Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


A Predictably Irrational Way to Lose Our Best Employees

July 29, 2010

There is thought-provoking news to be drawn from the latest quarterly “Employee Outlook” survey report published by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): short-sighted cuts in training budgets may be laying the groundwork for an exodus of our best employees.

Here’s what the report shows: Job satisfaction levels in the United Kingdom are, as we might suspect in the current recession, very low (approximately 35% of the more than 2,000 public, private, and nonprofit sector employees surveyed—p. 2 of the report). More than a third of the respondents said they would change jobs within the next year if they could (p. 3). Nearly one-fourth of those who would like to change jobs would “be looking in a different sector” (p. 3). More than a third of all surveyed said they would seek a different type of work if they decided to switch jobs (p. 15). And approximately 40 percent of the respondents said one of the main reasons they would attempt to switch jobs is “to learn new things.”

That level of movement is consistent with what I have seen and read about in organizations here in the United States whenever there is an economic downturn. The latest report suggests that there remains a tremendous need and interest in effective training-learning opportunities out there at a time when there are clear signs that spending on workplace learning and performance programs has fallen. Younger employees currently entering the workplace, furthermore, are also continuing a related trend documented earlier: the Pew Research Center’s recent report on Millennials suggests that these incoming employees will be the best educated we’ve ever seen, and they expect to engage in lifelong learning to remain competitive.

Someone, we might conclude, is clearly not reading between the lines here or seeing the possibilities inherent in this situation.

Less than half of those responding to the CIPD survey said that their managers and supervisors discuss their workplace learning and performance needs. Slightly more than one-fourth of the employees said “their manager always/usually coaches them on the job” (p. 2). While cutbacks in training programs appear to be slowing down, more than 20 percent of the respondents said those sorts of cutbacks have occurred during the past year (p. 10).

Training, as numerous reports have shown and as Deena Sami noted in the Orange County Register earlier this month, is a critically important element contributing to employees’ workplace satisfaction and success. Yet we seem to fall into the trap of making what Dan Ariely calls “predictably irrational” decisions in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions; we engage in predictably irrational behavior every time we reduce workplace learning and performance programs rather than increasing them when employee morale is already sinking.

The situation documented by the CIPD report becomes even more predictably irrational when we listen to presentations like the one given by American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) CEO Tony Bingham at the organization’s annual Chapter Leaders Conference in Arlington, VA last autumn. Bingham, addressing workplace learning and performance professionals from across the country, warned that those waiting for training programs to return to companies which had eliminated them were counting on “a dream, a fantasy.” Company executives who had made those cuts told Bingham they were satisfied with the reductions and don’t intend to bring back the programs they have eliminated.

Our challenge in workplace learning and performance, then, is straightforward. If we see the possibility of a huge exodus looming for our organizations when the global economy improves, and if we know that the exodus will be fueled by a desire for first-rate learning opportunities which we are not providing, we clearly need to be creating and supporting new learning opportunities for those treasured employees we currently have—before we lose them to smarter and more innovative employers.


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