On Saturday, Jonah Lehrer published an article in the Wall Street Journal called “Bother Me, I’m Thinking.” The article’s premise, based on a couple of university research studies, suggests a caffeine-fueled, laser focus, is not the proper road to creativity. Instead, the piece claims people who are inattentive and easily distracted are more creative. There’s some truth in the article, but it brought to mind three dirty little secrets about what creativity is, how to release your creativity, and solid research:

1. Everybody’s creative.

Yes, you’re creative, even if you think you aren’t. Want proof? What’s something you REALLY LOVE to do? Maybe something that would never be considered a creative pursuit….like fishing, cleaning the house, or exercising. In those areas, I bet you have all kinds of hacks, personal strategies, and ways of going about it that nobody else does, right? See, you’re creative! What is the definition of creativity? Creativity is simply going outside the bounds of what or how everybody else does things. It doesn’t have to be painting, music, or writing. With this definition of creativity, it can apply to everything.

2. What you should do to release your creativity depends on you and your situation.

The WSJ article addresses a couple of recent university studies pointing to the creative advantages of daydreaming, attention-deficit disorder, and getting distracted by objects – shiny or not. The central point was difficulty in focusing on specific details allows an individual to wade through a much wider range of creative stimuli. Absolutely true, and part of the reason I’m always writing about the importance of diversity. But you know what? There are people (and times) where focus and time along are essential as well. The dirty little secret is the creativity exercises and techniques to release your creativity are HIGHLY dependent on how you’re trying to be creative RIGHT NOW. Don’t get locked into just a few creativity exercises. Have a bunch of creativity exercises you can use until you find the one working for you this instant.

3. Just because it’s called “research” doesn’t mean it tells you anything of value.

The university research efforts in the article were based on studying 60 and 86 undergraduate students, respectively.  60 and 86 undergraduate students? In the business world, we wouldn’t have reported with much confidence how pickup and delivery drivers in a 5 state area were doing at their jobs based on fewer than 100 randomly selected customer interviews. There is so much “research” coming out of universities which purports to help us understand the world. In reality, these projects barely help us understand students at that university. These provide, at best, interesting observations. They don’t predict what will happen in the world.

Today’s Creativity Wrap-up

You are creative and whatever creativity exercises work for you to release your creativity are great, so don’t let any researcher tell you differently! – Mike Brown

For an additional creative boost, download the free Brainzooming ebook, “Taking the NO Out of InNOvation” to enhance your creative perspective! For an organizational boost, contact The Brainzooming Group to help your team be more successful by rapidly expanding strategic options and creating innovative plans to efficiently implement. Email us at [email protected] or call us at 816-509-5320 to learn how we can deliver these benefits for you.

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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7 Responses to “Creativity and Research – 3 Dirty Little Secrets”

  1. Karen says:

    Agree with what you said, especially point #3. Interesting the WSJ used such a “small” research study as basis of the article.

    People that are easily distracted are more creative, eh? I should be a creative genius then!

    • Anonymous says:

      You’re definitely a creative genius Karen! That’s another way of saying dirty little secret #1…everybody’s a creative genius at something, they simply have to find the area (or areas) and give themselves the credit!

  2. Mark Dykeman says:

    I enjoy Jonah Lehrer’s articles and I’m planning to read his books. However, you bring up a very good point about sample sizes, research, etc. I also find that Lehrer kind of throws these things out there which are interesting but they may be designed to be more thought-provoking than useful.

    His article has to be taken in the context that it’s written and offered. This is very similar to the recent HBS working paper about the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. Yes, the research findings can lead you to draw a certain conclusion…. within the confines of the conditions of the experiments. However, it doesn’t readily explain why things happened the way they did during the experiment.

    Nice find, Mike!

    • Barrett Sydnor says:

      Without having read the studies in question, I would also imagine that the authors were much more careful than Lehrer to say that there results were based upon a small sample size, were only applicable to the type of subjects and conditions studied, etc. Maybe the 4th dirty little secret is that much academic research reported on the in popular press is misrepresented somewhat–at least sometimes usually unintentionally–because of a lack of understanding of probability, failure to cite the limitation that the authors did, lack of space, and other less noble reasons.

      • Anonymous says:

        Maybe the authors were more careful, Barrett, or maybe they weren’t. I was at a conference last year where an academic researcher was speaking very authoritatively on a study that I think had fewer than 30 participants!

    • Anonymous says:

      Agreed Mark that these types of pieces get thrown out as interesting. The challenge is that when someone knows about research or is a questioning reader, they realize it’s an input, not an answer. Those who are not in either category can walk away and actually think they’ve got some info that could shape decisions and actions.


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