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Picture dated 1931 of German-born Swiss-US physicist Albert Einstein (File photo | AFP/File photo | AFP)
Picture dated 1931 of German-born Swiss-US physicist Albert Einstein (File photo | AFP/File photo | AFP)

How to have a creative breakthrough Add to ...

It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention, but it turns out it takes more than just need to prompt a big idea. In his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer deconstructs the almighty Eureka moment. Below, some tips on how to channel your inner Einstein.

To be creative you need to act creative

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One of the biggest roadblocks to innovation is the commonly held assumption that only certain people are gifted with the imagination gene, when the truth is that we all have the potential: “Successful creative people are often the ones who instinctively understand how to access their creativity,” says Mr. Lehrer. In other words – to be creative, you need to adopt the habits of creativity – be social, ask questions, take more walks, do more daydreaming and (big one here) spend less time playing Angry Birds on your iPhone. “One of the changes I have made since writing this book is that I now make an effort to go for walks and I leave my phone at home,” says Mr. Lehrer.

Give in for big wins

We’ve all seen it in the movies and on TV – a detective spends days obsessing over a big case, but it’s only when she takes a couple hours off to play with her nieces that (cue the telling musical overture) the desired breakthrough occurs. Yes, it’s dramatic, but the set-up is also accurate.

“For so long we have been taught that when you hit a wall you need to push through it, but as far as creativity goes, when you hit a wall, you should step away from the problem and give your brain some time to relax,” Mr. Lehrer explains, emphasizing that a fifth cup of coffee and/or staring down your computer screen will rarely beget brilliance.

Mr. Lehrer references Bob Dylan who had quit music in frustration shortly before penning one of the greatest rock songs of all time: “He was fed up and had moved to a cabin in upstate New York to be an artist and novelist. After just a couple of days he started scribbling the lyrics to Like A Rolling Stone, probably because he was no longer feeling the pressure.”

Make time to waste time

Einstein said that creativity is the residue of time wasted, but with screens and gadgets to occupy our every waking second, the simple act of staring out into space has become a lost art.

“Arthur Fry invented Post-it notes while daydreaming in church, and there are countless other examples of creativity that only happens when we let our mind start to wander,” Mr. Lehrer says, adding that most breakthroughs are simply the result of connecting two or more already known concepts in a new way. So imagine that the ideas are already floating around in your brain – your job is simply to give them a relaxed and comfortable environment to come together. Those who don’t unwind easily should take a hot shower – “a great way to get out of your own head,” says Mr. Lehrer.

Be a people person

Keep the creative juices from drying up by making sure to spend time with lots of people, particularly those with differing view points and professions from your own. “If you are, say, a writer, you might think that the most stimulating social interaction would be with other writers who share your interests and passion, but the opposite is actually true,” says Mr. Lehrer. You want to be pushed to see things from different vantage points, since this is how seemingly unconnected ideas and concepts come together.

On an even more basic level, casually interacting with as many people as possible will keep you creatively limber. Steve Jobs (a.k.a. the Grand Poobah of Innovation) believed that the most important meetings happened by chance and outside of the boardroom. In the Pixar offices (designed by Mr. Jobs), meeting rooms and mailboxes were positioned in the building’s main atrium near the cafeteria, coffee bar and bathrooms.

Get your dukes up

In the modern office environment, the first rule of brainstorming is that there is no such thing as a bad idea. This, says Mr. Lehrer, is not the case: “Positive brainstorming does make us feel good, but there is absolutely no evidence that a lack of criticism will encourage better ideas.” In fact, debate and dissent are positive tools in the quest for creative brilliance.

“Having an idea questioned causes the thinker to dig deeper and also to identify what does and doesn’t work,” he says. That said, nobody likes to get stomped on, especially in the work place – know the difference between healthy debate and public humiliation.

And don’t do this: Pull all-nighters. Our brains work through problems during solid REM sleep.



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