Friday, January 18, 2013


I've been prowling through the public library recently, finding all sorts of books that have captured my interest.  (Thus all these book reviews.)  This was in the new books section.

The title is Imagine and the subtitle is 'How Creativity Works' and the author is Jonah Lehrer.  The book is divided into two parts, entitled 'ALONE' and 'TOGETHER'.

The first section is interesting, looking at the neurobiology of creative thinking and the creative benefits of travel, as well as how Bob Dylan wrote the song 'Like a Rolling Stone' and how poet W.H.Auden benefitted from using amphetamines.  But it's the second part of the book that I think holds lessons for those of us into communities and social change.

Lehrer begins that section by citing a study done by sociologist Brian Uzzi, covering every Broadway musical produced between 1877 and 1990, which looked at the teams involved.  Were most of the people close friends or frequent collaborators, or were they pretty much strangers? 

Interestingly enough, the musical teams that created the most successful productions were composed neither of mostly familiar faces nor of folks who hadn't worked together before.  Rather, the bulk of Broadway hits were made by teams that were a mix of old friends and new faces.  It turns out you need both people you know and can depend on and newcomers with fresh ideas.

My sense is this is true of communities also; the ones that are the most successful (Twin Oaks, for example) have both long-term members that have known each other for years and new folks coming in and out.  You need people who know what they're doing and can depend on each other, and people you don't know who bring new blood and new energy.

From there, the book looks at Pixar, which has created eleven films, all of which have been commercial successes.  They claim that a big part of their success is because of the organization of the studio--all the main functions are located in the center of the building, even the bathrooms, so that you constantly have to run into people to do anything.  It's the continual interactions that promote the creativity.  Lehrer references sociologist Ray Oldenburg who talks about "third places" (neither home or work) where people get together--coffeeshops and bars and other hangout spaces.  In communities I often notice this in kitchens and dining areas, people running into each other and chatting, and often connecting with new folks.

There's a lot more in this section, including the benefits of large cities and particular times in history--as well as pointing out that 'brainstorming' doesn't work and critiquing sessions actually work better, but I want to end with something I found in couple of places in the book.  The first was in a footnote where Lehrer was talking about W+K, a very successful ad agency, where the walls were covered with art, including a canvas covered with pushpins.  When viewed at a distance the pins create the words 'Fail Harder'.  Later, he mentions visiting the classroom of a drama teacher at a school for the arts.  Hanging on the wall above the door is a banner that reads 'FAIL BIG'.

Lehrer goes on to discuss a study that compared two medical funding agencies, the National Institutes of Health which funds proposals that are well supported by preliminary evidence, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which encourages researchers to take risks.  It turns out that the HHMI researchers "went on to produce twice as many highly cited reseach articles and win six times as many awards" as the ones funded by NIH. They "also produced 35 percent more research papers that were cited by nobody at all."  Lehrer concludes by saying, "The moral is that these scientists weren't producing better research because they were smarter or more creative or had more money.  Instead, they had more success because they were more willing to fail."

This reminds me of what I wrote in my post on Gaviotas a few years ago.  (See Real Models 2:Gaviotas, 10/6/10.) "The Gaviotans tried many, many experiments and almost as many were failures as were successes."  Part of why Gaviotas has produced so many sustainable innovations is their willingness to fail.  And, as I wrote in my update on Building New Communities (12/18/12), if most new communities fail, the only way to have more communities, is to keep creating communities, knowing that they are likely to fail but that may be the only way to succeed.  And I think that's also true of most social change efforts.  The fact that many of them won't be successful, is a good reason to do more.

So there is my goal for both building communities and creating social change.  Fail more.  Fail faster.  Fail harder and fail big. You've probably heard the expression that someone has failed miserably.  What I want to do is fail joyfully.

Quote of the Day: "People have a tendency to want to work only with their friends.  It feels so much more comfortable.  But that's exactly the wrong thing to do.  If you really want to make something great, then you're going to need to seek out some new people, too." - Brian Uzzi (quoted in Imagine)


MoonRaven said...

My friend, ethicalsusan, sent me this link after reading the post:

I'm sorry to find it out, but as she pointed out, it doesn't make his work 'not interesting'.

vera said...

"you constantly have to run into people to do anything" = introvert's nightmare

MoonRaven said...

Good point.

One more reason to have lots of different communities, designed differently. The book points out that there are a lot of different routes to creativity--I doubt that Dylan would do well at Pixar.

vera said...

That book on introverts Quiet by Cain, talks about new research that negates all those previous odes to open design and how people are most creative in groups. She says people (even extroverts) hate open design, want privacy, and best ideas germinate individually... then they are vetted in groups...

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for the reference--I'll have to check it out.