able to use artificial methods to solve some of these problems the way the brain can? Guest: I mean, it's a really interesting question, and you know, I think the really easy answer to give right now is it's way too soon. It's too soon to give any kind of definitive answer. Certainly when it comes to evidence we have so far that it's possible, the evidence is few and far between. There are some algorithms which have come up with sonatinas that somehow re semble things that look like something Bach may have written--so if you put all of Bach into a computer and say: Come up with something new--they can come up with something Bach-esque. But most people would agree, even the creators would agree, that they are missing that spark of genius. Missing an extra something. And then of course you still have to input something in order to come up with something even resembling, in the same category, as the work of a genius. So, it's far too soon to give any kind of coherent answer as to whether or not artificial creativity will ever be possible. I think what we can say so far is that when it comes to creativity, technology is going to be full of surprises. One way I talk about this in the book is when you go back 15 years ago and you ask all these futurists: How are all these online tools--email, Skype--how are they going to change? Everyone said: Oh, it's going to be the death of geography movement, with these tools people no longer need to commute to skyscrapers or live in big cities or even go to meetings in person. Russ: We're all going to live in Montana. Guest: Yeah, we're all going to live in the exurbs and telecommute. Of course that makes lots of logical sense. And yet the exact opposite has happened--that cities have become more viable than ever; downtown rents keep on going up. One of my favorite factoids is that since the invention of Skype, attendance at business conferences has increased dramatically, some estimates are that it's going to be doubled. So here we have these tools that allow us in fact remotely what they've done is made it even more important to come together in person. So, maybe we'll have, I think, in the beginning at least certain tools that automate certain parts of the creative process. Maybe we'll have tools that make us better editors, make it easier to persist through that unpleasant phase of the creative process when you are going through draft after draft. But at the moment I think it's really tough to imagine how one comes up with a tool that can replicate a Bach or a Bob Dylan, that can answer questions we don't even know to ask yet. And that's also what creativity is all about. Russ: So, let me ask a different version of this question. I did a podcast with my colleague Robin Hanson a while back where Robin has some interesting speculations about how easily we can be replaced by machines; I'm skeptical. But at one point he makes the claim in there that we're just chemicals; that's all the brain is; we're all chemicals. And of course literally it's all chemicals. The question is: In your conversations with neuroscientists, what's their feeling on that? Do they feel it's just a matter of time before we decipher everything, or they feel there are some fundamental mysteries there? I know the philosophy community is skeptical, but they would be; and the neuroscientists I assume are more optimistic. What's your experience? Guest: My experience is it's tough to generalize. I think some neuroscientists assume that it's only a matter of time before we fully understand those three pounds of meat. Outline all the neurotransmitters, all the ion channels, all the ingredients that go to making us, us. And then you'll talk to other neuroscientists who argue that there will always be some fundamental mysteries to the field, and this is the crowd, if I'm putting my biases on the table, I'm more sympathetic to. They point to stuff like subjective experience, the fact that we feel like conscious creatures, that of course we are just a trillion synaptic connections, yet we feel like much more than that. So in a sense the one reality neuroscience will never be able to describe, at least in terms of neuroscience, as an emanation of all those chemicals and electrical wires in our head, is the one reality we know--the only reality we'll ever know. So there's a basic tension there. Russ: You're talking about our unconsciousness. Guest: Yeah, yeah. That here's this reduction of science that breaks things apart, and yet we feel like more than the sum of our parts. So here's the one reality we know; neuroscience doesn't seem to be able to describe it at least in terms we understand it. So it seems like an interesting tension in the field that I think we sometimes gloss over. One practical way to measure the field is to look at the major contributions it's made to practical questions so far. I think there the track record is at best very, very spotty. If I had to make a list of big drugs that had made research into the brain, it would be a very, very short list. You look at all the most popular drugs we have now on the market--antidepressants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), Prozac, anti-anxiety drugs, treatments for Parkinson's--we're still giving people L-Dopa, which is more than 50 years old. So all the drugs we have, all the most popular drugs at least, are very old; they tend to have been invented by accident. They didn't emerge from research into the brain. So, I will be more I think optimistic about the singularity or about us being replaced by computers or about the potential of the field to really revolutionize the way we treat afflictions to the brain or mental illnesses and so on, when we start to see a bevy of drugs that emerge from basic research into the brain. At the moment I think we've just begun to learn how little we understand. So, I think, it's a very exciting field of course; it's a whole new way of knowing ourselves. Part of this ancient quest to know ourselves. I think it's very important to at least be skeptical about where it's going to take us in the next years of the foreseeable future.
23:13Russ: I guess it's one thing to say--we actually use--the next area I want to talk about, I'll use an example. You talk about the part of the brain that restrains us: we want to blurt out something and it's the part of the brain that is liberated when we sleep, if I remember correctly in the book. So, talk about that. All I was going to observe in this neuroscience conversation is, you know, it's one thing to say that's where it comes from. It's another thing to say: How does it work? It's great to say it lights up, but what is going on in there? Guest: Yeah, no, no, no. Russ: What's the software? Guest: Absolutely it's a very crude cartography at the moment. This is a part of the brain called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. Just behind your forehead. And it's a very important part of the brain. It plays a crucial role in self-control, impulse control--for instance, you know, if you look at, you probably know about the marshmallow experiment, the classic experiment by Walter Mischel with the 4-year-olds, and the 4-year-olds who can not eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they do much better in high school, and so on. They are actually still tracking these 4-year-olds now that they are in their 40s, and one of the big things they find is that those 4-year-olds who could do a better job waiting for the marshmallows and then got much better SAT scores and mostly went to college and didn't do drugs and so on, they've got an enhanced function in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. This is a very, very important part of the brain. But it does seem to play this important role in the creative process, where it's also that voice telling us not to do something. So, sometimes it tells us not to eat all the Hagen Dazs in the 'fridge, which is great, or not to spend more money on our credit card, which again can also be quite useful. But if you are John Coltrane and you are engaged in the act of improv, and you need to just pour beauty out of your instrument for 45 minutes, then it might actually be something you want to turn off. It may actually get in the way. It may tell you not to play that note because it will sound ugly. Or will sound wrong. And sure enough, when you put jazz pianists inside a brain scanner and you have them engage in the act of improv, what you see is a deactivation of the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. And before they engage in improv, they in a sense inhibit their inhibitions. That makes it easier to not worry about what they are creating. Now, to get back to your other question about the limitations of neuroscience, I think you are quite right to point out that this is a really crude map. We really don't understand what's going on there. All we can show at this point is, you know, we can look at this in terms of blood flow, a proxy for neural activity. So, not even neural activity directly. We are looking at blood flow. Which is also supposedly coupled with neural activity, but you know there's some possible decoupling in certain instances, and so on. But we really more importantly don't understand what's taking place at the software level. We don't understand how this increase in blood flow, which in theory translates to an increase in brain activity, what that actually means: how showing a spike in brain activity in one part of the brain, how that makes it easier for us to not eat ice cream. Or how it makes it harder for us to engage in jazz improvisation. That of course, that's the profound mystery. And we are not even finding ways to ask those kinds of questions. Russ: So, I had a really strange idea reading your book, based on that, and I'd love to get your reaction. Right before I read your book, I read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. And your discussion of Dylan at length reminded me of the incredible documentary by Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home. Which is just an unbelievable portrait of the artist as a young man. And I thought about the following. Jobs and Dylan had something in common, which is they blurted out often cruel things to people around them, which we often call--as adults we call it selfish. A lot of people say Jobs is cruel, he was mean, he was selfish. He was clearly very self-centered. And for some reason it struck a chord in me--to choose a bad pun--with Dylan's behavior when he was young. I don't know, when he was older; but he is portrayed in that documentary--many rock stars are this way; they are a little self-centered. For a whole bunch of reasons. But I started to think about the connection between--many adults would describe that behavior as immature, would call Dylan and Jobs immature. That they didn't grow up enough to have the empathy that most adults have for other people. And I wonder if that is what helped make them so creative. That something maybe in their brain that didn't grow or didn't kick in about self-centeredness and self-constraint was just not working so well, not so strong for them. And they weren't the easiest people to be around at times. But they were gloriously creative. Guest: It's a great speculation. I think one wants to be very, very careful about speculating, about diagnosing the brain, or Steve Jobs, of course. Russ: It's cheap. Guest: But it struck me while reading Steve Jobs's biography as well. Just, you know, the best way Jobs knew to react to new ideas was brutal honesty. And that book I definitely I think brought out his brutal side. Russ: People say to me: He was a terrible person. The irony, though, is he was like Dylan, and many others that you've come across in your life: People want to be around him. Guest: Yeah. Russ: Even though they are "mean," they draw people like a magnet. Guest: And inspire tremendous loyalty. Both Dylan and Jobs. Dylan had the same manager for years and years. He treated Joan Baez terribly. Russ: Terribly. Horrible. Guest: Horribly. And yet there she toured with him in 1975 for a year. Russ: And Jobs dated her! It all comes full circle. Guest: It all comes back. No, no, it's a fascinating question. What really interests me about that is, especially in terms of Steve Jobs, because I think we've got this epic biography of him at this point, is the way it complicates our traditional notions of self-control. I think we often think of self-control as domain-general : If you've got self-control, you can exert self-control in every facet of your life. Russ: Good point. Guest: And that, at least for Jobs, wasn't the case. Here's this guy who when it came to personal interactions didn't give a crap. And exerted no self-control. Said the first thing that came to his mind. And often, I think, that was really quite useful. I think people often tell stories--and I heard some of the same stories at Pixar--of times when Jobs was really cruel and just cut to the bone, and yet they knew he was right. And so that saved them lots of time in the end, because they didn't have to go through the usual polite process of pointing out errors and then slowly realizing it was all wrong. He told them straight up it was all wrong. So, in that sense, he had no self-control. And yet that book also tells the story of tremendous self-control, almost like aesthetic self-control, where like he just ate apples for a long time. So he was a very, very peculiar man. And not surprisingly, human nature is quite complicated. But certainly when it came to personal interactions, these are guys, Dylan and Jobs, who time and time again were willing to make that trade-off, willing to trade, you know, someone thinking they were nice or trade their feeling of warmth and affection, for the sake of their art, for the sake of their gadgets. Russ: But at one point, a very moving point in that book, Dylan, uh, Jobs says--I can't quote it literally because this is a G-rated program, but he says: You have no idea what it's like to be me. When someone reprimands him, rebukes him, for being insensitive. And it just struck me that there's a childlike aspect to both of these people, the way a child will blurt out honest things about somebody's appearance or habits without censoring. And it just like--I don't know. It's an interesting speculation. A cheap thought. Guest: Yeah, no, no. Certainly there's something there. I don't think we're able to say what it is yet. I think there is something child-like about it. Certainly the dorsal lateral frontal cortex is part of what we are talking about, that allows us to inhibit our first actions, first thoughts. That's actually the last part of the brain's development for kids, which is one theory why little kids are so naturally creative. Because they don't have that voice yet telling them not to do something. Not to put the brush there, not to make the mark there, not to put down their short story. Russ: And you talk in the book about how--not your idea, it's about tapping into your childlike side, your uninhibited side. Guest: Yes. And I think Dylan and Jobs were both able to do that their entire lives, just one way they became such creative people. But I do think there's something interesting for me which strikes me about both of them, which is their single-mindedness, more than anything else. The fact that they betrayed everything for the sake of this abstraction they believed in. Russ: Yep. Guest: A song, or a new gadget. That they didn't care about anything else, and they certainly didn't care about what other people thought of them. They just wanted to do the best thing possible.
32:52Russ: So, one more Apple point, and then we'll leave it alone: I had an incredible light-bulb moment for me reading your book, having just read the Jobs book. So, the Jobs book talks about how he simplified their product line; they went from a zillion products to four. And a lot of times Jobs would criticize other companies; he'd say they are making too many things: they just need to do a few things well. So then I read your book, and you talk about 3M. And they simplified. They only have 55,000 products, if I remember correctly. And they are all great. Or a lot of them are great. So, talk about--it just reminded me, maybe Jobs was just a little bit lucky. For him it worked, 4 products. But for other people maybe it's not good advice. And how you can fool yourself into thinking you've mastered strategy in the corporate world. So, talk about why 3M is masterful about creating ideas, and a little bit about the facts. Because it's a great story. Guest: No, no, 3M's probably the least sexy company in the world. They make tape and Post-It notes. They make office supply products. They make the stuff that people don't even want to steal, as one [?] put it to me. And yet they've got this incredible track record of innovation. They've been in the innovation business for 65+ years. More than a third of their revenues come from products that have been invented in the last 5 years. Russ: It's unbelievable. Guest: They've got an almost 1-to-1 employee/product ratio. Which is perhaps their most impressive statistic. And what's most interesting about 3M is just the number of different fields they are working in. So, it's not just office supply products. It's nanotechnology, it's pico-projectors; the health care business, not surprisingly, is huge for them at the moment. So, their model of innovation, to make a long story short, they leverage this diversity whenever possible. To get people to apply solutions that work in one domain to completely different domains. So, one of my favorite stories I heard there was about how they came up with a new tool that would help them basically solve the battery life problem in laptops and reduce energy usage in LCDs: they had this team of people working on batteries, trying to make batteries work longer in laptops. And they weren't getting very far. They kept on running into the same problems, with lithium and so on. Then one day they bring in this guy who is working on Scotch tape. He'd been in the Scotch tape business; and so they assign him to this team. He knows nothing about batteries, but he remembers that Scotch tape acts like a prism, that it can help refract light outwards. And so he starts thinking about: most of the battery in laptops goes toward powering the screen. And you can make the lightbulbs dimmer, so that you can save some energy, but then the screen is dimmer; it's less aesthetically pleasing. And so he realized that maybe if you could put a coating on the screen that maybe would direct more of the brightness straight outwards, that you could put in dimmer bulbs that give the same perception of brightness for the user. And so sure enough, they played with the actual glue in Scotch tape, and playing with the chemical formula quite a bit; but in the end it grew out of this guy from Scotch tape realizing that you could save possibly 40% in laptops and television if you simply coated the screen with this transparent coating that simply reflected light outwards. So, so that to me in a nutshell is the 3M model of innovation, where you take some guy working in tape and you put him in a completely new field. Which answers that worked in tape can work here as well. And this begins to explain one of the most controversial innovations at 3M, which is what they call forced rotations, where they try to have engineers move from field to field every 5-6 years. So, if you've been on tape, you could be on batteries. Russ: It's crazy. Guest: It's crazy. And to be honest, I talked to a bunch of scientists at 3M who were not pleased with it. Who said: This is so frustrating, because just when you are getting to know a problem, they move you to something completely different. And yet I think at 3M I think they do this because they believe it gets them returns. That they want ideas always circulating inside the company. And they want people always moving about, always taking things they worked on in one field, trying them someplace else.
37:02Russ: Well, let's talk about the outsider, because that's another theme this taps into. You have an incredible--I love the story about Don Lee. What's his original line of work? Computer person for an insurance company? Guest: Yeah. He was a computer programmer for an insurance company. Russ: And tell us about what happens to him. Guest: Yeah, well, what happens to him is his girlfriend breaks up with him. And then he is heartbroken and lovesick, and starts frequenting this bar near where he lives, which happens to be--he doesn't know it at the time--a very swank bar, very chichi. They're not bartenders; they're mixologists. And he sits at the bar and he strikes up a conversation with these guys, and he gets enthralled with what they do, with watching them measure out their drinks. And he's becoming quite interested in all these alcohols in front of him. And he doesn't get drunk; he basically nurses one drink for three hours at a time. But he becomes very interested in these rituals. And then, to make a long story short, he ends up becoming a part-time bartender for a few years, at more of these very chichi bars in New York City. Ends up becoming obsessed with making the perfect martini. Like that becomes his goal in life. He's still working at the insurance company to pay his bills, but at nights he's working 3, 4, 5 nights a week till 3 a.m. at these bars because he just loved it so much. So he just tries to make this perfect martini. And then one day, after he's convinced he's just made the best martini that's ever been made in the history of the world, he realized that: Whoa, I can actually make new drinks, too. I can invent my own cocktails. And then he goes on this binge of creativity, where he tries to apply his engineering background. He was an engineering major [?] University, specialization in chemistry, to [?] these cocktails. So he comes up with all these very clever drinks, many of which don't work. He tries to carbonate maraschino cherries. He wants to invent this capsule that will spin around in your drink so it always keeps it perfectly mixed. Most of these things really don't turn out that well. But then one day he starts to think about a process called fat washing. Which is basically where you can take a fat--and Don first used bacon--so you sweat off lots of bacon, so you have this pool of lard. And then you can pour an alcohol all around it, and Don used bourbon, and thanks to the polarity of atoms--you know, alcohol and fat, one is non-polar, one is polar--and so they won't mix. But the flavors will actually mix and mingle. And so what Don did was he put the bourbon in with the bacon, let it marinate for a couple of days inside a walk-in 'fridge, and then he waited for all the fat to rise to the top, skimmed off all the fat, then skimmed it off again--so now you are back to a fat-free bourbon. But now this bourbon tastes and smells just like bacon. It's really quite bizarre. You smell this bourbon, you start to drool. But it's a little too much straight. So he starts to turn it into Old-Fashioneds, adding a dash of bitters. But he needed some sweetness to go with it. Russ: This is my favorite part. Guest: Yeah, and then he remembers one of his favorite breakfast things where eating some pancakes with bacon on the side and you pour some maple syrup on the pancakes, but then, you know, inevitably some maple syrup gets on the bacon, too. And Don thinks to himself--well, this is a G-rated show so I'll have to truncate it--"God, that's so tasty; that is the most delicious part of the breakfast." And so then he decides instead of just adding some simple syrup, he decides to add in a dash of maple syrup. And that becomes the Bacon-Bourbon Old-Fashioned. Which, in 2010 was the drink of the year. Was the hottest thing. Now you can see, I think bacon-bourbon has become a bit of a cliche. And I think Don is a little embarrassed that he helped pioneer it. But he's since taken fat-washing in many different directions. He's now head mixologist at the Momofuku chain in New York City. One of my favorite drinks of his, he calls it the Movie Theater, which is where he fat-washed melted butter and white rum. So, you kind of brown some butter, so it's delicious and nutty smelling; then you combine that with white rum. You strain out the fat. And then you mix that with some Coca Cola. So it smells like the best smell in a movie theater: you've got the popcorn. Oh-- Russ: Yeah, you forgot the popcorn. Guest: Yeah. Should have mentioned, he also steeps it with popcorn. So it smells like kind of popcorn and butter and Coca Cola. It's quite delicious. Russ: It sounds horrifying, but it sells. Guest: Yeah, most of his drinks. As he puts it, yeah, they all sound horrifying. And then part of the pleasure is that there is pleasure. Part of the pleasure is the surprise that it's not disgusting.
41:56Russ: Not that I want to denigrate the role of mixed drinks in our lives--there's a part of me that always wants to stand up for a little bit of pleasure. But there's a more important example. So, he's an outsider. He's somebody who didn't know anything about drinking but he knows a lot about chemicals, and suddenly he could do things that the mixologists couldn't do. The more important example is Eli Lilly [the company]. So, talk about what they do. That's an unbelievable story. The website. Guest: Yes; just the lesson of Don Lee is he knew so much about alcohol than all these other mixologists. They knew more about other alcohols; they forgot more about all these other alcohols than he could ever hope to know. But that in a sense was liberating and allowed him to play with booze in a whole different way. In terms of Eli Lilly, this is a story told to me by Alpheus Bingham, who is now the head of a company called InnoCentive.com. And this sort of begins in the 1990s, when Eli Lilly is flush with Prozac profit, really trying to pioneer all different kinds of drugs, one a huge success, and lots of different breakthroughs. He's the head of Research and Development (R&D) for Lilly, and he gets really frustrated. He kept on running into these impossible problems. We've poured tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars into a particular drug pipeline; and then inevitably his scientists would come back to him one year later, five years later, a decade later, and say: Uh, oh. We hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next. For some reason we are making no progress now. And so here's a story where again and again he just gets really, really frustrated. So, his bright idea is to say: Okay, you tell me these problems are impossible; we may as well make them public. What do we have to lose? These are problems that no one else has solved yet, so we may as well just make them public. And if someone else can solve them, then sure, great; we'll post a reward, we'll give you a reward for it. But now we've got a solution; we can proceed. So he decides, against basically the wishes of everyone else at Lilly, to make these problems public. And a few months go by. They get no answers. Bingham assumes that everyone else was right, that this was actually a terrible idea. But then the answers start to trickle in. And they get one useful answer after another, actually making some fairly significant payouts now to strangers all across the world for solving Lilly's public failures. And that's when he gets the idea that this is actually a very important R&D tool--that actually for the first time, thanks to the web, you can really engage in intellectual crowd-sourcing. And so he starts this company called InnoCentive.com, which is now used by a bunch of Fortune 500 firms like Procter and Gamble, Lilly, Pfizer, Kraft, General Electric--companies with huge R&D budgets, in the billions of dollars. And they post a bunch of hard-to-solve problems online. And what's quite astonishing as an incentive is their success rate, anywhere between 40-60% of the problems are solved within 6 months. And they are solved by these strangers working in their spare time. The most interesting incentive, though, in the return to this outsider thinking, is that the problems, we look at who they are solved by. They are almost never solved by someone inside that same field. So, GE posts a chemistry problem; that is never solved by another chemist. Instead it is solved by someone on the fringe of that field. So, solved by a microbiologist. Or by a biophysicist. Someone who knows enough to know the terms of the question but doesn't know so much to get stumped like that chemist back at GE. So, this is now being seen as a very clear example of outsider creativity. In a sense, expertise makes our lives easier, but it also comes with blind spots. That's why sometimes those problems that you think are impossible, you can give them to someone else, someone who knows less. Russ: I would never encourage someone--yet; I'm getting close--not to go to college, per se; and of course many people who don't go to college have tough lives. But it's striking how a lot of people who don't go to college end up with different and creative outlooks on life because their brain just developed in a different way. Kevin Kelly, who I've interviewed, is a great example. He doesn't think like everybody else. And that's a blessing. Not a blessing for everybody--it's not a general rule. I think of it as digging out the grooves. If you keep digging the grooves over and over again in a certain way, which is what certain kinds of education, expertise tend to encourage, you lose the ability to get outside. You are down in the chasm. Guest: Absolutely. Let's not forget that one of the big lessons one learns in college is conformity. Russ: S hhhh. Don't tell. That's where we express ourselves. We flower. No, but it's a big problem with adolescence, a big romance. Guest: Yeah, Dean Simonton has made this controversial point; maybe his data has changed a bit, too, but when you look at the peak level of schooling for creativity, he argues that it's two years of undergraduate education. So, maybe there's a reason that all these very creative guys, like Steve Jobs-- Russ: Sergei Brin-- Guest: they dropped out. Russ: Oh, no, Sergei Brin dropped out of grad school, actually, not college. Guest: Yeah. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. You think about the guys who created a lot of wealth in the 21st century. These are guys who don't have college diplomas. Maybe that's just an anecdote, n of 3 or n of 5. Russ: You've got to remember the denominator, that's the problem. It's not the n of 5; it's the n of 5 divided by all the people who drop out after two years. Most of them don't make it. But still, it's interesting that any of them make it. Guest: Absolutely. But one way to think of it, and the paradoxical curse of expertise, or too much expertise, is Simonton's work on peak age of creativity. Which is you see in different fields they have different peak ages, so poets and physicists, they peak first, in their early thirties. Biologists, late thirties. Novelists, early forties, and so on. And these curves, they actually look quite depressing because you see these early peaks before you get tenure, followed by a long, slow decline for the rest of your life. I think the initial explanation for these curves was that there was something inevitable about it, that the imagination just fell apart, long term memory over time. Now it's thought of as really a byproduct of enculturation. That it's really that you develop a set of assumptions; you become invested in the status quo, you develop habits and routines. Which of course are essential. They do make our lives so much more efficient. But they can also make it harder to think outside of the box, harder to rebel against the status quo, to look at an old problem from a totally new perspective.
49:01Russ: So, one other point I want to make on this topic, and then we'll shift gears. But one thing that struck me about the Eli Lilly incentive is that the rewards are not trivial. I don't think you talked about it in the book. But I went and got on the website. One of the miracles of the modern world is that crowd-sourcing for free works at all. Wikipedia--I often say on this program that most economists would have said that Wikipedia has no chance of being remotely successful, let alone being great; and it's pretty great. And there's no monetary incentive. There's a little bit of glory. But a lot of people are doing it because it seems like fun. But these problems you are talking about, which are quite difficult-- Guest: This is not intrinsic motivation. Russ: Because a lot of people are coming from outside the United States, coming from very poor countries. The amounts are in the tens of thousands, correct? Guest: Yes. Sometimes seven figures. Russ: Wow. Guest: So, some of the hardest problems, some companies will post a large monetary reward. Companies are typically anonymous. You can try to figure it out. I saw that there was one not so long ago for a low-calorie chocolate compound coating, and I thought: I wonder if that's Kraft foods. But you know, these are not trivial amounts of money at all. That's the incentive part of InnoCentive. Russ: What was the problem where they got four solutions, all different, and they all paid out? Early on? Guest: Yeah. That was one of their first big case studies. It was just an organic chemistry problem, that a pharma company had struggled for years with, and the answers came, I believe within a few weeks. They made the problem public and then they got these four answers streaming in. And if you get multiple right answers, the companies are committed--they've got to pay out. Russ: But they were multiple answers, different strategies, and the diversity of the people who came up with those answers, they were totally different professions, if I remember correctly. It's wild. Guest: Yes. It's one of Alpheus's favorite stories. That kind of thing shows the advantage of crowd-sourcing; but also the advantage of not just giving these hard technical problems to people with the most technical expertise. Because if you give that technical problem to people who all come from that technical background, you may get solutions, but they will all be the same solution, because the people have been trained to think in the same way. So, that's really the virtue of just opening up the floodgates and making these problems public.
51:36Russ: So, in the last part of your book you talk about some of the ways we might as a society enhance creativity. And they aren't things like, remove your prefrontal cortex, by the way. But I want to jump off on that. I want to talk about Bill James, who I'm a big fan of--econ undergrad, by the way. He had a great insight about, I think Wichita, Kansas, the way the United States produces sports genius. What was that? Guest: Well, the last part of the book, I focus on so-called Ages of Excess Genius, these periods throughout history, like ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, where you don't just get one genius--you get this sudden cluster or clot of geniuses. You get Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon. The list goes on and on. Basically all these geniuses living in the same zipcode at the same time. It is quite eerie, and befuddling. Russ: Could just be random, you know. Guest: It could totally be random. That's a perfectly valid explanation. Russ: But not as much fun. Guest: There are some interesting patterns that recur through all these Ages of Excess Genius. T. S. Elliot had this great line, when he was trying to explain it in England; his version of the story was there wasn't somehow this sudden flourishing of talent or genius in the 1580s in London; they simply found ways to waste less genius, to waste less human capital. So, that was his explanation. I think that when you look at these Ages of Excess Genius, that does seem to be one thing they all have in common. Which is, in general, they found ways to waste less human talent. Often by improving the educational system. Let's not forget William Shakespeare was the son of a glover; his father [?]; and Shakespeare was given lessons in Latin at the age of 8, free lessons, thanks to educational reform. Christopher Marlowe got a full scholarship to Cambridge. So, some of the best playwrights of this generation were fortunate enough; had they been born a generation before, they would have been glovers, too. They would never have gone to Cambridge. So, finding a way to waste less human talent seems like a good idea anyways; but it does seem to be one of the patterns that maybe suggests this isn't just a random clotting throughout history. But anyway, back to Bill James: Bill James makes this wonderful point that when you look at 20th century America, we in a sense are living in an Age of Excess Genius right now; it's just that the geniuses we are so good at creating are athletes. It's physical genius. And he gives the example of Wichita, not a big city, but it's produced Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers--like one physical genius after another. And you can see this at the macro level too. So, America, we export basketball players all over the world. They have to have rules in Japanese baseball leagues about how many American players you can have on each team. We win the Olympics every four years. We are clearly very good at producing athletes. And Bill James says: Why is that? And he pointed out that we have an amazing pipeline for the development of athletic talent. That we drive our kids to Little League and the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) and Pop Warner--if they are good, they play against other good kids, they get even better. We lavish them with scholarships in high school and in college. We've somehow trained professional sports teams to invest millions of dollars in draft picks, kids with unproven potential, many of whom often don't pan out; and yet that might trickle down. That becomes a big motivating force , and more people want to go into basketball, or baseball, or football. And so he says it's this pipeline that has turned 21st century America into this athletic powerhouse. But then he points out that that pipeline doesn't exist for any other field, for any other type of genius. Russ: Wichita, Kansas doesn't have two Nobel Prize winners. They have two Hall of Fame football players; they don't have two Nobel Prize winners in chemistry. As far as I know. Guest: Exactly. Russ: I could be wrong. Guest: No, no, no. That's the point he makes. And it hasn't produced a number of great writers, and so on. That same pipeline doesn't exist for the arts, it doesn't exist for the sciences. So he argues if you really want to create an Age of Excess Genius, you need to find a way to transplant that pipeline to other fields. Russ: How might we do that? You have some interesting ideas. Guest: That's a good question. Obviously there's a reason why sports teams are willing to spend millions of dollars on a 21 year old college basketball player. Or, you know, a 20 year old linebacker. Simply because people will show up in droves to see those guys perform. So, there's a big business there. Russ: There's a fundamental economics reason, which is interesting, because the pipeline part isn't created from the top down. It's created from the bottom up. Football doesn't even have minor leagues. They've used the college system--it doesn't work that way in baseball--but all the stuff that we're talking about, of the kids putting in those hours, it's unlike the Soviet Union or Cuba or other Communist or authoritarian states. It just happens. Wonderful.
56:56Guest: Yes, so obviously there are some aspects to this pipeline that are probably unique to professional sports, because that's what we like to watch. It's a huge business. One could make the case that there should be some public investment. Maybe we should find ways to pay our superstar scientists loads of money. Russ: Well, you might feel that way, but then when you read that point about the National Institute of Health (NIH) versus the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Why don't you talk about that, actually? I'm going to quibble with your conclusion from that. But tell the story of what that study found. Guest: Sure. So, this compared the NIH, the largest funded biomedical institute in the world, to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which is known among scientists--first of all, it picks out the best and the brightest--but it encourages them to take risks. It's mandate from Howard Hughes is to fund avant garde research, basically. And so, while the NIH--it's a very rational process, one of their goals is to not waste taxpayer money on research that won't pan out, so they ask for a detailed explanation of how your experiment is going to work, what you expect to find. It's a very rational process. And that's probably for all sorts of good reasons. The Howard Hughes Medial Institute, in contrast, doesn't ask for an elaborate blueprint of your future research. They want an example of useful past research, something you've done in the past that has panned out. This is a study done by a team of economists at MIT, which, they tried to control for every possible variable. And certainly one can quibble with whether or not that's possible to do, and these analytical comparisons. But what they found was the HHMI scientists produced more big breakthroughs. And you can look at this from a number of different perspectives: papers with more citations, more home run papers, papers that introduce more new words into the scientific lexicon--so they came up with new acronyms, which is a good measure of a new idea, when you invent a new acronym and popularize it. But--and this is the interesting part--these Howard Hughes fellows, they also produced a lot more papers with 0 or 1 citation. So a lot more total failures. And their argument--and this is just compared to equivalent NIH scientists. So the NIH scientists produce fewer home run papers, but also fewer abject failures. And the lesson economists draw from this is one can't get one without the other. Russ: Yeah. You get fatter tails. More greatness and more not-so-great. Guest: Often from the same scientist, too. But if you want those big home run papers, you need to incentivize the culture of risk-taking. And you need to increase your tolerance for failure. Russ: This is great. So, my quibble with you is at one point toward the end you say we ought to encourage government to take more risks. And it's just not their DNA. So, my conclusion is: less public investment. Because you know what you are going to get--you are going to get more pretty-good stuff. But if you want great stuff, which is what changes the world and cures cancer, you need some of that other stuff, too. And I have lots of friends at NIH, and they are great people. Guest: Yeah. It will be interesting to watch how the Gates Foundation steps into the gap here. They are one organization that has very self-consciously modeled themselves after HHMI and really is trying to find ways to not just fund risky possibilities, but also fund younger scientists. They make a concerted effort to fund scientists who are under the age of 30. One of the most impressing stats I heard about the NIH is they fund more scientists who are exactly the age of 70 than all scientists under the age of 30. Russ: Huh. Well, that's what you'd expect. Guest: So, the Gates Foundation is really trying to correct for that. But the NIH has very deep pockets. So, it wouldn't hurt them to at least create some specialized programs that try to correct for some of these flaws in their process. Russ: Well, I encourage you to go visit them and make the case. But I'd rather you write another book. I think you'll be more productive.
1:01:13Russ: You have a lot of ideas at the end of the book--other policy ideas. But let's close talking about education. Obviously our education system has lots of problems. Almost by definition. It's a hard thing to do, to educate people. But one of the things that is changing is the use of technology, really forcing, despite the incredible barriers to innovation that are in our current system at the K-12 level, it's forcing them--I think eventually it will--to be a bit more open-minded. And you talk about the school in New Orleans. I think there's an inevitable focus on time spent at the desk, in the chair, rather than outcomes, which are creativity, grit, all the things that really make people successful in life. And really there's more focus on how many hours you spend in the classroom. And I'm struck by how little people learn in classroom settings. What are your thoughts on how that might change, and how would you like to see it change? Guest: Yeah. Obviously that's a hugely important question. One of the big themes in the psychological literature has been this emphasis on non-cognitive traits. So, for most of the last 100 years we've been hugely obsessed with intelligence, with making our kids smarter. It turns out that's hard to do; IQ scores, every study you look at--in general they are pretty bounded by genetics. We largely inherit our IQ scores. So, you can kind of budge them in the right direction, but it takes a lot of work. The good news, at least from the perspective of how to increase the chances of success, given how stable our IQ scores seem to be, is that these so-called non-cognitive traits--things like self-control, things like grit or conscientiousness--they turn often to explain more of the individual's success than intelligence. One very clear lesson we should draw from this so far from the psychological literature is really invest in these non-cognitive traits. Teach our kids how to become grittier, how to increase their self-control, how to become more conscientious. That we should teach these lessons right alongside literacy, arithmetic, and so on. Especially at the earlier ages. And that's one of the things you see in NOCCA, this high school for the performing arts I profile in the book, in New Orleans. They've got incredible metrics; and they focus on metrics I think are most meaningful. They look at college graduation rates from for instance families who have never gone to college before, and now they are off the charts. One of the most impressive statistics is the school costs $5 million a year to run, and the average amount of scholarships of the graduating class, if you average over the last decade, has been $12 million. So, they are running a $7 million net surplus most years. Which is a very impressive place. They are really not about sitting at the desk at all. They put in a vocational school, teaching creativity. They want kids who are passionate about a given art form, whether it's making movies, or ballet, or writing poetry. And then they just have them do it. They have them do it for hours every single day. And really, they talk quite explicitly about building up these traits like persistence, like grit--teaching people how to suffer through failures and how to get up, how to not quit, how to work hard. And the way you work hard, especially at these young ages, is by finding something you love. Angela Duckworth, who is one of the psychologists who have pioneered the study of grit, when you ask her, how can we build up grit in our kids, she's got this wonderful maxim, which is: Choose easy; work hard. That when you are young, it's very important to be exposed to a menu of possibilities. Find something you fall in love with. Find something that feels easy. Maybe it's piano, maybe it's violin, maybe it's Tae Kwan Do, maybe it's soccer, maybe it's chemistry--who knows what it is? But find that thing that when you do it, you forget you are even working. You lose track of time. And then once you find that thing, once you commit to it, you have to be reminded every single day to work hard. So, choose easy, work hard, is I think a maxim we should take into our schools. Instead of: What have you done at the moment? Largely for well-intentioned reasons and due to accountability, but we've almost gone in the opposite direction. We've become obsessed with these tasks and we teach the tasks, and we've made it harder than ever for kids to choose easy. And I think that's a shame.
1:06:06Russ: I want to ask you one last question. I found reading the book--and by the way, I'll add this for the listeners: I didn't agree with every psychology study that you have in there; that's a topic for another time--but the book is beautifully written. Guest: Thank you. That's so kind of you. Russ: There's a lot of lines that really sing. And it's a very provocative book. I found a couple of times that I had some new ideas about problems I was working on because of things that I read in the book. I didn't take a lot of warm showers and work in a blue room, which are two things you referred to. But just a lot of things clicked in my brain while reading the book. And I'm curious: having immersed yourself in creativity as long as it took to write a book like this, how did you find it affecting your brain? Was it different than writing a book on something else? You've written a bunch of books. Guest: Yeah, um, you know, I definitely tried hard to not get stuck in running recursive loops when I was too worried about my own creativity while writing about creativity. But I did feel my own creative process change while writing the book. The two big ways are, one, I've become much more willing when I'm stuck or stumped, when I don't know how to begin a sentence or finish a paragraph, now I'm much more willing to just go for a hike and leave my phone behind. So, in a sense, I've gotten better at wasting time. And I'm not going to pretend like now I've got all my best ideas when I'm, you know, relaxed on a walk. But it has been useful, because before I used to just stay up late and chug caffeine and you wake up the next day and realize your fixes haven't fixed anything, and you are just exhausted and you are no better off. The other more interesting way I think my creative process has changed--this was something I was not expecting at all--is, I've in a sense become much more willing to just talk to strangers. Now, I'm one of those people on a plane who, when they sit down next to you, I want to strike up a conversation. And it's funny, I think people have this radar for people like me, now. Russ: Yeah, they do. Guest: They'll see me coming and as soon as I sit down and give them this knowing glance, like, can I ask you a question, they put in their ear buds. Like, I've become one of those horrible people who wants to talk on planes. One of the things, and I don't think I did a good enough job of making this clear in the book, but the most creative people ask all sorts of silly, naive sorts of questions. They've got vast social networks. There's one study by Martin Ruef, a sociologist now at Princeton U., who tracked 760 graduates of the Stanford Business School and to make a long story short, what he found was those who have more diverse social networks were three times more innovative; and he measured innovation by patents, trademarks, and revenue from those patents and trademarks. And those with predictable social networks. And so, these were computer scientists who spent time with biologists and ballerinas and so on, and so I made a very concerted effort in my own life to just ask lots of questions. To just spend time with strangers, people who think differently, who speak different languages, use different acronyms, different assumptions, different politicians. Ask them questions, because they'll tell me the most interesting stuff.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Russell writes:

the play and download buttons appear to be reversed.

[In principle, both buttons can be used for either purpose, since really they are both just links to the mp3 file. What happens depends a bit on your browser, your hardware (IBM or Mac), and sometimes on settings you've selected for those or your default music player. For most folks, clicking the Play button opens a small popup window. Right-clicking or Option-clicking the Download button lets you Save the file (i.e., download it) to your machine.--Econlib Ed.]

Zack writes:

Great interview, normally I do not care for financial interviews but this was very interesting.

Fred writes:

"professional" at the start of the transcript should be "provisional"

--I think it's very important at the outset to emphasize how professional all this research is--

[Thanks. I've fixed it. --Econlib Ed.]

Jim Feehely writes:

Hi Russ,

Thank you for a truly eclectic conversation. A couple of disconnected points:

On Dylan:

I too, at 56 years old, have been a Dylan fan since I discovered him in 1965, aged 10. I think Dylan's apparent rudeness or aloofness was very different from anything observed in Steve Jobs. Dylan has despised the media all his career because of the media's ignorance of what Dylan's music and lyrics were about. The media just didn't get it and Dylan despised them for that ignorance and treated the media with contempt. The media then interpreted that contempt as contempt for Dylan's fans. Completely wrong if you read 'Dylan on Dylan' or 'Chronicles Vol 1'. And yes, he did appear to treat Joan Baez badly. But that was just a by-product of Dylan's artistic restlessness to move on from the 'protest folk' bubble that the media had created for him.

On the outsider in problem solving:

In relation to the Eli Lilly story, doesn't that demonstrate the social negative of the way IP is treated legally and imposed by the USA through free trade agreements etc? The IP fortress essentially embeds the failures within the fortress. The commercialisation of knowledge stunts the development of authentic knowledge.

On education:

That we are encouraged to believe that education is a dominant basis for success reveals what is wrong with education. Because education has been hijacked by corporate capitalism, it has degenerated into mere vocational training. Really valuable education is about thinking, not becoming something. All we need to do is re-wind about 50 years and rediscover thinking as the core of education and de-emphasise training.

On the entrepreneur:

Genius can be awakened by education, but rarely in a system now dominated by vocationalism. But why is it that plain luck is rarely attributed as the real engine of most success? Because that would invalidate the work ethic on which the myths of corporate capitalism are based. If luck does not play such a dominant role, why is it that a very small proportion of hard working people become Zuckerbergs, Jobs etc?

I agree with Jonah on an increasing tolerance for failure. What we should be rewarding is effort, not success, because success is most often the consequence of luck, not effort.

Regards,
Jim Feehely.

Phil Langton writes:

Great interview. I've been listening for several years now - it takes me about an hour to cycle to or from work so the duration is pretty well perfect.

I would like to see the power of failure recognised as a power for good. I suspect that failure has been written out of much of education in the same way that competitive sports have been outlawed in schools; because the pain of loosing was thought to be too damaging.

In the UK there is a great publication for education - the 'Times Higher Education' and one recent articles 'Get Back in the Saddle' argues that failing is a key and perhaps necessary part of learning.

The article does cite the fascinating work on Grit by Angela Duckworth.

As a final note, my father, who left school at 14 to start work but who learned enough by that age to follow with interest and with an ablilty to be critical, everything that happened in the world from the 1950's to the present day, used to set me tasks that he knew I may fail to complete. In a discussion after one such failure he once said 'failure is a better teacher than me'. Many years later, and working as a university teacher, I understand the wisdom in those words.
Regards
Phil Langton

Rick writes:

Russ:

This was fascinating. A couple of questions pop up for me.

1. How much is JL sampling on the dependent variable, (ie., degree of creativity)? The insights from his book may not be generalizable since, from the interview, he seems to base the findings on ex-post observation of people that have proven creative. Russ, you allude to this problem when you point out that we don't know the size of the denominator. That is we don't know the number of people that take these different creative paths but do not end up being creative.

2. Even if the different paths toward creativity (e.g., grit, taking breaks, etc.) are valid, it still begs the question which path is appropriate given the current conditions in order to enhance creativity? Without knowing this, the process seems to be fairly random.

Very enjoyable discussion!

David B. Collum writes:

How odd. I finished the talk; I love these kinds of topics. The first thing I notice is that the initial comments are on details, not big picture. I found this humorous for a lecture on creativity. Then I went to Amazon and discovered the book was already on my wishlist. I always read the negative comments, and they seemed oddly off target. I guess creativity generates funny responses. Here is my effort to contribute to the oddities in no particular order:

1. Just last night I was marvelling that my subliminal mind solves an enormous number of problems that thwart my conscious mind. Often times babbling to a student about the problem causes ideas to pop out even if the feedback from the student seems worthless. I think the part in which you grind on the problem is simply to memorize it. Once you’ve got it firmly planted in that “three pounds of meat”, the subconcious mind can take over.

2. I enjoyed the book “Blink”, which is all about the subconscious mind. For some reason, I kept thinking about the swinging rope experiment (for those who know the book).

3. I have tried a number of tricks over the years to introduce randomness to creativity. I once, for example, had students (chemistry PhD students) bring to group meeting two (short) papers. They kept one and we randomly traded the second one with each other. The next group meeting they were charged with presenting a 15 minute talk on why the the researchers representing the two randomly connected papers should collaborate.

4. In another instance, I sent out my research group into the world with the assignment of chosing a self-help book and presenting a book report to the group. No topics excluded.

5. I have adopted a BYOB--Be Your Own Boss--for weekends on my group. The idea stems from software companies. My students are allowed to work on any problem (within rational budget constraints) during the weekends. It’s in its infancy so I cannot really give you an assessment, but the software companies say that by leaving their employees alone (unfettered by dogmatic bosses) allows them to solve problems. They are even allowed to work on somebody else’s problem. (So far no personal explosions.)

6. You have the “yeah no” syndrome--saying the word yes and no (or some variant) back-to-back. It’s a kind of “um”. Everybody--EVERYBODY--does it, but I have never heard it mentioned.

Fred Giertz writes:

For the record, Vernon Smith is from Wichita. He graduated from Wichita North High.

Fred Giertz writes:

One additional comment on Wichita and sport genius:

Gale Sayers left Wichita when he was eight years old and moved to Omaha where he started playing football.

What about Gary, Indiana? Paul Samuelson, Robert Summers, and Joseph Stiglitz.

Mort Dubois writes:

" I think that when you look at these Ages of Excess Genius, that does seem to be one thing they all have in common. Which is, in general, they found ways to waste less human talent."

I would agree that we are currently living in an Age of Excess Genius, but that it's nature is not just that we don't kill off as many Steve Jobs or other outliers, but that our broad capitalist economy has found a way to take whatever small traces of genius reside within the great mass of people and put them to use. One of the most stirring sights I have ever seen is - wait for it - the view of Newark Airport as you pass the refineries on the New Jersey Turnpike. You see the vast built infrastructure of Newark, Newark Airport, the Port of Newark, and in the distance, all of Manhattan. It's the physical manifestation of an enormous amount of human effort and planning, made real by the efforts of millions of ordinary people, adding their little portion day by day. The people who designed the planes, the cars, the road, the bridges, the people who built them, and the people who use them to their own ends aren't outstanding geniuses, but the accumulation of all that is one of the greatest human achievements. So it's nice that you two concentrated on what makes the most remarkable humans remarkable, but you are missing how amazing it is that we ALL can contribute a little bit. Consider Russ and Jonah: 150 years ago one of you would have died in childhood and the other would be shoveling pig crap on a farm. Now you have the opportunity to not only engage in learned conversation, but to broadcast it to the world. Whatever genius you two possess is now available to everyone. If you set out to write a thank you note to everyone who contributed to this podcast, from the talented sound engineer down to the guy who dug holes for the power lines, you would have millions to thank. I think it's misguided to bemoan the "fact" that we don't have as many super geniuses anymore. The fact is that we have such an excess of them that we barely notice them. A midlevel college professor or researcher at a pharmaceutical company would have been one of the most accomplished people alive in 18th century Europe.

We should spend a little less time complaining, and maybe a little more time congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

Alan Ridgeway writes:

When they talked about pushing to think about an idea and then walking away from it can produce a better answer, it reminded me of this talk by John Cleese (Who I think we could all agree knows a little something about creativity).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VShmtsLhkQg&feature=player_embedded

John Berg writes:

I must admit that I viewed the John Cleese video before continuing: a splendid contribution to this podcast.

The discussion was excellent and rewarding.

When I was in school, the standard reference for heuristics was Polya's, How to solve it. And "Brainstorming" was in vogue (as described so artfully by Mr. Cleese). The description of new facts about the brain and how it functions argues for a podcast on how the "meat works."

I wonder: solving a problem is not quite the gamut of creativity but what is not included? Couldn't help thinking of "Goedel, Escher, and Bach." Did it include some additional components?

John Berg

Rufus writes:

Very interesting podcast (again!). I was not sure where this one was headed at the start but found it more and more fascinating as the discussion went on.

I thought the part about the mixologist was quite interesting. Who knew that that we could get bacon flavored bourbon? What innovation!

In the same area, I ran across this article today - Bowser Beer -- basically a mixologist for dogs.

http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_20868544/bowser-beer-helps-dogs-beat-heat?IADID=Search-www.twincities.com-www.twincities.com

Will innovation never cease? Apparently not.

Brittany writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Steve sedio writes:

Solving problems subconsciously is pretty well known in the engineering community - I refer to it as 'the background processor". Most of the world experiences this as insights in the shower.

As a manager, I assign a new project to someone stuck on a problem. When they return, the problem is no more.


Reference the Scotch tape engineer that improved battery life by improving LED effectiveness. I study many different technologies because most problems have already been solved in another field, because it was an easier problem in that field. All you have to do is find it, Eli Lilly did that with crowd sourcing.


College - trains people to think in a particular fashion. Us without it are too stupid to know what can't be done - than do it. Entrepreneurial types dropped out of college because it didn't keep up with them - not because it was "too hard" or "not interesting".


The John Cleese talk is wonderful...

R Chopara writes:

Another great podcast.
I was struck by the number of people who have made contributions in accounting and finance who originally trained in other fields: Robert Kaplan trained as an electrical engineer, Robert Merton also as an engineer, Fisher Black was a mathematician, Keynes and Arrow studied mathematics before moving to economics etc.
A thought about the NIH and the Hughes Foundation: maybe we need both. The NIH is a steward for public money and needs to be less entrepreneurial but foster a lot of good science and the "grit" learned here allows some to also use their spark of genius via the Hughes foundation. I wonder if Hughes could exist without the other.

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