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The Creative Flame (and How to Stoke It)

Song suggestion: Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan Drink suggestion: Creative Cocktails, from Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen

Creativity is the residue of time wasted. – Albert Einstein

He was sick of writing music, sick of playing music, sick of the whole music scene with the worshiping fans and hangers-on, sick of being the wise oracle and rambling troubadour of a generation, sick of everything and everyone associated with Bob Dylan, most of all sick of himself. After a grueling tour that ended in total burnout, he walked away from it all to become an author. He would be the secluded Emerson and Woodstock would be his Walden; a hermitage away from the chaotic and demanding world.

The irony behind Dylan’s nomadic escape in 1965 to his idyllic hide-away has been well documented: in this period of extreme fatigue and retreat from his craft the star composes his all-time biggest hit almost against his will. Dylan claimed to have vomited it out, that in his solitude at Woodstock he simply picked up the pen and wrote page after page for hours straight. It was if a ghost was guiding his hand. He didn’t care what it said and he didn’t care what it meant, he just wrote. Like a Rolling Stone was recorded a few weeks later and quickly broke the charts worldwide.

How does this happen? Why does this artist’s greatest inspiration erupt at the moment he’s trying hardest to avoid it? There are many similar cases explained in a new book titled “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. According to Lehrer, there is indeed a biochemical explanation for Dylan’s creative outburst. I will spare us both the deep dive, but it involves alpha waves swarming the right hemisphere of the brain. When these waves flow more actively we tend to be more creative.  This has been observed and documented exhaustively through brain scans and creativity tests of all sorts, and the book lays them out in detail. It is a great read for those of you wanting a more thorough explanation.

So how do we stimulate our alpha waves? Surprisingly enough, it comes most organically by not trying hard, by removing ourselves from the stresses and excesses of deadlines and obligations. And this helps explain Dylan’s flash of inspiration. Out of the public lens and away from the demands of his agent and record company, he felt free for the first time in years to do absolutely nothing. In his calm the lyrics just burst out. This is not to diminish the role of deadlines, just don’t expect a flash of genius when laboring under them. When we are relaxed and our minds are free to wander we tend to have our most profound breakthroughs. Is this not true? Do your eureka moments come at the sterile office desk or under a warm shower head?

Lehrer goes on to explain that as a rule people are twice as creative in blue rooms versus red. Why the color effect? The going theory is that we associate red with danger, which makes us more alert and adept at attention to detail and accuracy, which is useful for solving math problems and finding spelling mistakes. On the other hand, blue recalls the expansive sky and ocean and opens up our imagination. Our minds unwind and we daydream more effortlessly. An increase in alpha wave activity can be observed when we think about calming scenes like passing clouds or a sandy beach, and as mentioned above, alpha waves are manna for our imagination.

Tech giants rely on a constant churn of creative new ideas to remain competitive (scratch that, to remain in business), and the most progressive amongst them architect “fun” campuses surrounded by trees, ponds, gardens; areas to wander and escape if only for an hour.  Ping pong tables and open air cafes abound. Just take a tour of Silicon Valley. When decided to build a new campus in San Francisco, the CEO announced that it would feature “fountains and pools, and large outdoor art pieces, (which are) intended to give physical evidence of’s philosophy of innovation.” Notice that he didn’t mention infinite rows of cubicles and free green eyeshades. Google employees have a 20% rule – 20% of one’s work week should be directed towards personal projects – and it’s hard to argue against Google’s creative output.

But greater invention through encouraged diversion was not a Google innovation. 3M has been pushing employees to not only think outside the box but get outside their heads since William McKnight took the helm back in the Depression Era. A company that generates a third of its revenues each year from new products needs A LOT of creative ideas. It was the first to mandate a daily “bootleg hour” for free thinking, and 3Mers are encouraged to remove themselves from their work, take walks on the Minneapolis campus, sit by a sunny window, daydream, play pinball, find escape. A list of their gifts to the world is astounding –scotch tape and post-it notes barely scratch the surface – and a fascinating read on the company and how it fosters creativity can be found here.

Why care about maximizing our creativity? For those of us passing through a re-invention phase at mid-life, creative thinking is required. That was then, what is next? Often, “next” is simply an extension of “then” with a new paint job and speed limiter on the throttle. Not a problem. But if Dylan’s loathing for the acoustic troubadour finds some resonance with your own situation, if you seek a more fundamental redesign and new ambitious tangent, then creative thinking without limitation is Step 1. Lehrer’s book provides a variety of insights on how to spark our creative sides, built on his mountain of research and observations. When aligning these with my own interest in personal development, I boiled the list down to 5 key dynamics:

  1. Setting. To increase alpha wave flow and boost creativity one needs to relax and release the tensions; this is known. Corporations who profit from creative ideas know that inspiration strikes more commonly while employees are on a long walk, relaxing by a pond, or perhaps getting a massage. My home town of Aix-en-Provence is a perfect location for finding zen. When I’m stumped and the gears won’t engage, a stroll down the broad Cours Mirabeau, under the leafy elms and past the cafes, often helps get past the block. I find that an early morning jog, before the city awakes and while the neighborhoods are still quite, is also helpful. I hear little and feel only the rhythm of my breathing, the tempo of my pace. The mind is calm and I can think clearly.

  2. Color. Work in a room with cooler colors, or better yet under the grand expanse of the sky. Blue has a positive correlation with enhanced creativity and helpful for establishing the relaxed setting mentioned in the previous bullet. Again I am lucky. Provence has over 300 days of sunshine per year on average. Lots of blue sky. How about you? Need a change of venue?

  3. Attitude. Fear of failure binds the imagination and limits our creativity. Indifference to criticism permits us to push into new and unknown territory.  To get their creative juices flowing, actors at Second City – the famous American comedy troupe – engage in a pre-performance ritual that involves humiliation in front of the other troupe members (they make loud burp and farting sounds, admit to intimate and embarrassing recent situations) to remove any inhibitions before going on stage. They claim that it removes the limitations that could hamper their ability to improvise and create effectively. Lehrer discusses “outsider status” as a particular fear for many of us. But newcomers to a field often bring its most disruptive ideas, whether it is in art, science, food, or other. Why are young people the most prolific inventors and groundbreakers? Because they know the least and tend to be the most fearless. Getting older doesn’t preclude us from imagining quixotic adventures, for pursuing our true passions, but it takes a greater effort to get through our learned limitations.

  4. Escape: We can escape both into ourselves and out to the wider world. And both are effective at stoking the creative flame according to Lehrer. Daydreaming is particularly good at letting our minds drift without bound. Certain parts of the brain interact directly only during daydreams, and in parallel with an increase in alpha wave activity. Disciplined daydreaming (that term almost takes the fun out of it) requires setting aside time for zen-like moments each day. By the way, I was encouraged to read that having a drink at the end of the day is an excellent way to induce mind-wandering! Likewise, being thrown into new environments is a challenge that forces us to think resourcefully. People who live abroad are better at solving creative problems (based on 2009 study by INSEAD and Kellogg School of Management). The assumed reason is that living abroad forces one to be flexible and think with an open mind, which transfers to other tasks and challenges as well. Even if a move is not possible, a stay beyond the typical 1-2 week holiday span is suggested.

  5. Emotion: Get happy, because as with the color blue, happiness and creativity are closely linked (interestingly enough, depression is also shown to stimulate the imagination, but I will not condone being miserable). Getting happy is easy to suggest of course, not always easy to realize. The other 4 recommendations on the list help establish positive emotion: finding a relaxing setting with calm colors, agreeing not to be bowed by others’ judgments (or our own), giving ourselves permission to “waste” time with daydreams, and challenging ourselves to thrive in new environments. I find that living in Aix-en-Provence doesn’t hurt.

I am always interested in readers’ comments about the themes explored in these postcards. If you have developed ways of getting the creative juices flowing I would love to hear about them.

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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