Jonah Lehrer Interview

by Dave Weich on March 16, 2012

Jonah Lehrer writes a column for Wired, publishes essays in the New Yorker, and regularly contributes to RadioLab. His new book is called Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Imagine comes in two parts: “Alone” shows how our brains generate (or fail to generate) creative ideas. “Together” observes that process from the outside, specifically addressing how we work in groups. Both parts fascinate.

For example: Benzedrine made poet W.H. Auden a compulsive winnower of his lines. (And quite constipated, besides.) Young people know less, which is why they often invent more. Focus can hinder the creative process. And maybe you read the New Yorker’s excerpt, “Groupthink,” from section two, about why traditional brainstorming doesn’t work?

That Lehrer wound up being my first interview subject for the new Success in Work + Life project feels right. What do we think about success? How do we think about anything? Might as well ask a precociously accomplished 30-year-old that studies and writes about neuroscience.

Dave: Do you remember when you first became interested in neuroscience and the mind?

Jonah Lehrer: I don’t. I wish I had some neat narrative. I really wish I did.

I remember picking up my mom’s old psychology textbook when I was way too young to understand, and just having some vague sense that it was interesting to contemplate oneself, to look at oneself in a mirror that way. This was an undergrad textbook from the Sixties. I was probably nine or ten, looking at the charts and old pictures of the brain.

Dave: How did you wind up in this line of work?

Lehrer: It started coming together in college when, like so many undergrads, I was scrambling to connect the dots. I was interested in poetry. I was interested in mathematics. I was interested in Nietzsche. All these different interests came together in neuroscience.

The beauty of the human brain is that it’s where all this comes from; it’s the wellspring. And that’s how I fell into neuroscience. Neuroscience seemed like a natural way to bring together a really disparate group of interests.

So I wanted to be a scientist. That’s what I assumed. I worked in Eric Kandel‘s lab for a number of years, but only after four-and-a-half years did I realize I wasn’t that good at it!

To be a great scientist, you have to love the manual labor of science. You have to love the empiricism. And I didn’t.

I was too lazy. I wasn’t disciplined enough. I wasn’t good at taking big, profound questions and breaking them down into testable chunks. And from that failure—and at the time it felt like a total failure—I somehow became a science writer.

Dave: You say that you were too lazy to be a scientist. Would you call yourself lazy as a writer?

Lehrer: Many days, I certainly feel very lazy, and, in a sense, writing Imagine has freed me to be even lazier.

One of the ways that the book has changed my process is that when I feel stumped or stuck, I’m much more willing to take a long walk, or take a shower, and look really unproductive to other people. So perhaps this book will be the end of me.

Part of the challenge of being a writer is imposing discipline on oneself. You’re managing your own work and managing your own time. I try to be disciplined. I keep myself well caffeinated, if nothing else.

Dave: Do you work with larger goals in mind? Do you think about what you’re trying to accomplish on a bigger scale than I’ve got to get this chapter finished?

Lehrer: I try not to. I try to stay as local and micro as possible. What gives me the most pleasure are the very local, technical challenges. What’s the transition I need here? How can I tell this story better? Stuff like that.

I try at all costs to avoid thinking about, you know, my brand—even saying that out loud makes me slightly queasy—or thinking about where I want to be in five years, my larger arc. I honestly have no idea, and those aren’t the kinds of questions or pursuits that make me happy.

Dave: Can you recall a challenge in writing Imagine that was particularly daunting, and then especially gratifying to get past?

Lehrer: The third chapter. It’s called The Unconcealing, which basically says that an important part of the creative process is to put in a lot of work. It’s the most obvious thing in the world really, and I spent so long trying to figure out how to make the subject feel fresh to people. I knew that I needed to frame it in a way that both highlighted the obviousness of it and also made it seem new. I had no idea how to do that.

Finally I stumbled into W.H. Auden and his penchant for amphetamines. That gave me an interesting way in: Auden’s extreme version of this totally ordinary process. It was a neat case study in how a person can take things too far.

That was a writerly obstacle that gave me pleasure when I solved it. And it’s not a perfect solution—I can rattle off all the ways that it’s an imperfect fix—but I was pleased with myself that afternoon, I’m not going to lie.

Dave: Chuck Klosterman wrote a great essay during the height of baseball’s steroid scandal, asking why we take for granted that much of our favorite music is produced under the influence of performance enhancing drugs—pot, acid, you name it—and we’re not bothered in the least. The Beatles, Pink Floyd…

Lehrer: Amphetamines were the least of their worries. They were on many other cognitive enhancers.

Dave: But what does that say about our culture? Why do we forgive artists for their excesses when in so many other fields the same behavior isn’t accepted?

Lehrer: I think we accept excess within bounds.

We all line up at Starbucks every morning. Academics have written whole tomes about how the invention of caffeine basically made the industrial revolution possible; suddenly instead of beginning your day with beer, you began it with an upper. We have our uppers in the morning and our downers at night: a cocktail, a glass of wine, a Budweiser. In a sense that’s part of our own creative process. It’s part of my creative process, at least. We accept a certain level of self-medication, within reason.

Whether or not those demarcations are valid, that’s a very complicated question. For Auden, amphetamines were legal, until at a certain point we discovered that this asthma medication he was taking was addictive and so it became illegal. That’s a Pandora’s Box right there.

When it comes to creativity, there’s a tacit understanding that you can basically do whatever it takes. We accept that it’s that hard.

Similarly, when you read the Steve Jobs biography, he’s an asshole on every single page. He comes across as a monster by the end. You kind of despise this guy. And yet you accept his behavior because he made your phone.

We accept all sorts of behavior from our rock stars, from our tech geniuses, from our Picassos and Bob Dylans, that we wouldn’t accept from just about anybody else because we’re just so grateful for Like a Rolling Stone and the iPad. So we say, “Okay, you can do your amphetamines, you can take your acid, you can be a monster.”

Maybe it’s ironic that we’re tougher on Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady than we are on Steve Jobs, but that’s the way our culture is set up at the moment.

Dave: Adderall has become so common on campuses and in some occupations that a similar pressure often applies: You’re at a competitive disadvantage if you abstain.

Lehrer: Mind you, with Adderall: Clearly a lot of kids benefit from it. But obviously there are issues with diagnosis. You can talk to ten scientists about ADHD and get ten different takes on it. Like all these things, it’s very complicated, and I think much of the nuance is often lost.

The angle I wanted to take in this book is that our obsession with medicating this syndrome is predicated on a false model of thinking to begin with.

We live in a culture that assumes the way to solve any problem is to focus-focus-focus on it. We assume that when you need to solve something you should buckle down and chug your caffeine; the best way to learn and the best way to think, in other words, the only way to be productive, is to focus and pay attention.

That’s often true. It was true for W.H. Auden when it came to editing poetry. But when it comes to other parts of the creative process, that’s ass backwards. You’d be better off taking a long walk or a warm shower. Nobody ever talks about these interesting correlational studies that find that people with ADHD—basically, distractible people—are far more likely to become creative achievers provided they have a reasonably high IQ score.

If you’re smart, being distractible is a blessing. It lets you draw information from all sorts of sources.

I think that part of the reason we overmedicate ourselves and overmedicate our kids is not just to treat their shortcomings but also because we have a false model of what thinking is and what it should be. I wanted to undermine that idea. The best way to think is not always to take an upper and be really focused. Sometimes you want the exact opposite.

Dave: What do successful people and organizations have in common?

Lehrer: The lowest common denominator—it’s grit. It’s tenacity. It’s this attitude that failure is inevitable.

If you’re trying to do something new, you’re going to screw up. Failure avoidance is not an option. Instead, what you need to do is fail as fast as possible—that’s a Lee Unkrich quote, the director of Toy Story 3, who was summarizing the Pixar approach. And yet it’s not just about successful organizations; it’s about successful creators, in general. They have this attitude of, You know what? This is going to be tough. And if I’m going to succeed, I’ve got to be gritty. I’ve got to persist. I’m going to struggle through it. I’m going to accept the frustrations. I’m going to keep on showing up every day.

But it’s not just about tenacity. It’s also about finding the right goal. Successful companies, successful organizations, and successful individuals, fairly early on, are able to identify a meaningful goal that won’t get old.

If the goal gets old, if you tire of your dream, you’re not going to be willing to put up with the shitty work. Because there will be lots of it.

Dave: Has your idea of success in your own endeavors changed over time?

Lehrer: My goal is still to tell a good story and to write stuff that people find interesting, thought provoking, and hopefully meaningful. That goal has been constant.

The goal that keeps changing is to try to do it better. Writing is just a craft. It’s not that mysterious. And like all crafts, it’s about putting in the practice, putting in those ten thousand hours and trying to get a little bit better at it. Do it a little faster, a little smoother, a little better.

Dave: Whose writing is so good that it makes you question how they ever do it?

Lehrer: That’s something that keeps it interesting and keeps you wanting to improve. I grew up on Oliver Sacks. I thought Daniel Kahneman did a great job writing his book. I’m a huge Auden fan. I love Richard Powers. When I’m really stuck, word-wise, I’ll pick up Virginia Woolf. I have no idea how Atul Gawande does it, how he’s a surgeon and writes that well. I could keep on going.

Storytelling-wise, I think Malcolm Gladwell is about as good as it gets, how he can invest a character with character in just two lines. He knows exactly how to weave a story so there is no weak spot.

Maybe this is something that’s unique to writers, but probably not: When you read a great piece, your first feeling is intense jealousy. The most hideous, vile emotion: I wish I’d done that. And then, if you’re lucky and you’re good, your next feeling is, I want to understand this so I can steal it, so I can do it next. But the first feeling is petty jealousy.

Dave: When you get most excited about Imagine, what do you wind up talking about?

Lehrer: How Dan Wieden came up with “Just Do It.” I love the idea that the genealogy of “Just Do It” can be traced back to Gary Gilmore saying “Let’s do it” before he was assassinated by a firing squad. That’s just hilarious to me, and it captures the serendipity of the process: Dan had a random conversation about Norman Mailer twelve hours before, and then he’s on deadline, trying to come up with a slogan for his Nike videos, when it pops into his head.

Dave: Tell me a good success story.

Lehrer: Twenty years ago, Geoffrey West thought his career was over. A great theoretical physicist. I write about him in Imagine, but I didn’t have a chance to tell his personal narrative.

He’d been expecting to lead a new supercollider under construction in Texas. And then in 1993 Congress cancelled the project. West was floundering. He thought, I’m done for. My branch of physics, no one will pay for it anymore. It’s over.

In the years since, he’s done his most interesting work. He left physics, and he’s taken his skill set and applied it to biology and sociology: urban science, basically. He’s never been more influential, never been more interesting. He’s at the height of his powers now—and he was forced into it, in a sense.

I always find those narratives of success interesting: where people get there by accident. As Bob Dylan said, “There is no success like failure.”

We spoke by phone on February 14, 2012.

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