Whether it be Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or, hell, even Kevin Systrom, Silicon Valley likes to stoke the cult of the solo genius – the brilliant yet inscrutable digital auteur who draws inspiration from heavens to which us mere mortals are 404’d. But brain science isn’t so invested in such myth-making and instead tells us that these creative leaders are more a product of their surroundings than we might be inclined to think.
In his excellent new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, neuroscientist and journalist Jonah Lehrer unlocks some of the mystery of the creative process and explains why social networks are key to the creation of genius. I got him on the phone to discuss what makes Silicon Valley an innovation hot spot, why startups should learn to chill out, and the costs of our iPhone addictions.
Update: Since publishing this interview, it has been revealed that Lehrer fabricated some of the material for “Imagine“. Further Lehrer indiscretions have also been noted, and this appears to be an unfolding story. Read on with that in mind.
In your book, you discuss the concept of excess genius, especially in reference to Shakespeare’s London, when there were so many brilliant playwrights around. To what extent do you think that idea applies to Silicon Valley today?
It very much does. What you’re really talking about with the age of excess genius is the social multiplier effect. One of the reasons you get a cluster of geniuses is because they all make each other better. In part, that’s through competition, but it’s really about the sharing of ideas and knowledge, and the more sharing that takes place, the more horizontal interactions – the more William Shakespeare steals lines from Christopher Marlowe, who steals lines from Francis Bacon – the better everyone gets.
You see a similar kind of process unfold in a place like Silicon Valley, where Steve Jobs is getting advice from the founders of Intel, and the average tenure at a Silicon Valley firm in the 1980s, when the region was taking off, was two and a half years. Of course, you also have the benefit of no no-competing clause in contracts – so you can jump firms, and you can start right away. And that turned out to be a big asset.
You say that a lot of this creativity depends on weak ties and interacting with each other – doesn’t that run counter to the idea to that Silicon Valley is a magnet for individual geniuses?
That is one of the myths of entrepreneurship. One of my favourite studies from the book is that Martin Ruef study. He actually tracked 776 graduates of Stanford Business School who had gone on to start their own companies, most of them in Silicon Valley. He looked at all sorts of variables, but he focused primarily on the social network. And he found that one of the biggest predictors of success was the diversity of the social network. Entrepreneurs with more diverse social networks were three times more innovative – and he measured innovation in terms of the number of patents, the number of trademarks, the amount of revenue from those patents.
So this really does suggest that entrepreneurship isn’t nearly as singular as we’ve long believed. We tend to valorize the individual, but it’s often a group process. Steve Jobs once said creativity’s just connecting things. Well, most of those connections come from other people.
A lot of startup culture is based on working your ass off and focus, focus, focus. Does that have a cost for creativity?
It absolutely does. You need to put in your 10,000 hours, plus or minus 5,000 hours. You need to invest in talent. You need to put in the work and you need to have those late nights. But every once in a while, you’re going to hit the wall. You’re going to be working on a problem, you’re making progress, and then that progress stops and you feel horribly stumped and frustrated. And it’s at this point that I think our assumptions about the benefits of focus backfire. You’ll be focused, but you’ll be focused on the problem, and probably the wrong answer.
Instead, when you hit the wall that’s when you need to go on vacation, that’s when you need to take a break. That’s when you need to make time to waste time. You need to find a way to relax. Because the science suggests that states of relaxation are much, much better at generating moments of insight – because at long last, we’re able to turn the spotlight of attention inwards, and finally hear that quiet voice coming into the back of our heads giving us the answer.
What about the obsessive behavior with devices; people who are always looking at their phones, are always attached, and when they have a spare moment, instead of striking up a conversation or staring out the window they go to their phones. What effect does that have?
It’s unclear. I think we’re engaging in a massive collective experiment right now with ourselves, and anyone who pretends to know how it’s going to turn out, I think, is at the very least overconfident.
Look, I don’t think Google’s making us stupid. I don’t think Twitter’s the apocalypse. I don’t think Facebook’s ruining human friendship. That said, in my own life I try to make time away from my phone. When I go for a hike, I don’t want to be checking the screen every five minutes. I think especially the literature on day-dreaming and creativity is very persuasive to me. People who day-dream more score much higher on tests of creativity. We know day-dreaming is a very, very valuable mental state. So if you’re always interrupting your day-dreaming, because as soon as you get bored you check your email again, that’s probably not useful. That’s probably not a good thing.
As brain science reduces the ineffable mystery of our talents, does that mean we have less justification in believing that we’re all amazing people with individual insights?
Well, I think here the neuroscience is actually uplifting. Because for a long time people considered creativity as this really rare gift, and you either have the muses on speed-dial or you’re shit out of luck. You see this in school kids – every second-grader thinks they’re creative, but in fifth grade it’s down to like 50 percent. By the time kids are high-school seniors, 95 percent of them say they’re not creative. So here we’ve taken this talent, which is actually quite universal, and turned it into a gift of the lucky few.
The science for once comes with the uplifting message [that] creativity is universal. It’s something we’re all meant to do. We all have an imagination. We all are connection machines, and we can all get better at it.
Update: For more on Jonah Lehrer, read our follow-up, which discusses how education is killing creativity, why drugs can help you have more insights, and why Steve Jobs was right to steal.