What do the new ways of working mean for creativity? Do flexible and remote models allow for the same cross-pollination of ideas and conceptual breakthroughs? Can offices be re-organized so that they are more likely to encourage creative work?

These are questions that organizations and individuals are grappling with now. So Inspired, a book published this week by New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, about how creativity works and how we can pursue our creative potential is timely.

Some of the most interesting and useful takeaways from the book:

  • Creativity scares us. Research shows that ideas that are novel and original can make people uncomfortable and generate resistance. That’s especially true when things feel unstable. Researchers found people associate creativity with negative concepts such as vomit, poison, and agony.
  • Perfectionism is a creativity killer. “If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t take a creative risk,” Richtel writes. (p. 58) It’s also important to feel free to deviate from the general norms.
  • Parents and schools often suppress creativity. By around fourth grade, kids have internalized rule-following and peer pressure that make them less creative. Researchers found that children were more creative when they lived in homes with fewer rules, giving them more freedom to take risks and make mistakes.
  • The quantity of ideas is of central importance. Picasso created over 20,000 works of art and Bach composed over 1,000 works. Pursuing ideas that might not pan out increases the odds of coming up with something truly novel that others might find value in as well. Also, refining ideas can be important. Beethoven came up with musical phrases while going on walks, abandoning some and improving and keeping others.
  • Creators literally see more and consider more information. Researchers found that people who scored higher on tests for curiosity and creativity tended to look at more regions of images they were presented with, and spend more time on those parts of the images. “Creators aren’t so quick to dismiss information as irrelevant or unworthy just because it doesn’t conform to existing beliefs,” Richtel writes. “By considering more information, creators have more raw material to process, more dots to connect.” (p. 13)
  • High IQs don’t correlate with greater creativity. One study found that high Iq students were “surprisingly uncreative over the course of their careers.” (p. 52) “Average intelligence will do!” Richtel writes. “Raw talent counts, to a point. Of equal importance, if not greater, are qualities that can be developed, like openness and curiosity.” (p. 12)
  • Freeing your thoughts is a path to creative ideas. Research suggests that great ideas come when you’re relaxed and your mind wanders, such as in the shower or driving. Breathing exercises and meditation can help unlock creativity. “A slowed mind gives a creator access to purer information, ingredients with which to come up with more authentic, specific, new, interesting, creative solutions,” Richtel writes. (p. 93)
  • Creative achievement is not just a domain of youth. Nobel Prize-winning physicists on average do their breakthrough work at age 48. The most productive period of someone’s life is generally their time of greatest creativity.
  • Creative activities can make people happier. Creative pursuits can provide meaning and distract people from difficulties. Researchers also found that creative outlets lessen the burden of secrecy or shame many people feel. “Everyday creative people are less stressed, happier, more successful and more satisfied with their jobs,” wrote one researcher. (p. 276)
  • Creativity comes more easily to some people. High-achievers in creative fields like art exerted less brain power when performing creative tasks than those in scientific fields, in one UCLA study. “The brain feels less taxed in people who create more naturally,” Richtel writes. (p. 204)
  • There are different types of creativity. Researchers have classified instances of creativity as Mini C (random observations), Little C (enjoys at least minor recognition from others), Pro C (creation by a professional, such as a published article), Big C (truly enduring creations that reestablish a field.)
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To be sure:

  • Despite promising to reveal “the secrets of our most revered creators,” Inspired is relatively light on tips for those looking to cultivate more creative breakthroughs. “This is not that kind of self-help book,” Richtel writes. (p. 92) He also doesn’t directly address in detail the questions about new ways of working and creativity.
  • Inspired examines creativity across many disparate disciplines, from songwriting to sport coaching, scientific research, and starting a zoo. But the result is that it sometimes feels like a meandering treatment of the topic. The book includes surprisingly little on the so-called creator economy or the idea of a creative class.
  • Get Back,” the recent documentary about The Beatles, has such close-up scenes of a powerful creative process that any written account of creativity feels unsatisfyingly high-level and detached by comparison.
  • Richtel in the middle of the book in passing posits his belief in the coming of “some great new leader, who will reframe the way that we see the world.” (p. 158) It’s an incomplete thought.
  • Richtel’s book perhaps confusingly shares a title with Inspired, a still-popular 2008 book by Marty Cagan on product management.


Memorable anecdotes and facts:

  • The US Patent and Trademark Office granted 391,103 patents in 2019, compared with 71,230 in 1969.
  • John Dacey would tell undergraduates in his class about creativity at Boston College that their final project was to “do a project that shows me you learned a lot.” Students cried in his office saying, “Please give me some parameters.” (p. 60)
  • Researcher Kay Kim’s research shows a correlation between countries that have more Nobel Prize winners and greater “embrace of sexual experimentation of sexual experimentation and homosexuality.” (p. 89)
  • Musician Carlos Santana, who has linked marijuana to creativity, said he stopped using it from 1972 to 1982 and was intensely creative thanks to meditation.
  • When they were looking to free their brains to come up with creative solutions, Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison would hold something in their hands and try to fall asleep. When they fell asleep, they’d drop the object, which would wake them up and “both of them found that they had ideas.” (p. 102)
  • Some 47% of the time people’s minds wander on average. Researchers found that the least likely time for someone’s mind to wander was while having sex.
  • To make the experience of getting an MRI less stressful for children, a General Electric engineer came up with the idea of letting kids choose whether to play the part of a pirate, princess, or submarine captain (with costumes and elaborate decorations) while getting the scan.
  • A study concluded that deeply religious people are less creative than others, possibly because they were less conditioned to think independently.


Choice quotes:

  • “The act of creativity is terrifying.” (p. 2)
  • “Creativity is…the true first wonder of the world. From it springs everything else.” (p. 10)
  • “Creativity is, in fact, part of our more primitive physiology. It comes from the cellular level, part of our most essential survival machinery. We are creativity machines.” (p. 10)
  • “An intelligent person answers a question. A creative person comes up with the question in the first place, and then answers it.” (p. 13)
  • Many pursuits in this world ask a person to choose between the selfish end and societal advancement. Creativity, though, allows us to nurture our individual spark while also potentially changing the world. (p. 19)
  • Creativity is “intelligence having fun.” —Albert Einstein (p. 31)
  • “When you don’t know what you’re going to say next but you trust yourself to say it anyway. That’s one of the constituent elements of friendship and also of inspiration.” —David Milch, Hollywood TV writer and producer (p. 81)
  • Ideas “stream from the subconscious, in times of quiet, moments of inspiration, experiences of raw emotion, states of authenticity. They appear to us, often not so much willed but allowed and permitted.” (p. 205)
  • “Creativity is not elusive, highbrow, the province of the lucky or the few.” (p. 304)

The bottom line is that Inspired presents the latest science of creativity and stories of creators, but provides limited tactical advice for maximizing creativity in the workplace.

For practices to spur creativity on teams, Creative Acts for Curious People by Sarah Stein Greenberg is an alternative with concrete exercises. And Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson offers another look at the creative process, arguing that innovation comes when people build on existing ideas or develop hunches into clearer creative breakthroughs.

You can order Inspired at Bookshop.org or Amazon. Read all of our book briefings here.

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