The Innovator Within: The Creative Brain and Creative Space

The Creative Brain

History is filled with special people who had these special moments of insight. Remember the story of the Buddha, who sat under the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment? What about the story of Archimedes crying, “Eureka!” as he sat in his tub observing the occurrence of volume? And what about Steve Jobs, whose idea for the Apple I, the first personal computer, came to him as he sat in his garage with a typewriter wired to a television screen? Do you know the backstory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech? It came about because a woman shouted from the crowd, “Tell us about your dream!” Or maybe you know that Joan of Arc heard voices that told her to lead the French army to defeat the English, who had already conquered half the country?

We love these stories. They remind us of the magic that we as humans can be capable of. In one moment, we might see what nobody else does—and in that realization, we’re able to change what others see and do forever. Every time we hear these stories, we’re reminded of how powerful any one individual can be. And yet, we still find ourselves wondering if these flashes of insight are truly random and just out of our reach, meant only for special people in special places at special times. But can you really do it? Or is there something different about these people that makes them more creative than you?

We love identifying ourselves as creative right-brain types or analytical left-brain types because we believe that typecasting ourselves gives us insight into our character. Knowing what “type” we are makes us feel as if we can better understand who we get along with, where we work best, and what kinds of jobs we’re more likely to be good at. But recent experiments are beginning to show us something else: there is no left brain or right brain—at least when it comes to thinking.

But some people do seem to be more creative than others. If the difference in their right brain doesn’t explain it, what does? Are people susceptible to depression, like Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath, more likely to be creative? Or are happy people, like Tom Hanks, more likely to be creative? In studies, only one associated personality traits seems to emerge across the spectrum of creative people: they’re curious. And that’s something you can control. The same is true for persistence, which helps you actually accomplish tasks, including creative ones. That too is within your control.

That’s all you need to start: be curious and persistent. With practice, you can develop a creative mindset that will help you solve problems of all kinds into the future.

The Creative Space 

Does your physical environment play a role in your creativity?

Was there something special about say, Newton’s apple tree that he sat under 350 years ago? I wondered, so I looked it up. The tree still exists!

It doesn’t seem very inspirational to me. It looks quite ordinary. And the surrounding lawn, buildings, and other trees look ordinary too.

Now, think about Google’s offices. Many companies around the world imitate this style to help their employees be more creative.

Does it work? Alas, we have no evidence that it does. We might ask the Google guys, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, “Where did you get your idea?” For Google itself really is a great innovation. Initially, we know they got specific elements of their idea inside the dull graduate school cubicles at Stanford University, then in a humdrum garage where they set up their first office. As far as we can tell, the unimpressive physical spaces they occupied in those formative moments had nothing to do with the quality of their idea.

We find the same thing for Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and just about any innovator you can name—it’s often the garage. Even our favorite mystery writer, Agatha Christie, had her aha moment for Murder on the Orient Express in a place as unremarkable as the bathtub. There are countless examples of ordinary places where people came up with creative ideas. Google actually states that putting people in “non-ordinary” settings stimulates the right side of the brain. But we now know that’s a myth. If you work in a room with red polka dots on the wall, it doesn’t open your mind to new possibilities. It puts red polka dots into your memory. Your next idea will anchor on the red polka dots.

The most creative wall is blank. It allows your mind to wander freely, looking for connections. It’s lack of stimulation that you want, which lets your brain do its work without distraction.

The best real-world test for this comes from Bell Laboratories. A mecca of twentieth-century innovation, the company had two New Jersey sites: Murray Hill and Holmdel. The Murray Hill site was an old, factory-like building from 1941 that placed function over beauty with its utilitarian space, narrow halls, plywood offices, and movable, clunky furnishings. It cost three million dollars to fit out. The Holmdel site looked like a spaceship with a futuristic façade made of 6,800 panes of glass, a reflecting pool, an atrium with 3,600 plants, and a water tower shaped like a transistor. It cost thirty-seven million dollars—more than twelve times Murray Hill.

Which site was more creative? Frumpy old Murray Hill produced the transistor, the laser, the solar cell, and at least three Nobel Prizes. Sleek, shiny Holmdel gave us the push-button telephone, touch-tone dialing, the fax machine, voice mail, the cell phone, microwaves, and at least one Nobel Prize–winning scientist. Together these two headquarters produced the first communications satellite, digital cell networks, and fiber optic cable.

They were both creative! And it had nothing to do with their respective designs.

We can say two things about creative space: first, no distractions. You need a place to think on your own. Second, you need a way to run into others in a casual way, like around the coffee pot, water cooler, or break lounge. That’s it. Green plants might make you more cheerful, which is good—and dark, dingy spaces might make you feel low, which is bad. But creativity is not about what goes on around you. It’s about what goes on in your head.

Sheena Iyengar is the S. T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Department at Columbia Business School and the best-selling author of The Art of Choosing (2010). She is a leading expert on the study of innovation, choice, leadership, and creativity and regularly consults with a range of organizations on methods for innovation.

The Innovator Within: The Creative Brain and Creative Space

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