The Rumpus Interview with Jonah Lehrer


If you listened to Radiolab or read the New Yorker in the last three years, you’ve probably encountered the science journalist Jonah Lehrer.

The New York Times Book Review said his second book How We Decide “tilts more decisively in the thinking-person’s self-help direction.” His latest book Imagine: How Creativity Works tilts back towards the science journalism direction with Milton Glaser, Bob Dylan, and W. H Auden playing supporting roles in this exploration of how our brains create new ideas and things.

We recently sat down in the Rumpus offices in San Francisco to talk about what he means by “creativity” and the meandering stories that did not make it into the book.


Rumpus: There’s a very interesting presumption you make in your book that I kept trying to turn over in my mind. You use innovation and creativity as synonyms, would you agree with that?

Jonah Lehrer: Yeah, absolutely. I do think that’s one thing I struggled with when I was trying to work out the definitions. We come up with new stuff all the time. We fall asleep and our brain is just spewing out new fictions, new stories, new narratives, we’re always inventing new connections, but is that creativity? Or do you need—and this is a technical debate you see in literature—to take into account the second life of the idea, the fact that someone else finds it useful, the fact that it actually finds a place. It fills a void in the world. In the end I thought that was an important distinction to make. We could obviously spend years debating the precise boundaries of creativity. When we talk about what is creativity, is it just the invention of something new that’s useful? What does new mean? What does useful mean? These are very, very vague words. I think creativity, like porn, you just know it when you see it. But I do think one essential component of the definition of creativity has to be the second life. That it’s a new idea that finds a place in the world. That it becomes part of this positive feedback loop, where it’s an idea that begets ideas.

Rumpus: I was also wondering whether

Lehrer: Well, if I could just, I’m just curious how you would define creativity and innovation, innovation being different. Because this is something I absolutely struggled with. I think we have this vague sense that they are different, but I honestly couldn’t for the life of me pin that down.That’s why I ended up using them in general as synonyms. I think I used innovation more in talking about gadgets and the Swiffer; creativity more when I’m talking about Milton Glaser and Picasso and all the rest, but honestly I struggled with the hermeneutics of those words and didn’t seem to get very far.

Rumpus: I think that a creative idea or thingin the traditional sense of the wordis not inherently useful. It does not have a purpose outside of itself. And then innovation to me is something that does something in the world, like a ballpoint pen does something in the world

Lehrer: I see that, but you know I find poetry useful. Novels have changed my life. So…

Rumpus: Of course and maybe this is just semantics on my part.

Lehrer: No, no, that’s an interesting distinction. That kind of is why I have a tendency to use innovation when talking about the Swiffer and when talking about W.H. Auden, I talk about creativity. I think there is this venn diagram of the words, but in the end I saw their overlap as being so large that I just said, I’m going to use them interchangeably. Even though, I don’t use them completely interchangeably, but for the most part I do.

The larger project I was trying to get acrossand I don’t think too successfullybut one of the reasons I wanted to begin with the brain is the brain’s a great category buster. We cleave our world into these neat categories, into these neat divisions, these spheres, whether it’s art and science, or creativity and innovation, or whatever it is. These things seem distinct, then you look at it from the perspective of the brain, which doesn’t respect any of these boundaries, just demolishes all of these categories. That to me one of the most interesting things about looking at these sort of questions from the perspective of three pounds of meat, is that you see a lot of these distinctions which seem so concrete, seem so real in the world, the brain treats them all the same. It’s just problem solving, it’s just a process.

Rumpus: That’s fascinating. I kept having this chicken and an egg question about the book: whether you encountered these stories, ran across these ideas in the same way we all run across ideas, or whether you were turning creativity over in your mind and went in search of these particular experiments.


Lehrer: Both. Most of the ideas just bumped into me. I met the Swiffer guy at a business conference, one of these generic business conferences, making small talk. So that was a random bump. Certainly I didn’t set out to be like, you know what? I want to begin this book with a story about mops. That was not a conscious effort.

Other stories, I just had in the back of my mind for a while that I knew I wanted to tell. I’m a Bob Dylan fanatic. I’ve read far too many biographies about the man and I’d always been fascinated by this one moment whereat least later on—he says that he gave up. He talks about quitting, about the nadir of his career, and out of this low point comes “Like a Rolling Stone.” That was a story I’d always wanted to tell, and I didn’t quite know how. I’m not sure when I realized that it worked well with moments of insight. I wish I had a kind of great insight story about it. Milton Glaser, honestly, that was a coincidence. I’ve long loved his work. I went to his studio and I had no idea how he would fit in. I had no idea where our conversation would take us, and it was only in retrospect that I realized I should’ve noticed when I walked in the door and saw the “Art is Work” slogan, that he was trying to give me a very clear message.

Sometimes I did go in search of the particular story. I knew, for instance, I wanted to spend time with a successful, large, innovative business, and profile them. I thought a lot about that and after a lot searching and a lot of visits to businesses ended up with 3M. That was the case where I had a hole that I wanted to fill. For me at least, this is why it takes me so long and why my process feels so inefficient; you just walk around, get lost, bump into lots of people and hit so many dead ends. Then you get these stories. Then sometimes they just happen to line up. Sometimes really good stories just don’t fit, and that kills me.

Rumpus: I was thinking that as I read the book, actually. I read your piece in The New Yorker on brainstorming and the details about Building 20 at MIT that didn’t make it into the book, and I wondered about what other stories were left out, that had to be eclipsed because of the nature of a 250-page document.

Lehrer: Building 20 was one that really killed me. It felt in the end a little too repetitive. We got those same ideas from Pixar, and I liked that chapter as a single case study. But I spent a lot of time reporting that, so I was thrilled that The New Yorker let me feel less bad about wasting a month of my life researching Building 20. That was one thing.

I spent a week at the Eames Compound in Pacific Palisades. I begin Chapter 3 with the great Charles Eames quote, “It was a flash of inspiration. Kind of a thirty-year flash.” I tell the story of how, or I told the story which is now in my massive leftover file, about their process of inventing molded plywood. It’s this material which is in all the Eames furniture. In the Eames lounge chair, the back is molded plywood. It’s this amazing process which they actually pioneered before World War II. They did it in the Schindler Apartment Building in Westwood, and it was a grueling process. They had to make their own manufacturing facility in their one-room apartment. It involves taking hot springs from a radiator. You actually melt the wood together. It was the most dangerous thing to do. I’m amazed they didn’t burn down their architectural masterpiece. They only really mastered the process because they convinced the Navy to let them make these leg splints during the War. It was that investment in the manufacturing infrastructure that allowed the Eames to actually figure out the process. Which they then turned into furniture. It allowed them to create these very sinuous wood forms, that are so comfortable and so elegant and so iconic, but of course it also made Ikea possible. You walk into Ikea; that is all compressed molded plywood. That is this very cheap, middle brow material that the Eames invented. It was this incredibly laborious, frustrating process. They spent years just trying to make this material, without even having some beautiful object in mind. They saw the potential, and that made them willing to invest years in the tinkering process.

Rumpus: That’s an interesting intersection of the innovation and creativity that we talked about earlier. They were clearly creative in this design sense, but innovative in terms of the materials themselves.

Lehrer: They were all about the tweaking, not just the beautiful forms. Charles has all these great quotes about how the Beauty’s the easy part, the hard part is tinkering, finding a way to make it. That struck me as a really interesting model. I just happen to love their furniture, so that was a story I wrote up completely and then that chapter was too long. Milton Glaser was stronger simply because I got to spend time with him, so that was one of those choices. In the Age of Excess Genius, originally, I had Elizabethan England side-by-side with Ancient Athens, and then realized it was better to focus. A lot of it is just the natural inefficiency of storytelling.

I think one has to be omnivorous when you’re in the writing phase. You’re just consuming everything. Everything strikes you as, Oh my god, this is going to be such a good story. I can’t wait to write this down. Then when you set it down, you quickly realize the book is an overstuffed disaster. Then it’s about killing your darlings and all the rest. The Eames story in particular is one I would love to find a way to bring back because I do think it’s this moment in their career where they demonstrate astonishing fortitude. Their apartment smelled like burnt wood for months and months and months, and they were always getting burns on their hands. They describe in these letters just how excruciating it is, and yet, it made Ikea possible.

Rumpus: Obviously, you’re a very busy working writer with different forums and I wonder what your process is like, working on the book simultaneous with regular publications.

Lehrer: That’sthat’s definitely a struggle. One other storythat I began originally for the book, then cut from the book and became an articlewas the story I told in Wired last year about the guy who cracked the Scratch Lottery code. It was a really funny story, and it was a totally random bump. I was at a meeting at the University of Toronto Business School talking to a dean there, Roger Martin, and he told me about his friend who cracked the Ontario lottery. I was like, What? That can’t happen. Sure enough, I called up this friend and he told me about how he cracked the code and could predict with 95% accuracy which scratch lottery tickets are winners and which ones are losers. The way he told the story was this classic story of a feeling of knowing. He was looking at these tickets that he was given as a gag gift, and he said, “Oh my god, I can solve this. I’m a geological statistician, I’ve got the toolset in my hand, I can crack this code.” His exact words were, “I had this intuition I could figure it out.” That to me was like, you’re talking about the feeling of knowing here. Then he described how he stayed up for two nights in a row and cracked the code. I was like, here’s this perfect story for me. Then, I think I needed to write an article for Wired, so I was like, okay, this should probably be a magazine piece. I had a lot of fun with that piece, and it ended up spiraling into this larger story about other lotteries being cracked, the FBI sees this as a potential source of money laundering, and so on. That was a thing that I began for the book and ended up writing a magazine article. It’s pretty fluid.I don’t quite know if I’ve got a strategy for how to assign things in my head. It’s totally ad hoc.

One of the reasons I like books is a book project gives you permission to cast a wide net, to be curious about everything. That’s also why I think I seek out really vague subjects, like decision-making or creativity or now I’m thinking about love. You’ve got an excuse to pursue every possible story because really the beauty of a book on creativity is you can fit every good story into it. That’s the dirty secret. It gives you license to be relentlessly curious about everything. You don’t have to winnow your spotlight of attention. And I love that.

A lot of my favorite pieces for magazines, the ones that are the most fun to write, began as a piece for the book, and it ended up not working but being a magazine piece, whether it’s this guy cracking the lottery code or a piece in The New Yorker a couple weeks ago on the designer of the Wynn Casinos. I was looking for people who, in a sense, had inverted their paradigm. It was this thing on mental restructurings that never ended up making the book. Often what you find in creative breakthroughs are people just flip the problem. They do the opposite, and that’s actually when you get your moment of insight. This guy Roger Thomas had reinvented the modern casino by basically inverting it. The old rules had been low ceilings, no natural light, no furniture. At the Bellagio, Thomas, who was the director of design of the Wynn hotels, introduced huge, sprawling windows (so the entire wall on one part of the casino is just a window), raised the ceilings so they’re 20 feet tall, filled them with fancy French furniture. Basically he broke every single rule of casino design and created the success that is the Bellagio. That ended up not working in my book because the story’s more complicated and I thought more interesting, but that became a magazine piece.

Rumpus: It’s been interesting because to me you have a slightly different voice in the different venues you find yourself writing in. In Wired, you’re more casual. I wonder if that’s just a product of the editorial eye and the different magazines, or whether that’s more conscientious.

Lehrer: It’s definitely not particularly conscious. I think it is the product of the editing machine. It’s probably my unconscious, too. You write for the voice in your head, you’re writing for the imagined audience, so it’s definitely to the extent the voice is modulatedand I’m embarrassed to think about that happening—that’s probably a combination of me writing in the imagined New Yorker house style or the Wired house style, and then the editors actually making slight tweaks to your sentences so that they fit the house style.

Rumpus: You have a great balance between letting the research and the scientists speak for themselves and inserting your own enthusiasm. I’m thinking about when you’re at Pixar, and you say specifically, “When I was at the studios…” Or when you’re at 3M and you say, “I’ve come to this place to discover…”

Lehrer: See I always get so self-conscious about those first-person things because to me they incandese when you read, I go over the edits and I’m like, Ohhh, I. It glows off the page for me, and so I think I cut out almost all of them. If they survived, it’s only because I couldn’t figure out how to make that transition without putting in the first person. In general, my tendency is to avoid the first person whenever possible, to be the invisible presence. Sometimes you just don’t know how to make that transition. It’s also like you want people to understand why you’re there, and you want people to get excited about you being there too. If you want to convey the first-person excitement, I’m actually seeing this, look how cool this is, you have to just remind readers, every once in a while, yeah, I was actually in the corner of that room.

Rumpus: I think that’s helpful. What research that you encountered surprised you the most?

Lehrer: It was honestly the stuff about the importance of relaxation. I went in with this puritanical mindset that if you are stuck on a sentence, you chug caffeine, and you stay up all night until the sentence is done. Then you wake up in the morning and all your fixes didn’t fix anything, and you’re hung over on caffeine. You’re totally miserable. I guess I was very gratified to give myself the excuse that when you’re stuck on a paragraph or don’t know how to structure a chapter, to go for a hike. Now that’s what I do when I’m stuck and I feel like, Oh god, I have no idea what to do here. It’s great to have the license to waste time and take long showers, even in drought-stricken California. You know, I need it for my creativity.

Then the other research on how creativity is really a by-product of a social network. That study that entrepreneurs are three times more innovative if they have a diverse social network. As a writer I think it’s so easy to assume it’s just about me in this room typing away on my keyboard, staring at my computer screen. It feels so singular that we show up to work by ourselves, and yet I think the same thing applies to writers. Creativity’s just connecting things and most of those connections come from other people, and so I’ve forced myself towhen in doubtask questions, to make small talk with strangers on planes. I’ve become that annoying person.

Rumpus: That person isn’t always annoying.

Lehrer: Oh, most of the time I can see people look at me and I’m like, Hi, I’m Jonah. And they’re like, Oh, god. You can see them reaching for their headphones, like just shoving them into their ears as soon as they see me coming.

Rumpus: Have you heard that a European airline is introducing a new feature where you can choose who to sit next to based on their LinkedIn Profile.

Lehrer: That sounds horrible. Just what we need, more ways to filter our social connections, make sure we’re just spending time with people who are just like us. That’s a horrible idea.

Rumpus: These variables of modern life seem silenced in the book. But they are huge variables, and I wondered whether that was intentional or if it was just something that didn’t fit.

Lehrer: It’s something I wrestled with because it’s something I certainly feel in my own life, especially in the context of daydreaming. There are little places I tried to insert barbs, like Jonathan Schooler talking about going on daydreaming walks and leaving his iPhone behind. That’s something I certainly feel. As soon as I get bored, get out the goddamned phone and check the email again, so I do feel like my daydreams are punctuated, like they’re stuttering daydreams. That’s so frustrating sometimes. I have made a concerted effort to sometimes just go for a hike without the phone.

The reason I didn’t make it a bigger part of the book is because to be honest I don’t know how I feel about it. The scientific evidence is all over the place. It is really, really messy, so there’s no clear consensus. I think it’s very easy to just have strong opinions about it. To have these hunches, like Oh god, Twitter’s the apocalypse, Facebook’s ruining friendship, this is terrible stuff. I tried to leave it out of the book and not go on one of these rants, either pro or con. What the evidence suggests so far it is probably not the death of us. Google isn’t making us stupid, but it’s also not a substitute for the analog interactions of the real world and that’s clear. You can see that in the data about attendance in business conferences increasing dramatically since the invention of Skype. Cities are still important and all the rest. People still know they need to come together in person. In fact they may do this even more than ever before. We know that these tools aren’t somehow really transforming the world. They aren’t as revolutionary as we long assumed, but I also don’t think there’s very good evidence that they’re somehow ruining the mind.

Rumpus: I think that we’re still figuring out our relationship with them, which is why there’s all this dialogue.

Lehrer: Absolutely, and the dialogue is so, so healthy, but I think right now we’re in the midst of a massive collective experiment and we don’t know what the answer is and I didn’t want to be in the position of speculating on that answer too wildly without having good proof.

Rumpus: You mentioned a little bit before that your next book is about love. Could you talk about the first steps that you’re taking towards that project?

Lehrer: Right now, it’s just a question. I don’t even have glimmers of an answer. What I’m interested is love not just as a romantic thing as the love of a person, but also the love of ideas, the love of god, the love of a pursuit. What I think we say when we say we love something is that it’s a kind of pleasure that doesn’t get old. Most pleasures, whether it’s the first bite of chocolate cake, that’s better than the second bite, and that new car is exciting for a week, and then we adapt, we habituate. It gets old very, very quick. That’s just a general law of pleasure. It fades. We are naturally ungrateful, but the mystery of loveand this is just the mystery I want to think more aboutand know more aboutwhen we say we love something, we’re saying here’s a pleasure, here’s a person that we can spend 50 years with or that we can devote our entire life to, and we’ll still find pleasure in it, we’ll find meaning. It’s doesn’t decay. So I want to figure out how that happens. It is a pretty astonishing thing human beings do. We fall in love all the time with people and ideas, and then we’re able to stick with them for a long, long time. Not just when the pleasure is hot, not just when the lust is immediate, but it’s about the long term, the macro-time scale.

Rumpus: Devotion, more than love.

Lehrer: Devotion, yeah. Basically, what allows some pleasures to persist, that’s the basic mystery I want to figure out.

M. Rebekah Otto lives in Berkeley, CA. She grew up in Chicago. Her current interests include her new nine-to-five, vintage wallpaper, and Evan S. Connell. Also, she's the former Books Editor of the Rumpus. More from this author →