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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we’re revisiting a post we ran originally in 2012in which an Irish grandfather wrote a letter of advice to his five grandkids just months before his untimely passing. Among his shared wisdom: “Be grateful. There is an Irish saying: ‘This is a day in our lives, and it will not come again.’ Live every day with this in mind.”

 

On Sept. 3, 2012, James K. Flanagan of West Long Branch, N.J., died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He wrote this letter to his five grandchildren just months earlier and it is reprinted here with the permission of his daughter Rachel Creighton.

Dear Ryan, Conor, Brendan, Charlie, and Mary Catherine,

My wise and thoughtful daughter Rachel urged me to write down some advice for you, the important things that I have learned about life. I am beginning this on 8 April 2012, the eve of my 72nd birthday.

1.  Each one of you is a wonderful gift of God both to your family and to all the world. Remember it always, especially when the cold winds of doubt and discouragement fall upon your life.

2.  Be not afraid . . . of anyone or of anything when it comes to living your life most fully.  Pursue your hopes and your dreams no matter how difficult or “different” they may seem to others.  Far too many people don’t do what they want or should do because of what they imagine others may think or say.   Remember, if they don’t bring you chicken soup when you’re sick or stand by you when you’re in trouble, they don’t matter.   Avoid those sour-souled pessimists who listen to your dreams then say, “Yeah, but what if . . .”  The heck with “what if. . .” Do it!  The worst thing in life is to look back and say: “I would have; I could have; I should have.”  Take risks, make mistakes.

3.  Everyone in the world is just an ordinary person.  Some people may wear fancy hats or have big titles or (temporarily) have power and want you to think they are above the rest.  Don’t believe them.  They have the same doubts, fears, and hopes; they eat, drink, sleep, and fart like everyone else.  Question authority always but be wise and careful about the way you do it.

4.  Make a Life List of all those things you want to do: travel to places; learn a skill; master a language; meet someone special.  Make it long and do some things from it every year.  Don’t say “I’ll do it tomorrow” (or next month or next year).  That is the surest way to fail to do something.  There is no tomorrow, and there is no “right” time to begin something except now.

5.  Practice the Irish proverb:  Moi an olge agus tiocfaidh sí  “Praise the child and she will flourish.”

6.  Be kind and go out of your way to help people — especially the weak, the fearful, and children. Everyone is carrying a special sorrow, and they need our compassion.

7.  Don’t join the military or any organization that trains you to kill.  War is evil.  All wars are started by old men who force or fool young men to hate and to kill each other.  The old men survive, and, just as they started the war with pen and paper, they end it the same way.  So many good and innocent people die.  If wars are so good and noble, why aren’t those leaders who start wars right up there fighting?

8.  Read books, as many as you can.  They are a wonderful source of delight, wisdom, and inspiration.  They need no batteries or connections, and they can go anywhere.

9.  Be truthful.

10.  Travel:  always but especially when you are young.  Don’t wait until you have “enough” money or until everything is “just right.”  That never happens. Get your passport today.

11.   Pick your job or profession because you love to do it.  Sure, there will be some things hard about it, but a job must be a joy.  Beware of taking a job for money alone — it will cripple your soul.

12.  Don’t yell.  It never works, and it hurts both yourself and others. Every time I have yelled, I have failed.

13.  Always keep promises to children.  Don’t say “we’ll see” when you mean “no.”  Children expect the truth; give it to them with love and kindness.

14.  Never tell anyone you love them when you don’t.

15.  Live in harmony with Nature: go into the outdoors, woods, mountains, sea, desert.  It’s important for your soul.

16.  Visit Ireland.  It’s where the soul of our family was born — especially the West:  Roscommon, Clare, and Kerry.

17.  Hug people you love.  Tell them how much they mean to you now; don’t wait until it’s too late.

18.  Be grateful.  There is an Irish saying: “This is a day in our lives, and it will not come again.”  Live every day with this in mind.

As was written in his obituary, James K. Flanagan “was proudly liberal and fought unyieldingly for the underdog. He was an accomplished author, poet, and seanchai — Irish storyteller; he reveled in recounting the joy of growing up Catholic in Jersey City and his adventures in the Adirondack Mountains and on the Western coast of Ireland. His greatest love was spending time with his family, most of all his five grandchildren” Ryan (11); Conor (10); Brendan (9); Charles (8); and Mary Catherine (5).”

PURE and POWERFUL ARTISTRY

This from the Vancouver Sun:

There have been some mighty horrible renditions of Led Zeppelin‘s Stairway To Heaven, but when Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart performed the song in front of the three remaining members of the legendary British rock band at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony on Dec. 2, it made Robert Plant cry tears of joy.

(The band was being honoured by President Barack Obama alongside David Letterman and Dustin Hoffman.)

Watch it and understand why. When the choir kicks in and Ann Wilson wails Plant’s famous “And as we wind on down the road…” you might shed a tear or two yourself.

led-zeppelin-kennedy-honors

Led Zeppelin, from left, keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, stand as the Star Spangled Banner is played during the Kennedy Center Honors Gala at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Lyrics as sung…

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven
Ooh, it makes me wonder

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking

Ooh, yeah….
Ooh, yeah.

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know
The piper’s calling to join him
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind

Ooh, yeah, yeah….

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

How To Be Creative

The image of the ‘creative type’ is a myth. Jonah Lehrer on why anyone can innovate—and why a hot shower, a cold beer or a trip to your colleague’s desk might be the key to your next big idea.

By JONAH LEHRER

Creativity can seem like magic. We look at people like Steve Jobs and Bob Dylan, and we conclude that they must possess supernatural powers denied to mere mortals like us, gifts that allow them to imagine what has never existed before. They’re “creative types.” We’re not.

The myth of the “creative type” is just that–a myth, argues Jonah Lehrer. In an interview with WSJ’s Gary Rosen he explains the evidence suggesting everyone has the potential to be the next Milton Glaser or Yo-Yo Ma.

But creativity is not magic, and there’s no such thing as a creative type. Creativity is not a trait that we inherit in our genes or a blessing bestowed by the angels. It’s a skill. Anyone can learn to be creative and to get better at it. New research is shedding light on what allows people to develop world-changing products and to solve the toughest problems. A surprisingly concrete set of lessons has emerged about what creativity is and how to spark it in ourselves and our work.

The science of creativity is relatively new. Until the Enlightenment, acts of imagination were always equated with higher powers. Being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the gods. (“Inspiration” literally means “breathed upon.”) Even in modern times, scientists have paid little attention to the sources of creativity.

But over the past decade, that has begun to change. Imagination was once thought to be a single thing, separate from other kinds of cognition. The latest research suggests that this assumption is false. It turns out that we use “creativity” as a catchall term for a variety of cognitive tools, each of which applies to particular sorts of problems and is coaxed to action in a particular way.

CREATING0310jp

Philip Montgomery for The Wall Street Journal; Illustrations by Serge BlochIt isn’t a trait that we inherit in our genes or a blessing bestowed on us by the angels. It’s a skill that anyone can learn and work to improve.

Does the challenge that we’re facing require a moment of insight, a sudden leap in consciousness? Or can it be solved gradually, one piece at a time? The answer often determines whether we should drink a beer to relax or hop ourselves up on Red Bull, whether we take a long shower or stay late at the office.

The new research also suggests how best to approach the thorniest problems. We tend to assume that experts are the creative geniuses in their own fields. But big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders. For prompting creativity, few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields outside our areas of expertise.

Let’s start with the hardest problems, those challenges that at first blush seem impossible. Such problems are typically solved (if they are solved at all) in a moment of insight.

Consider the case of Arthur Fry, an engineer at 3M in the paper products division. In the winter of 1974, Mr. Fry attended a presentation by Sheldon Silver, an engineer working on adhesives. Mr. Silver had developed an extremely weak glue, a paste so feeble it could barely hold two pieces of paper together. Like everyone else in the room, Mr. Fry patiently listened to the presentation and then failed to come up with any practical applications for the compound. What good, after all, is a glue that doesn’t stick?

On a frigid Sunday morning, however, the paste would re-enter Mr. Fry’s thoughts, albeit in a rather unlikely context. He sang in the church choir and liked to put little pieces of paper in the hymnal to mark the songs he was supposed to sing. Unfortunately, the little pieces of paper often fell out, forcing Mr. Fry to spend the service frantically thumbing through the book, looking for the right page. It seemed like an unfixable problem, one of those ordinary hassles that we’re forced to live with.

But then, during a particularly tedious sermon, Mr. Fry had an epiphany. He suddenly realized how he might make use of that weak glue: It could be applied to paper to create a reusable bookmark! Because the adhesive was barely sticky, it would adhere to the page but wouldn’t tear it when removed. That revelation in the church would eventually result in one of the most widely used office products in the world: the Post-it Note.

Mr. Fry’s invention was a classic moment of insight. Though such events seem to spring from nowhere, as if the cortex is surprising us with a breakthrough, scientists have begun studying how they occur. They do this by giving people “insight” puzzles, like the one that follows, and watching what happens in the brain:

A man has married 20 women in a small town. All of the women are still alive, and none of them is divorced. The man has broken no laws. Who is the man?

If you solved the question, the solution probably came to you in an incandescent flash: The man is a priest. Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where that flash probably came from. In the seconds before the insight appears, a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what’s needed when working on a hard creative problem.

Interestingly, Mr. Beeman and his colleagues have found that certain factors make people much more likely to have an insight, better able to detect the answers generated by the aSTG. For instance, exposing subjects to a short, humorous video—the scientists use a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up—boosts the average success rate by about 20%.

Alcohol also works. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and intoxicated students. The scientists gave the subjects a battery of word problems known as remote associates, in which people have to find one additional word that goes with a triad of words. Here’s a sample problem:

Pine Crab Sauce

In this case, the answer is “apple.” (The compound words are pineapple, crab apple and apple sauce.) Drunk students solved nearly 30% more of these word problems than their sober peers.

What explains the creative benefits of relaxation and booze? The answer involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. Although we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine—this approach can inhibit the imagination. We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.

And this is why relaxation helps: It isn’t until we’re soothed in the shower or distracted by the stand-up comic that we’re able to turn the spotlight of attention inward, eavesdropping on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain’s right hemisphere. When we need an insight, those associations are often the source of the answer.

This research also explains why so many major breakthroughs happen in the unlikeliest of places, whether it’s Archimedes in the bathtub or the physicist Richard Feynman scribbling equations in a strip club, as he was known to do. It reveals the wisdom of Google putting ping-pong tables in the lobby and confirms the practical benefits of daydreaming. As Einstein once declared, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Of course, not every creative challenge requires an epiphany; a relaxing shower won’t solve every problem. Sometimes, we just need to keep on working, resisting the temptation of a beer-fueled nap.

There is nothing fun about this kind of creativity, which consists mostly of sweat and failure. It’s the red pen on the page and the discarded sketch, the trashed prototype and the failed first draft. Nietzsche referred to this as the “rejecting process,” noting that while creators like to brag about their big epiphanies, their everyday reality was much less romantic. “All great artists and thinkers are great workers,” he wrote.

This relentless form of creativity is nicely exemplified by the legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, who engraved the slogan “Art is Work” above his office door. Mr. Glaser’s most famous design is a tribute to this work ethic. In 1975, he accepted an intimidating assignment: to create a new ad campaign that would rehabilitate the image of New York City, which at the time was falling apart.

Mr. Glaser began by experimenting with fonts, laying out the tourist slogan in a variety of friendly typefaces. After a few weeks of work, he settled on a charming design, with “I Love New York” in cursive, set against a plain white background. His proposal was quickly approved. “Everybody liked it,” Mr. Glaser says. “And if I were a normal person, I’d stop thinking about the project. But I can’t. Something about it just doesn’t feel right.”

So Mr. Glaser continued to ruminate on the design, devoting hours to a project that was supposedly finished. And then, after another few days of work, he was sitting in a taxi, stuck in midtown traffic. “I often carry spare pieces of paper in my pocket, and so I get the paper out and I start to draw,” he remembers. “And I’m thinking and drawing and then I get it. I see the whole design in my head. I see the typeface and the big round red heart smack dab in the middle. I know that this is how it should go.”

The logo that Mr. Glaser imagined in traffic has since become one of the most widely imitated works of graphic art in the world. And he only discovered the design because he refused to stop thinking about it.

But this raises an obvious question: If different kinds of creative problems benefit from different kinds of creative thinking, how can we ensure that we’re thinking in the right way at the right time? When should we daydream and go for a relaxing stroll, and when should we keep on sketching and toying with possibilities?

The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions “feelings of knowing,” and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don’t require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we’re getting “warmer” or not, without knowing the solution.

This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When we don’t feel that we’re getting closer to the answer—we’ve hit the wall, so to speak—we probably need an insight. If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.

Of course, both moment-of-insight problems and nose-to-the-grindstone problems assume that we have the answers to the creative problems we’re trying to solve somewhere in our heads. They’re both just a matter of getting those answers out. Another kind of creative problem, though, is when you don’t have the right kind of raw material kicking around in your head. If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.

Steve Jobs famously declared that “creativity is just connecting things.” Although we think of inventors as dreaming up breakthroughs out of thin air, Mr. Jobs was pointing out that even the most far-fetched concepts are usually just new combinations of stuff that already exists. Under Mr. Jobs’s leadership, for instance, Apple didn’t invent MP3 players or tablet computers—the company just made them better, adding design features that were new to the product category.

And it isn’t just Apple. The history of innovation bears out Mr. Jobs’s theory. The Wright Brothers transferred their background as bicycle manufacturers to the invention of the airplane; their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings. Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. Or look at Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with their famous search algorithm by applying the ranking method used for academic articles (more citations equals more influence) to the sprawl of the Internet.

How can people get better at making these kinds of connections? Mr. Jobs argued that the best inventors seek out “diverse experiences,” collecting lots of dots that they later link together. Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. Because they don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere.

Recent research confirms Mr. Jobs’s wisdom. The sociologist Martin Ruef, for instance, analyzed the social and business relationships of 766 graduates of the Stanford Business School, all of whom had gone on to start their own companies. He found that those entrepreneurs with the most diverse friendships scored three times higher on a metric of innovation. Instead of getting stuck in the rut of conformity, they were able to translate their expansive social circle into profitable new concepts.

Many of the most innovative companies encourage their employees to develop these sorts of diverse networks, interacting with colleagues in totally unrelated fields. Google hosts an internal conference called Crazy Search Ideas—a sort of grown-up science fair with hundreds of posters from every conceivable field. At 3M, engineers are typically rotated to a new division every few years. Sometimes, these rotations bring big payoffs, such as when 3M realized that the problem of laptop battery life was really a problem of energy used up too quickly for illuminating the screen. 3M researchers applied their knowledge of see-through adhesives to create an optical film that focuses light outward, producing a screen that was 40% more efficient.

Such solutions are known as “mental restructurings,” since the problem is only solved after someone asks a completely new kind of question. What’s interesting is that expertise can inhibit such restructurings, making it harder to find the breakthrough. That’s why it’s important not just to bring new ideas back to your own field, but to actually try to solve problems in other fields—where your status as an outsider, and ability to ask naive questions, can be a tremendous advantage.

This principle is at work daily on InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing website for difficult scientific questions. The structure of the site is simple: Companies post their hardest R&D problems, attaching a monetary reward to each “challenge.” The site features problems from hundreds of organization in eight different scientific categories, from agricultural science to mathematics. The challenges on the site are incredibly varied and include everything from a multinational food company looking for a “Reduced Fat Chocolate-Flavored Compound Coating” to an electronics firm trying to design a solar-powered computer.

The most impressive thing about InnoCentive, however, is its effectiveness. In 2007, Karim Lakhani, a professor at the Harvard Business School, began analyzing hundreds of challenges posted on the site. According to Mr. Lakhani’s data, nearly 30% of the difficult problems posted on InnoCentive were solved within six months. Sometimes, the problems were solved within days of being posted online. The secret was outsider thinking: The problem solvers on InnoCentive were most effective at the margins of their own fields. Chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems; they solved molecular biology problems. And vice versa. While these people were close enough to understand the challenge, they weren’t so close that their knowledge held them back, causing them to run into the same stumbling blocks that held back their more expert peers.

It’s this ability to attack problems as a beginner, to let go of all preconceptions and fear of failure, that’s the key to creativity.

The composer Bruce Adolphe first met Yo-Yo Ma at the Juilliard School in New York City in 1970. Mr. Ma was just 15 years old at the time (though he’d already played for J.F.K. at the White House). Mr. Adolphe had just written his first cello piece. “Unfortunately, I had no idea what I was doing,” Mr. Adolphe remembers. “I’d never written for the instrument before.”

Mr. Adolphe had shown a draft of his composition to a Juilliard instructor, who informed him that the piece featured a chord that was impossible to play. Before Mr. Adolphe could correct the music, however, Mr. Ma decided to rehearse the composition in his dorm room. “Yo-Yo played through my piece, sight-reading the whole thing,” Mr. Adolphe says. “And when that impossible chord came, he somehow found a way to play it.”

Mr. Adolphe told Mr. Ma what the professor had said and asked how he had managed to play the impossible chord. They went through the piece again, and when Mr. Ma came to the impossible chord, Mr. Adolphe yelled “Stop!” They looked at Mr. Ma’s left hand—it was contorted on the fingerboard, in a position that was nearly impossible to hold. “You’re right,” said Mr. Ma, “you really can’t play that!” Yet, somehow, he did.

When Mr. Ma plays today, he still strives for that state of the beginner. “One needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello,” Mr. Ma says. “Because why is that kid playing? He is playing for pleasure.”

Creativity is a spark. It can be excruciating when we’re rubbing two rocks together and getting nothing. And it can be intensely satisfying when the flame catches and a new idea sweeps around the world.

For the first time in human history, it’s becoming possible to see how to throw off more sparks and how to make sure that more of them catch fire. And yet, we must also be honest: The creative process will never be easy, no matter how much we learn about it. Our inventions will always be shadowed by uncertainty, by the serendipity of brain cells making a new connection.

Every creative story is different. And yet every creative story is the same: There was nothing, now there is something. It’s almost like magic.

—Adapted from “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 19. Copyright © 2012 by Jonah Lehrer.

10 Quick Creativity Hacks

1. Color Me Blue

A 2009 study found that subjects solved twice as many insight puzzles when surrounded by the color blue, since it leads to more relaxed and associative thinking. Red, on other hand, makes people more alert and aware, so it is a better backdrop for solving analytic problems.

2. Get Groggy

According to a study published last month, people at their least alert time of day—think of a night person early in the morning—performed far better on various creative puzzles, sometimes improving their success rate by 50%. Grogginess has creative perks.

CREATIVEJmp1

Serge Bloch

#3 Don’t Be Afraid to Daydream

3. Daydream Away

Research led by Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that people who daydream more score higher on various tests of creativity.

4. Think Like A Child

When subjects are told to imagine themselves as 7-year-olds, they score significantly higher on tests of divergent thinking, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire.

5. Laugh It Up

CREATIVEJmp2

Serge Bloch

When people are exposed to a short video of stand-up comedy, they solve about 20% more insight puzzles.

6. Imagine That You Are Far Away

Research conducted at Indiana University found that people were much better at solving insight puzzles when they were told that the puzzles came from Greece or California, and not from a local lab.

7. Keep It Generic

ne way to increase problem-solving ability is to change the verbs used to describe the problem. When the verbs are extremely specific, people think in narrow terms. In contrast, the use of more generic verbs—say, “moving” instead of “driving”—can lead to dramatic increases in the number of problems solved.

CREATIVEJmp3

Serge Bloch

According to a new study, volunteers performed significantly better on a standard test of creativity when they were seated outside a 5-footsquare workspace, perhaps because they internalized the metaphor of thinking outside the box. The lesson? Your cubicle is holding you back.

8. Work Outside the Box

According to new study, volunteers performed significantly better on a standard test of creativity when they were seated outside a 5-foot-square workspace, perhaps because they internalized the metaphor of thinking outside the box. The lesson? Your cubicle is holding you back.

9. See the World

According to research led by Adam Galinsky, students who have lived abroad were much more likely to solve a classic insight puzzle. Their experience of another culture endowed them with a valuable open-mindedness. This effect also applies to professionals: Fashion-house directors who have lived in many countries produce clothing that their peers rate as far more creative.

10. Move to a Metropolis

Physicists at the Santa Fe Institute have found that moving from a small city to one that is twice as large leads inventors to produce, on average, about 15% more patents.

—Jonah Lehrer

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory