I Read Three Books on Innovation and Creativity So You Don’t Have To

I didn’t really mean for this to happen.

I was just reading as I always do, some combination of what strikes my fancy, what I run into while over-caffeinated at the bookshop, and what my co-captain of our college’s Center for Teaching Excellence tells me to read.

This practice usually yields a weird hodge-podge of fantasy, neuroscience, pedagogy, and the latest litfic. But for some reason three books in a row converged on the topic of creativity and innovation.

The focus of the books vary a bit: Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire on the practices most likely to yield creativity, Adam Grant on a close study of entrepreneurs who broke the molds in their fields and changed the world, and Ken Bain on intellectual mavericks across many fields and what they did in college to launch them on their life paths.

While they did differ, there were many themes and examples that dovetailed and recurred, and so I thought I would summarize them here — for my future self and for you.

Creative People Produce A LOT, and It Isn’t All Quality

We tend to assume that quantity and quality are opposed, that to do great work you need to focus on a small number of projects. But the data don’t back this assumption up.

Creative geniuses often produce their best works at their times of greatest output, and these times are also marked by some of their worst work. For example, Thomas Edison created a creepy talking doll and several other non-starters around the same time period that he created the lightbulb.

“In poetry, when we recite Maya Angelou’s classic poem Still I Rise, we tend to forget that she wrote 165 others; we remember her moving memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and pay less attention to her 6 other autobiographies.” — Adam Grant.

In another example, the creators of Warby Parker generated two thousand possible names for their company before deciding on their Jack Kerouac-inspired final version.

To create well, create often.

Be Willing to Be Alone, Feel a Lot, and Look Deep

While Bain and Grant focus more on innovators and achievers across multiple domains, Kaufman and Gregoire look more closely at artistic creativity and find that many pioneers in this realm hear the siren’s call of solitude, feel emotions and sensations deeply, and aren’t afraid to do the hard work of self-inquiry. Rather than review their ideas on this work, I’ll leave you with some fantastic quotes:

“Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity”
 — Ingmar Bergman

“Be quite alone, and feel the living cosmos softly rocking.” 
—D.H. Lawrence

“Namely, these people seemed to become more intimate with themselves — they dared to look deep inside, even at the dark and confusing parts of themselves.” 
— Kaufman & Gregoire

But Also Be Playful & Open to Experience

The personality trait most tied to creativity is that of Openness to Experience, summed up by a willingness to try new foods, music, entertainment, and modes of thinking. Kaufman and Gregoire identify three forms this openness to experience can take:

  1. Intellectual (love of truth, problem solving, engagement with ideas);
  2. Affective (openness to the full depth of human emotion, preference for gut decisions, high empathy); and
  3. Aesthetic (preference for art, fantasy, and absorption in beauty).
“The common strands that seemed to transcend all creative fields was an openness to one’s inner life, a preference for complexity and ambiguity, an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray, the ability to extract order from chaos, independence, unconventionality, and a willingness to take risks.” — Kaufman & Gregoire

This openness to experience generates a mindset that allows you to incorporate ideas and influences into your creations from a wide variety of fields of knowledge.

Bain profiles scientist Cheryl Hayashi, who started out with a lab assistant job feeding spiders. She turned her undergraduate and then graduate education into a quest to understand not just the mechanics of how spiders spin silk but also their evolutionary history, their representation in art, and how one might apply knowledge of all of these areas of knowledge to practical solutions in the world. She is the proud recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant for this work characterized by an openness to multiple avenues of tackling a question rather than remaining locked in a single mode of inquiry.

The Outsiders: It is Critical to Be, Adopt, or Hire Outside Perspectives

Once you become an expert in a given field, it can be difficult to innovate because you get trapped in the rules and language of your domain of expertise. Grant details how Seinfeld almost never made it past the pilot stage because its approach to sitcom comedy was so outside the norm. He quotes Rick Ludwin, NBC executive who commissioned the show despite not having worked in sitcoms before: “We didn’t know what rules we weren’t supposed to break.”

Bain focuses on the concept of metacognition, of intentionally studying how your own brain works, and being open to the ways that your views of the world are inherently restricted.

“If we understand that our brains construct reality, we can help guide that process, and if we realize that it uses those constructions to interpret the world, we can begin to question, to grapple with our own thoughts and even escape the prisons that our existing paradigms build around us.” 
— Ken Bain

Another route to breaking out of your set mental paradigms is to deliberately expose yourself to criticism. Grant traces several high-profile cases of botched decisions (e.g., Cuban Missile Crisis) or inventions (e.g. Polaroid failing to foresee the revolution of digital photography) to dynamic leaders who surrounded themselves with yes-people rather than people who might have pushed the envelope and encouraged new ways of solving problems.

Whether it is living in a foreign country for a time, picking up a new instrument, hiring someone to shoot holes in your idea, or inviting a collaborator from another field onto your project — inject new perspectives to succeed.

Feel Free to Procrastinate (Tell Your Boss You Are “Incubating”)

According to Grant, research shows that as long as you are intrinsically motivated and passionate about solving a problem, procrastinating on the task actually yields benefits in terms of the creativity of the solutions you come up with. You are able to think more divergently and consider a larger set of possibilities than if you focus and try to solve the problem straight away.

In their book, Kaufman and Gregoire cite creativity’s generation as the combination of unconscious, spontaneous information processing that often occurs when the mind is idle or mildly occupied (Kaufman famously advocated showering as a great venue for such information processing here — I recommend dog walking for the same) with focused, disciplined information processing. You need to generate the ideas playfully and unconsciously, and then carry them out intentionally and consciously.

image credit: Thinkstock Erin McCarthy

Grant cites Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who demonstrated that people have better memories for incomplete than complete tasks, perhaps because when a task is not yet finished, it stays alive in our thinking.

Go Get Started

I was going to think up a catchy ending to this piece but then recalled the research I just cited and thought that if I left it unfinished, your minds would be more likely to generate their own, creative solutions. So get to it.

(Post-script: The books are all fantastic and share a lot more than these few tidbits — so while I said you don’t have to read them, you might just want to do so).