Inspired: Understanding Creativity

Reviewing Matt Richtel’s latest book

I’m one of those who people who underlines words and phrases in books; sometimes I write notes in the margins. It’s my own form of hyperlinking. It’s also a way of evaluating impact.

Based on the measure of ink I’ve applied, Matt Richtel’s latest, Inspired: Understanding Creativity, is easily in my Top Five Most Annotated books. For good reason. The prologue sums it up best: The act of creativity is terrifying. I’ve said it for decades. There’s good reason so many people shy away from suggesting, authoring, articulating, proposing. Despite the fact we humans are inherently creative — were born with and into creativity. Then we learn not to. We’ve created cultures and institutional rhetoric that both celebrate new ideas and threaten them simultaneously. Richtel’s book doesn’t explore the politics of ideas as deeply as, say, Robert Grudin’s The Grace of Great Things. Instead, Richtel takes us on a pandemic-lined journey from biology to comedy, neurology to song writing to uncover threads both common and not, making the case for unbridling that which is inside each of us.

“Creativity is, in fact, part of our more primitive physiology. It comes from the cellular level, part of our most essential survival machinery. We are creativity machines.”

And yet, “new ideas scare us.” The research Richtel illuminates makes clear we have a “subconscious bias against creativity.” This is, for me, the wonderful crux of it all. Humans are two sides of the same creative coin, both necessary. The typically dominant side protects us from new threats, however creative. While the other creates new solutions to new threats, or expands upon our humanity. We live to create, all the while often living in fear of creating. The book digs often into the work of Jack Goncalo, who’s research illuminates much about humanity’s wrestling match with creativity. In short: “people say they like creativity, but they also like stability.” Because our primal wiring doesn’t hesitate to remind us, even though we’re long from the caves, “change equals death.” The fear of new thinking, and the fear to think differently demonstrate our inherent resistance. We come by the duality honestly, as noted by Richtel’s conversations with researcher Emma Seppällä. “The nature of threats has changed while our primitive response-mechanisms remain largely unchanged.” The fear is primal: “judgement of the idea will feel like judgment of you.”

I appreciated the diverse line up Richtel employs to strip creativity from its myths. It’s a marvel so much academic research exists to codify and clarify how and why we create, never mind the stumbling blocks. Time and again, the studies ratify our addiction to certainty, and the allure of a “right” answer as persistent clouds thwarting creativity. To “persevere without knowing” is the gift of the creator. Or as Richtel quotes TV luminary David Milch, “When you don’t know what you’re going to say next but you trust yourself to say it anyway. That’s one of the constituent elements of friendship and also of inspiration. When you combine those, you’ve got the game.” My mom has a sign in her painting studio, a reminder of sorts: Fear Eats the Soul. The good news of Richtel’s book is a kindly reminder of our human frailty, which quite naturally leans towards false gods like perfection. We know enough now to resist.

“The number one enemy of creativity is perfectionism. There isn’t even a close second-place enemy.”

And what we know is stunning. Richtel takes us from microbiologists to neurologists, using the Covid-19 virus as apt metaphor to explain how creativity functions in similar ways whether your a microbe or a PhD or an Art Director. In his conversations with Richard Dawkins at the University of Oxford, we’re reminded “a basic attribute of creators is not the initial quality of their ideas but the sheer quantity of mutation.” And we’re seeing this evolved and proven daily with the rise of what I call Enabled Creativity — humans leveraging data, code and machines to address the challenge of “sheer quantity.” Richtel shows us how current neuroscience is helping, “break down…creativity into smaller chunks — idea generation, processing and so forth” which helps to demystify ourselves and shake free from outdated stereotypes of the idea person and the business of creativity.

So what is creativity?

Richtel documents all the known definitions (i.e. scholar Joy Paul Guilford’s four qualities of creativity: Fluency, Originality, Flexibility and Detail) and offers two of his own which I prefer. The first is an understanding: Creativity makes a difference. If there’s nothing different as a result, we’re probably not talking about creativity. The second decoding evolves the first, essentially, “the very heart of creativity…[is to help] see the world more clearly.” Positioning creativity for its result, versus as an act, is very appealing.

“Creators don’t seem to preach as much as to listen, to interact with the world, gather, synthesize.”

The good news is you don’t need to be smart to be creative and successful. Openness and perseverance are much stronger indicators of creative ability, asserts Richtel. In chatting with San Jose State University professor Gregory Fiest, it becomes clear the ability to create in any field is very much, “a willingness to be confused and not understand and not know” suggests Fiest. Idea people, “take pleasure in not understanding rather than withdrawing from it.” Richtel summarizes, “the creator is confident enough to be willing to be uncertain — but then confident enough to settle on an answer authentic to a particular creative approach.”

This book does great service on many levels. We’re given a master class in the broad academic research codifying all aspects of creativity. Interwoven are a useful diversity of perspective from creators across industry, genre and media. And throughout, a fearless searching and articulation. If creativity is Jello, it’s impossible to pin down and yet Richtel’s managed the task. I’ll be returning to these pages often, thanks to so much worth annotating.

Originally published at Useful Lunacy



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Tim Brunelle

Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.