Cross posted from the Santa Fe Leadership Center newsletter/blog, for which it was commissioned and where is was first published April 12. 

Uh,oh, I thought at first, and then “oh-no:  Jonah Lehrer isn’t joining the dark side, is he?”  The title of the New Yorker piece previewing his forthcoming book Imagine read “Groupthink: the brainstorming myth.” Would he be yet another horseman of the Creativity and Innovation backlash, arguing to their readers (many of whom, after all, found their writing online, via Social media, or shared with them via some collegial network) that “groupthink” is the enemy and that original thinking and breakthrough creativity is being lost in the crowd and drowned by the information flood inundating us.

William Deresiewicz makes the strongest claim of those I declare to be on the “dark-side” of the creativity force in his much circulated essay for the American Scholar, “Solitude and Leadership“:   “Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now – older people as well as younger people – you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts.”

More recently, Susan Cain, whose recent book Quiet and TED-talk on Introverts are all the rage, laid it out on the front page of the Times’Sunday Review:  “Artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Fortunately within about a dozen paragraphs of Lehrer’s New Yorker its true thesis emerges: “Human creativity has increasingly become a group process. Many of us can work much better creatively when teamed up,” he wrote, noting that the trend was particularly apparent in science labs. The essay’s title is a misleading misdirection: despite a few flaws in traditionally constructed brainstorming,  creativity is best advanced when we effectively connect and collaborate.

Disregard the dark side, because the evidence is increasingly and abundantly clear: creativity may spurt into consciousness when the churning currents of our brain-stream are in a momentary calm spot, perhaps when the topography temporarily flattens and waters slow or find respite from the rush behind a rock or tree, but the significance of that spurt will be richest when our momentarily still waters have come from many tributaries rushing into one another with great tumbling, frothing, and intermingling.

We live in a golden age of thinking about thinking, and in particular, thinking about creative thinking, and we should all be grateful for this wave of new understanding, because there is nothing – nothing – more critical for our global future and for the future success of our students and ourselves, than that we enhance creative powers.

Reflecting upon my reading, four elements emerge as most valuable to the project of helping ourselves, our colleagues, and our students become more creative.

1. Our own consciousnesses come first: unless we genuinely seek to understand better and be open to learning – from experience, from others, from failure – we will always find our creativity sharply restrained. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, sets the stage for a creative life better than any other I know.  The fixed mindset is an insidious plague; it sneaks up the back of our spine and calcifies if we don’t actively exercise its opposite: the growth mindset – the simple but profound notion that whatever it is we are attending to, there is more we can learn.

Dan Pink in Drive calls this phenomenon Mastering, but it is entirely the same concept as Dweck’s Mindset (and Pink draws explicitly upon Dweck in the chapter).  Whatever our quest might be, our progress will be greatest if we deepen our self-image of ourselves as ever on the journey, always striving and never arriving.

Shannon Smith, our brilliant photography teacher at St. Gregory whose students rack up creativity awards annually, recognizes this when reflecting upon what elicits creativity among her protégées:  “The best part of teaching is seeing the excitement on a student’s face when they complete an image that THEY know they worked hard on, put their heart into, and realize the beauty they have just created.”

My own period of greatest creativity– exponentially greater than any before it– emerged immediately following my reading of Dweck’s Mindset.  Any educator seeking to stimulate greater creativity could do no better than to start with a study group centered on this book and these ideas.

2. Draw upon the power of the Network: Connect and Collaborate: The most creative times and places have always been at the crossroads, in the interstices, and along the network. Steven Johnson’s astoundingly entertaining and illuminating book, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, explains how as cities grow geometrically, creativity in those cities grows exponentially, because of the rising density of connectivity among residents, much as our brainpower expands as our synaptic linkages multiply .   Now, as Johnson explains, it is no longer essential to live in a big or busy city because social media is providing the kind of exchange of ideas virtually that until recently was only possible physically.

Famous creative ad-man George Lois, perhaps the model for Mad Man Don Draper, makes these suggestions for creative inspiration: Go to a Museum;  Listen, Listen, Listen; and Pay Attention to the Zeitgeist: ” When it comes to pulling concepts out of thin air, “It’s about understanding what the hell’s going on around you,” says Lois, who spends an hour each morning poring through the New York Times.”

Today the opportunities for tapping into the zeitgeist have never been greater.  John Seely Brown, the genius guru of Xerox PARC, captures and conveys this truth in a book everyone involved in education should read, A New Culture of Learning. As he writes, “In a community, people learn in order to belong, but in a collective, people belong in order to learn… Thanks to digital media, the range of available collectives is almost limitless.  They constitute an ocean of learning.”  These collectives constitute also an ocean of creativity.

The high water mark of Lehrer’s New Yorker essay centers on the significance of networked connectivity for successful Broadway musicals.

The best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy.  A show produced by a team [working] within this range was three times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced by a team with a score below 1.4 or above 3.2.  It was also three times more likely to be lauded by the critics.  

In other words, it was essential to find the right balance among the musical composers: close enough connectivity that the collaboration is comfortable, without being so close that the collaborators are starved for new and fresh ideas.

Here at St. Gregory we are determined to use the best tool available for our students to plug into the networks they need to strengthen their connectivity and stimulate their creativity.  As Ms. Smith explains about her teaching, “We look at artists each day in class, be it photographers, writers, graffiti artists, poets, sculptors, etc.. With the help of social media, we are more in touch with the art world than ever before, and I’ve witnessed this inspiration set forth ideas in my students that they successfully translate into their photographic work.”

3. Third on our list: Action and Iteration, Effort and Perseverance, and Practical Steps. It is not always a matter of 10,000 hours, but creativity requires risk-taking and the confidence and willingness to put it out there, and then, after getting feedback, put it out there again. How often do we ask ourselves, our colleagues, and our students to take the risk of sharing, of publishing, of putting work on display for critique, and then ask them to do it again the next day, and the next day after that?  One of our greatest mistakes in the popularization of the concept of creativity is that it is a single burst of imagination, rather than recognizing and remembering it is a practice, a discipline, and a perseverance.

There is a practical dimension to this as well. Sure, there are occasions of creative inspiration finding extremely easy pathways from conception to demonstration, but so often, creativity demands the pragmatism of execution– and our schools rarely provide enough opportunities or training in the practical arts. Colleges are awakening to this limitation– or at least a few are, according to the Chronicle Review, in another must-read article, “Tools for Living.”  The article’s thesis might be best found in this quote from a U.Mass Professor, Robert Forrant, “To somehow think that you can dream something up without really understanding what it takes to make it flies in the face of reality.”

The implications for our schools are enormous. To enhance our learning spaces as creative environments, we must do more to empower our students to do more.

4. Finally, respite and repose are also essential for creativity toflourish.  Our breakthoughs often arise in the in-between moments, in the down-time or the out-of-mind and out-of-body experiences. Too often in our schools, we’re too hectic keeping up with our schedules and too determined to accomplish too much in an hour, a day, or a week-and our creativity necessarily suffers.  What to do?  Block scheduling is a must, as are more breaks between class and even inside of class-time. Natural environments matter too: combating what Richard Louv describes as Nature Deficit Disorder is not only important in order to reduce depression and obesity: it is essential if we are to revive and uplift the creative spirit.  Schedule for yourself and your students a daily walk – and as healthy as it is to be social, ensure some of the time the walk is solitary or in quiet. Those thinkers on the dark side: they are partially correct.  We do need unplugging, solitude, quiet, but only when it comes in between stimulating rounds of growth, networking, collaboration, and action.

Photo Credits: #1, Isabella Ritz, #2, Coco Tirambulo, #3 Keely O’Brien, #4 Ali Salzer, all students in St. Gregory’s Photography class with Shannon Smith.